Speaking with native speakers
This week I've been keeping up my Chinese. I even had a short lesson during my lunch break at work so my progress is steady. I think I've learnt enough vocab to start building a repertoire of sentences that I can associate with each word so I know how to use them. I just finished another lesson with my tutor 肖敏老师 （xiao4 min3 lao3 shi1) and I've shifted away from just learning the words in the lesson to, trying to have more of a conversation so I can learn how to construct sentences and then I can learn words through context. I think this is more productive use of my time as I felt in my shorter 30 minute lesson at lunch I spent more of the time just reading through a word list rather than learning anything. That's the kind of thing I can do in my own time and if I've learnt the words properly I can try and use them with my teacher and she can correct whenever I go wrong or when I don't know a word I want to say.
I've been reading a lot of posts by Benny from www.fluentin3months.com and he advocates talking as much as you can so I've been speaking to anyone that speaks Mandarin as much as I can and this is the reason I've thought about shifting my lessons from just going through worksheets with my tutor to speaking to her as much as possible and trying to _create _sentences on the fly. Like Benny says - you shouldn't be afraid of saying things wrong or with bad grammar, just speak as much as possible and eventually (especially a tutor who is trying to teach you) you'll be saying things in the right way.
So I've now had 4.5 lessons with my teacher and honestly believe it's been worth every penny I've paid. The problem with speaking with native speakers that aren't language partners or tutors is that the situation becomes a battle between how much you want to want to learn and how much you want to have a decent conversation. So if you're always asking for what something means, then the conversation begins to drag and then it's not fun anymore. With a tutor they're there to help you and they won't let the conversation drag, because they expect you not to understand some words. My teacher even mid sentence translates things into English if she knows I won't know that words (which is sometimes a little confusing, but is super helpful for keeping the conversation going naturally).
I also just bought an iPad 4 and I'm thinking of getting a 3G sim on it so I might use that instead of my iPhone to use Chinese learning apps - although the iPhone is much more convenient, I will have to see if the iPad will offset that with greater learning experience. Skritter is coming out with a native iPad app (today or tomorrow I thinK) and also Chinesepod has an iPad app, which I have yet to try as my iPad 1 is still stuck on iOS 4.3
I will be looking for new, innovative ways to learn Chinese as it seems to keep me motivated reading other people's methods of learning Chinese, but I'm pretty happy with my Chinese learning routine thus far. The flash cards + conversations with native + audio podcasts are a deadly combination which I feel hit a lot of the boxes for language learning, but I'm sure there's always room to improve.