More thoughts about learning multiple languages

As many of you who know me already know, foreign languages are a major hobby of mine.  I currently know Russian, Spanish, French, Italian, and German and can speak and understand some Thai.  I am currently working on Mandarin for a possible trip to China next year and I have found that I need to make major changes to the way I learn foreign languages.

My first issue has been I have decided to completely stop using my flash card program.  I have realized that it did not allow me to learn the language in the best way.  Take for instance, Italian, where I learned a very large vocabulary of words thanks to my vocabulary program.  The problem I came up against though was when I needed to converse with someone in Italian I would totally freeze up.  I know a lot of words but I am a complete novice at placing them together.

Lately I have taken a much different approach with Mandarin.  I purchased the first two levels of Pimsleur Mandarin and I have found them very rewarding.  They move at a slow pace and do not cover a lot of vocabulary but what I have learned I can speak with absolute confidence.  When I speak with native speakers I still have some difficulties in understanding but that is mainly due to the different dialects - for instance most Chinese I know are from Hong Kong and they speak Mandarin also as a foreign language.

On the character side I am using the DeFrancis books which emphasize constant repetition of the characters.  I currently know about 200 characters and my goal is to know around 2000 before going to China.  Currently I am learning traditional characters but I plan to supplement my learning with the simplified versions some time next year.

Currently my Mandarin studies are very successful, but my knowledge of the other languages is suffering.  I am currently debating a system to allow me to maintain and improve the other languages I have studied.  Based on my experiences, I will not recreate a vocabulary system of any kind.  I am currently debating two types of systems.

1) The first option is to create a system that focuses on sentences.  Basically I would add a large number of sentences in the system and practice them in a similar method to the Pimsleur lessons.  The main drawback here is the Pimsleur method constantly changes the sentences - forcing you to use words in different ways.  It is simply too difficult to program my system so it has the ability to automatically do that.  I would have to enter the sentences myself and run the risk of memorizing sentences as I did words.  Also, determining problem sentences is a bit more complex but not unachievable.

2) The second option is to not create any software and just continue to practice the language.  The goal here is to train myself to learn a word upon seeing it for the first time.  For instance I can force myself to write several practice sentences the first time I see a new word.  Of course some words I would forget but through constant practice my vocabulary would still grow. 

I am currently favoring the second method.  The main obstacle right now is to create the training programs (material) for each language and more importantly, figure out when I will have the time to study the other languages.