I have a 50 minute commute to and from work each day. Originally I thought that wouldn't be an issue, my commute in Tokyo was about 35 minutes so +15 minutes didn't seem that big a deal. Unfortunately I didn't think about where I was commuting. Working in downtown Tokyo meant I could walk 10 minutes in any direction for instant entertainment. Food, Friends and Fun were only minutes away.
Now though I work in San Jose and live in San Francisco so it's arguably 50 minutes of commuting before I can do anything. That's quite a difference in my lifestyle that I'm not yet comfortable with.
Anyway, because I have 50 minutes in my car each way I decided to try to start learning Mandarin by listening to lessons. I checked on the net and I found Chinesepod.com and I gotta say I'm pretty happy with it.
They have an interesting business model. They provide free podcast lessons you can download. They have almost 500 lessons so far and they upload a new one every 4−5 days. They make money by charging for all the other materials. If you want transcripts of the lessons or vocabulary lists or homework they charge $6 a month for access. That might sound like a lot but that's actually pretty cheap. They have other plans as well up to very expensive plans where they will have someone call you several times a week to practice speaking.
I'm on lesson 16 so far and I'm enjoying it. My impression so far is Mandarin is possibly easier than Japanese. The hard part is the tones. Mandarin has 4 tones so many words can be pronounced 4 different ways and they mean completely different things based on their tone. That part will take some getting used to. On the other hand there is no conjugation in Chinese. In English the words conjugate (eat, ate, eating, run, ran, running, drive, driving, drove, jump, jumping, jumped etc...) In Chinese there is just eat, run, drive, jump. "yesterday eat" implies past tense. "now eat" implies present tense. "tomorrow eat" implies future tense. Basically that means you have to remember a lot less words and rules to speak or understand Mandarin.
There is one plus in that I know a few kanji from my Japanese class. For example 普通話 is the word for Mandarin in Chinese. I can read that from my Japanese. It says "Normal Talk" or "Regular Talk". In Chinese it's translated as Standard Language which is what they call Mandarin.
I don't know how far I'll get. I've given a little thought to trying to take lessons. My experience with Japanese though suggests that anything less than moving to China and taking class fulltime is pretty ineffective. Who knows what the future holds.