I will address two parts to this question: how to read Chinese and how to learn how to understand spoken Chinese.
- Learning to recognise and pronounce all of the Chinese characters takes time and lots of practice. The best way is to use graded readers that introduce maybe 20-40 new characters per short story and then continuously repeat those characters in later stories. This is roughly approximating spaced repetition where you are forced to read a character again at the point of forgetting it.
There are always going to be elusive characters that require you to relearn them several times. I learned how to read the language before resources appeared on the internet. I have found that after learning many languages that the more work I put into it (looking up in a physical dictionary and writing it in a notebook) the better I retain it.
- I founded a company that builds language solutions to solve this problem and we have good traction with polyglots. It's kind of against what I said above because I usually get the best results of doing things the hard way--without internet, but I figure this is the kind of tool I would like to have had at the time to give me the best results in terms of saving time and gaining the hard-to-acquire listening skills for Chinese. The idea here again is using spaced repetition, but this time in a hands-free audio format building up the most frequent structures of the language until you can handle foundation vocabulary effortlessly and fluently. From there you start expanding your vocabulary, like I said above, through more extensive reading. You can turn your extensive reading into intensive reading by applying a spaced repetition training schedule to your reading (should be reading aloud: 大聲唸).
In addition to our solutions, there are two clients I interact with frequently, Olle and Alexander, who use a program which I strongly recommend. The Chorus Method was developed by Olle Kjellin, a linguist/polyglot from Sweden and test run by advanced Korean/Chinese learner Alexander Giddings to great effect.
Everyone just needs to remember that language mastery and fluency only comes at the expense of doing things the hard way. Even when you get tools and solutions like we make, make sure that you're still using the tools the hard way. The tools allow you to cover more ground and make faster progress than what I had. In other words, we give you pinyin transcription and narrow IPA transcription of every sentence giving you faster access, but you can use the extra data to do lots of hard work faster. Most polyglots swear by mass amount of dictation work. Then they recite and record what they've written. The transcriptions allow them to check for mistakes extremely fast. Do it every day like martial arts moves. I calculate threshold fluency at around 30,000 sentences that you've said from your mouth without looking at text. Your goal should be 100,000 sentences. Depending on your regimen, this could be months or years.
A martial arts acquaintance that I've known many years is John Fotheringham who came to Taiwan after learning to do translation in Japan. He now runs a site called language mastery, if I remember correctly, and I'm sure he also has channels you can follow. He's a fine example of someone who learned Chinese after Japanese and speaks both to high levels, but unfortunately I do not know many who have done so other than Japanese native speakers.
Chinese is unlike most European languages where you can start to understand a lot of the spoken language much earlier than you can speak. For European languages, I can use a dictionary, pick out a few common words and then actually hear them being used by native speakers. Words are longer and easier to detect, and most advanced vocabulary is shared so that it's easy to get the gist of broadcast and formal language. That doesn't work with Chinese and it's the complete opposite, because words are much shorter, there are many homophones, and there are tones, and there is no shared vocabulary with anything else you're familiar with unless you speak Korean or Vietnamese ( > Japanese has a much bigger divergence phonologically which I have analysed in detail on my blog in an article called hacking Kanji from Chinese). Note: a personal acquaintance of mine, Olle Linge, runs a blog called Hacking Chinese which I strongly recommend. His Chinese is par and can hold advanced debates in Chinese. He's a big proponent of reforming Chinese learning literacy and I stand with him on his ideas. I strongly recommend to read everything he's written.
One of the major problems with learning to comprehend Chinese is due to the large number of regional accents and dialects (and I'm referring to just Mandarin here). Carefully choose the voice and accent you learn from. I prefer and speak as Taiwanese do for several reasons: I live here in Taiwan, everybody speaks the same standardised way, and there is little interference from Hokkien for most people under the age of 60. You cannot find this homogeneity in language use anywhere in China. When everybody speaks the same way you can perfect your own accent and standard very finely. When you have built a strong foundation on one accent, then it's very easy to figure out the others. But if you train on a variety of accents, you won't be able to perfect one good standard, you may get discouraged by people's reactions, thereby causing you not to reach your goals. Beijing or Shanghai have very good standards you can base on too, just focus more on broadcast speech. You'll be hard to find two people who speak the same way on the street in those cities.
I seem to run into a lot of learners who are very wary of basing their speech on Taiwan. But the best thing is to research this very thoroughly. There are many advantages to it and gives you much more access to all of China for reasons I don't have time to mention here.
I recommend following both Chris Parker (serious chap doing professional interpretation who also has a website) and 郝毅博 (that's Háo Yìbó--an entertaining chap--now making videos in Taiwan) who both have exceptionally strong rhetoric in Chinese who both learned in China. (To address your "names" question, just learn the name of everybody you see or meet and get it in writing as much as possible. This is an experience issue and will take you 3-4 years of doing this to be able to read any and every name you encounter. People who grew up in Chinese classrooms have that much more exposure to names so you need to replicate it as much as you can during your learning process).