Confession time – I am a bit of a notebook addict.
Okay, ‘a bit’ is too soft of phrasing. A serious notebook addict. I tend to fall more on the eco-conscious, paperless, ‘let’s digitize everything’ side, but there is just something about the experience of sitting down with a nice, physical notebook to draw or write in that I just love. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that a notebook has always factored heavily in my language learning.
Regardless of my proclivities for fine stationary, I’ve found keeping a notebook like this to be a huge benefit to learning a language. It helps with motivation, planning, lesson structuring, memorization – just about every area of language learning except conversing with another human being. The trick is in knowing how to make the most of it.
Let me show you my favorite ways for building and benefiting from a personal language learning notebook.
Prepping the Language Learning Notebook
First things first, you’ll need a notebook.
Personally I am very fond of Code and Quill notebooks, particularly for language learning. They’re reasonably priced, come in both hard and soft cover, have lay-flat binding, offer a range of sizes, use paper with little to no bleed through, and they have both dot grid and indent ruled pages which make them great for working with languages with non-romanized writing systems like Mandarin, Russian, Greek, Korean, etc.
For my language journals I prefer the Monolith since I like a larger notebook, but all of them are good. You can buy them directly from their website if affiliate links bother you, or you can get the Monolith, the Origin, or the Traveler through Amazon and we’ll get a small cut.
As much as I like them you can really use any kind of notebook or journal you want for this task, even a ten cent spiral bound notebook from a back to school sale. I would recommend finding one you really like though because the more you like the notebook itself the more inclined you’ll be to use it.
Once you’ve got your notebook there are a lot of different ways you can set it up in order to facilitate better language learning. Take everything here as more of a suggestion than a rule – I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of how I set things up but personalization is fantastic. It’s your notebook.
I always like to start mine off with a goal sheet at the very front, and then planning, resources, and the meat of the notebook after that. Here are my general set-up pages:
Goal Page – The goal page tends to go right up at the front for obvious reasons. This isn’t just a sheet with ‘Goals’ written in big letters at the top and then ‘Speak Japanese’ (or whatever language) scrawled underneath. I tend to lay out my goal page first with a specific big picture goal and a time frame for it. For example a specific big picture goal might be ‘Test at B2 Level in Swedish’ or ‘Be able to understand an entire film in Cantonese’. Then I set a time frame that I want to shoot for and write that down next to it.
Even though for me (because I just really enjoy learning languages) these tend to be fluency oriented goals that doesn’t mean yours have to be. If you’re just learning German to prep for a couple weeks of studying abroad or to not look like an ass on a business trip, then your goal might be something like ‘Be able to order food at a restaurant’ or ‘Be able to have a basic five minute conversation’ along with a much shorter time frame. That’s totally fine.
Below the big picture goal, I like to put a halfway goal or a benchmark goal. So using my first example, this one might be ‘Test at A2 Level in Swedish’. Sometimes I include time frames with these, sometimes not. If it helps you to stay on track, go for it. Below that I’ll mark down another benchmark goal that’s about halfway to my halfway goal, like ‘Test at A1 Level in Swedish’. Finally, I like to list out any recurring goals or habit goals I think will help me get there. Things like ‘Do at least one 10 minute Memrise session per day’, ‘Schedule two iTalki sessions with a native speaker per week’, etc. These last ones are all recurring, repeatable goals that keep me on track and making progress.
Planning Page – Following the goals page I usually lay out my planning page or pages. The idea here is to lay out as much as I can about how I intend to reach all those goals I just set on the previous page. I like to structure it around a series of questions I ask myself and then write down the answers to. First, what level am I at currently? You might not be starting this out at zero, and it’s nice to have a good appraisal of where you’re actually beginning.
How will I measure progress? Having as quantifiable a way as possible of measuring progress is way more important than you think for staying motivated and knowing you’re on the right track. It can be as simple as the progress bar on Memrise, Anki, or Duolingo, or it can be as complicated as posting a weekly YouTube video in your target language or having a native speaker give you a full assessment via Skype or in person. The point is to plan out and write down how you intend to gauge your progress as you learn.
When will I fit this into my schedule? Learning a language takes time. Like learning an instrument, you need to set aside specific times to study and to practice. Not knowing when exactly you plan to do these things is a surefire way to wind up too busy to do them or just outright forgetting. Like with the others, go as specific or general as you need here – anywhere from ‘Every Tuesday and Thursday evening I’ll study for an hour’ to ‘3 p.m. to 4 p.m. daily I study vocab, and 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. is conversation practice’. Know how much time you’ve got and how you plan to spend it.
Resource List – On my resource list pages I like to, well, list all my resources. This is partially to not forget new things when I come across them, and part to make sure I have a wide variety of study tools to pull from since I get bored easily. Put down specific things like ‘Memrise 1,000 word Frequency Deck’ or ‘My Korean Book 1’ and general stuff like ‘Watching movies’ or ‘Reading online news’. The idea is to make this more expansive than limiting so I always leave a blank page or two where I can fill in books, specific YouTube channels, podcasts, websites, and whatever else I find as I go.
You’ll always find more great resources after you’ve started, so leave plenty of room and always be hunting out things to fill that blank space with.
Optional: Table of Contents – I don’t use this one much myself, since I like flipping around in my notebook more to be reminded of all the things I went over and generally if there’s something I want to ‘look up’ it’s easier to use Google than my personal notes.
Still, some people really like having a table of contents. If you do think you’ll want one just leave a couple blank pages before you start your actual note taking and then as you fill the rest of the notebook flip back in whatever increments you want things organized in and write down the name of that section and the page number. Once your notebook’s filled your table of contents will be finished too.
Those are the main prep pages I like to start with. If you can think of others you think would help you then definitely add them (and leave a comment about it to help the rest of us out too). After those we get into the meat of the notebook itself.
How to Use Your Language Learning Notebook
Now that you’ve done all your prep work, how do you make the most out of the journal itself? Here are some of my favorite ways that I’ve found help me the most – again, feel free to mix and match and add your own as necessary.
Taking Notes – I realize you don’t need to be told to take notes in a notebook, but it’s still worth mentioning. Copying down vocab lists, summarizing lessons, writing out grammar ‘rules’ in your own words, transcribing dialogue from shows and movies, these are all great ways to help solidify and retain what you’re learning in your study sessions.
Lesson Review Outlines – A lesson review or lesson review outline is different from regular notes in that rather than copying things down as you learn them, you basically try to summarize the entire lesson on a sheet or two immediately afterward from memory. These give you a good outline to then compare and review against your lesson notes because it tells you what stuck from the lesson and what elements you didn’t remember as well. They’re also a good resource for building…
Quizzes – It might seem like cheating to take a quiz that you put together yourself since theoretically you had to already know all the answers to make the quiz, but writing out basic quizzes from your notes and lesson reviews and then circling back to them a few days, a week, or a month later and seeing how well you do is a great test. That spaced repetitive recall pattern also helps you remember things better for longer.
Lesson Records – This is more for people who are incorporating classes or things like iTalki sessions with a native speaker. The idea here is to note down things like the date and length of the session (if necessary), what you focused on, key notes from the lesson, what new things you learned, and a study or topic to-do list before the next session.
More than once I have finished out a lesson over Skype and, due to timezone differences, gone straight to bed only to realize the next morning that I had basically forgotten everything we went over. I’ve also had times where I had to go longer than a week between sessions and totally lost the thread of what we were working on before the following session. Keep good records, don’t waste your lessons.
Progress Reviews – Just having written down some way to quantify progress at the beginning of the notebook isn’t going to do much if you don’t actually sit down and measure your progress against it.
I like to include a half-page to a page in regular increments where I assess where my current progress level is, and then refer back to my previous progress review entry to get a feel for what kind of rate I’m progressing at. Not only does this help motivate me, it’s helpful to be able to see if something has caused my progress to slow or if the addition of new study materials or habits has accelerated my learning. I know. I’m a huge nerd. It’s fine.
Compositions and Dialogues – Writing out your own little diary entries, made up conversations, stories, or whatever else in the target language is a great way to practice new vocab and grammar in a way that’s not as abstract as memorizing lists and trying to internalize rules outside of actual context. You can write about whatever you want, it’s always good practice.
Personally, I like to write things out by hand in my notebook, then transcribe them from there into Lang-8 or to send them to native speakers I know to get the mistakes corrected, then go back and correct all my errors with a red pen in my physical notebook. Then every now and again I’ll go back through the old corrected entries and see if I’m still making the same errors or if there are certain things I need to focus on more because I keep screwing them up.
Visual Vocab – Do you like to doodle? Rather than write 犬 on one side of the page and ‘dog’ next to it, draw a little dog and then write the word over it, or inside it, or whatever without having to involve the English word ‘dog’.
Even if you can’t draw well at all it doesn’t matter – these are your personal notes not a contest submission. The point is to help your brain associate the word in your target language with the thing it represents, and not teach your brain to associate the word in the target language with a word in English, which it then associates with the thing it represents. It seems like a small distinction, but it can make a big difference in how well words come to mind when you’re speaking and listening.
Study Log – Like the table of contents, this is one I don’t tend to use much but enough people have expressed how much they feel it helps them so you can include one if you like. A study log is just a section, usually reserved at the end of the notebook, where you can log the date, duration, and method for your study sessions.
I prefer tracking my progress in other ways, but if you think you’ll be most motivated by seeing that you’ve put in an hour of study every day for the last ten days or if you need to track your study hours for work or school or some other reason then leaving a couple pages at the end works well for it.
Make It Your Own
These are just some of my personal favorite ways to use the notebook, but I’m sure this is not in any way an exhaustive list of all the ways you can use it to study better and more efficiently.
Add in whatever other suggestions you come across that you think will help, or things you think up that you enjoy having in there. The idea is to build something for your learning process that you can get excited about and feel invested in, and personalization is a great way to accomplish that.
Have you tried putting together a language learning notebook? Do you have any other ideas for using one you think everyone will find helpful, or things you’ve had trouble with? Leave a comment and let’s talk about it.