The Miraculous Benefits of Keeping a Language Notebook

Are you an electric language fiend, armed with Flashcard apps and podcasts? Or going it old-school with pen and paper?

In today’s article, I want to introduce you to some of the tricks I use to get the most out of my language learning routine without adding to my screen time.

language notebook

My absolute language learning essential is a notebook. Flashcards are great for vocabulary lists, but notebooks are for everything. The first thing I do with a new word is write it down in a notebook, maybe with an example and pronunciation note.

Why write on paper?

Working with a paper notebook can bring many excellent benefits to your language learning routine. It provides a refreshing break if you spend most of your time chained to a computer screen or mobile phone. Here are a few reasons that writing on paper can help you add vocabulary, improve your memory and create a better learning experience:

  • Filling a book is visible progress, a huge psychological benefit which is going to keep you motivated and coming back to your language time and time again.

  • As you add notes, you are filling pages of paper with clear signs of your work. It is unmistakably yours as it’s written in your personal style and handwriting. No matter if you are 5 or 50 pages into the adventure, there is nothing like the proud feeling of looking back over what you have already done. Popular apps take the same approach of course by adding skill trees and points scores, so the core message here is to work in a way that shows your progress.

  • Your thoughts become clearer in your own mind. The UK Handwriting Association features this great quote from a 17-year-old student on its website, illustrating the way in which a screen can actually make it harder to focus on what you are learning. He says:

The process of handwriting promotes clear thought and natural structure. Being so close to the page means that translation of thought has less opportunity for deviation.

When typing I find I compulsively re-read my work on the screen and the ability to edit is sometimes paralysing, Although computer work can allow for more complex structure, it is often too complex and has many complications for timed conditions.

  • The act of writing notes down by hand has been scientifically proven to aid memory many times over. When you write your notes by hand, you become better at remembering them. The conclusion of this study was that typing can help you score highly on tests very early (just think Duolingo), but hand writing retains the upper hand when it comes to adding new items to your long-term memory.
  • You are in charge of your learning experience. Writing allows you to start from zero and design your page in the way that aligns best with how your mind works.

Some note takers prefer mind maps and doodles, while others jot down information in a linear way. The pages you create will reflect your state of mind, and allow you to make your motions through the learning progress visible.

How to work with the notebook?

When you start learning languages, the notebook becomes more than just the place to note down the bare facts. You can use it for two core purposes:

1. Language Learning

Noting new vocabulary as and when you hear it, drawing memory aids, mapping out your memory palace even. Notebooks are also the right space to write down grammar rules and example sentences. On the pages of my own notebook, I see pronunciation notes and alphabet practice. Basically, anything.

For reviewing and testing yourself, there can be pages dedicated to vocabulary learning. My technique for such pages is the classic language learning approach of writing two vocabulary columns with a line down the middle. As I review the new words, I cover up one column and work through the list.

Here is an example of what this looks like in my current book:

The fabulous "draw a line in the middle" technique in action.

The fabulous "draw a line in the middle" technique in action.

It is easy to highlight words that I tend to forget, and even easier to add them to another list at a later stage so that my revision materials always stay fresh.

At the start of every new session, try looking through previous pages to review what you have learnt before. There is no need to memorize it word for word, but it will jog your memory and set up the ground today’s session can grow from.

2. Goal Setting and Productivity

Language learning is a big journey. For some learners it’s about growth and development, for others it’s a hobby or an aspiration. No matter what your goals and motivations are, you can gain a lot from journaling and noting them down in the notebook.

Consider adding interesting facts about places, drawing maps or pasting in tickets and mementos from your trips.

Again, writing by hand and focusing on the book in front of you aids clarity and minimises distraction. In a busy world full of overachievers, this is more important than ever.

How can you navigate the notebook?

One of the downsides of paper is that it doesn't have a search bar.

To aid yourself with a bookmark system, consider colour-coding areas like "grammar", "vocab" or "situations". Again, the beauty of your notebook is that this is your personal space. You’re no language learning robot, so work with what feels good to you.

The great thing about building your personal language learning system is that these categories can be unique to you and help you build the exact language course that you need (remember that this is one of the core principles in independent language learning).

My favourite bookmarks are sticky notes such as this very cute set from Busy B, but this isn't the only way. You can experiment with a notebook in sections, with highlighter pens or beautiful bookmarks.

Good Notebook Options

You can get paper from anywhere of course, but the best language learning notebooks are durable and built to handle a bit of use.

You will leaf through the pages a lot, so forget about spine or refill pads straight away. Go for a notebook that is bound like a real book and lasts you all year. Next, discard any paper that is too thin or delicate to take scribbles, highlighters and different kinds of pen. You never know when you'll want to write something down and all you'll have to reach for is your auntie's fountain pen.

The style of paper does not matter - go for squared, lined or blank and pick a paper size that gives you a little space to work with. The language learning notebook works best it doesn't fill up too quickly. My favourite options are the Moleskine A5 Lined Notebooks and the custom booklets from Bound.

Love the Freedom

The key to using notebooks in your language learning is that they allow for an amazing range of creative activities. In paper choice, organisation and pens, and even the content: This is YOUR space. I cannot tell you what to do, but only tell you what works for me.

If you want to become more effective and enjoy vocabulary learning, check out my book The Vocab Cookbook. This book will guide you through the process in detail and give you a step-by-step approach to learning vocab in an organised way.

Do you use a paper notebook? Is it part of your regular learning activities?

If yes, then I would be very interested to hear more about it (maybe even with a photo?) in the comments or over on Facebook.