Tips & Tricks: Carry a language notebook

I encountered a super cool local expression the other day; one which captured my emotions at the time in a quite apt and witty idiom that was just perfect. The trouble is, I completely forget what it was. This ever happen to you?

Today’s tip from The Prepared Expat is quite simple and yet one of the most powerful things you can do to improve your language skills: carry a language notebook with you, always.

Read more: Tips & Tricks: Carry a language notebook

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What a language notebook is

Quite simply, a language notebook is a notebook in which you record anything related to your study of the local language. It’s incredibly useful, for you’re always encountering new ideas, words, or expressions while simultaneously finding gaps in your own vocabulary and/or grammar. A language notebook enables you to record those immediately so that you can follow up on them later.

Later on I show you a sample page of my language notebook so you can see the kinds of things I record. There’s no right./wrong, no strict rules, and no limit to what you can write down, but here a few examples of the things you can use it for:

  • You want to find cranberry juice in the store, but you don’t know the word for cranberry. Write down cranberry.
  • You hear a phrase you know, but in a context that doesn’t make sense to you. Write the phrase & context down.
  • You hear a new word, but don’t know it’s meaning. Write it down.
  • You’re trying to say something, but you can’t quite get the sentence out. Though others get your gist, you know there’s a better way. Write it down.
  • You’re making flash cards with pictures and your Google Image search for the word returns results that don’t fit your idea of the word. Write it down.
  • You hear a new word/phrase that you understand in the moment, but it’s not exactly clear and you don’t know why you understand it. Write it down.
  • You hear a new word and understand it, but it seems nearly synonymous with another word. Write down both.

What to do with your notes

A note book provides an incredibly-easy way to take notes of words, questions, challenges, gaps, etc. that you encounter in everyday language situations. But merely writing your notes down doesn’t help you much and doesn’t constitute learning (though it could be the start). Instead, you need to process those notes and get them into your regular system for learning language.

Ideally, you’d process the notes with a language helper–someone who can help you understand what you wrote, correct mistakes in your spelling (or hearing), provide the word in the local script for you, help you understand the semantic range of a word, etc. For many people that will be your language teacher, but it can also be a classmate, a family member, or a friend–anyone who’s willing to help you out.

Then, after you process your language notes and have an accurate understanding of the words, you input that information into whatever your normal system of language study is, whether that’s paper notes, actual flash cards, Anki, etc. Being entered into your normal system is what will help you actually learn the content–but recording everyday questions into your language notebook is the start.

I’ll repeat this because some people were confused by this initial post: the purpose of writing questions down isn’t that you’re learning is done but, rather, to capture the question in the moment so that you can review them with your helper and learn the content later.

Why a notebook and not a phone

Now, you’re probably thinking that you lalready have a phone and can just record language notes there. Why carry a notebook when your phone already has a notes app?

I’m glad you asked. There’s a variety of reasons why, but I’ll keep it to the two most important reasons.

First, because writing physically with your hand stimulates memory formation in a way that typing on a phone (or computer) does not. There’s an increasing body of research done on this subject–and by “increasing,” I mean overwhelming consensus in every study that’s been published to date. Here are just a few headlines reporting scientific results:

  • Handwriting beats typing when it comes to taking class notes: Writing by hand turns on parts of the brain involved in learning and memory, new data showScience News
  • Handwriting shown to be better for memory than typing, at any age The Big Think
  • Ditch the digital notes: Handwriting is way better for memorization and speed – Fast Company

Increasing your memory is crucial because, in the middle of a conversation, you don’t have time to write out an entire sentence to explain the note you’re making; you probably have just a few seconds to jot down a word of question. Thus, building up the memory of what it is through physically writing will enable you to remember better the context when you discuss it with your language helper.

Second, because writing something down in a single-use notebook that others can see is more understandable to people than pulling your phone out on the middle of a conversation. Though the appropriateness of using a phone while in conversation differs from culture to culture, I’ve yet to encounter a situation where writing in a notebook is rude, but I’ve been in many situations where pulling out a phone would have been inappropriate. I think the key reason for this difference is that a notebook is single-use and visible to others, so they know what you’re doing. On the other hand, a phone is multifunction and usually others can’t see the screen, so, for all they know, you’re ignoring them to check Facebook.

Useful tips

Some things I’ve learned to get more out of your notebook and make it more useful. You can see some of these tips “in action” in the picture of my language notebook, below.

In no particular order:

  • Don’t use a spiral-bound notebook, the pages tear way too easily. Get something bound that can take a beating. See picture below.
  • You want the right size: big enough to write in, but small enough you can take it anywhere. Ideally, it would fit in your pocket. See picture below.
Left notebook: Too fragile, the pages tore out. Middle notebook: so small it was hard to write in. Right notebook: just right
  • When you find a notebook you like, buy a bunch. I regret that I only bought two of the kind I have and now I can’t find this type anymore.
  • Develop your own shorthand. You don’t have much time to note something down, so figure out how you can abbreviate and represent ideas quickly. You can see some of the shorthand I use later on, but what’s important is to do something that makes sense to you.
  • Write—or ask a local friend to write—your name and phone number in the front of the book. You want it returned to you if it ever gets lost.
  • Make sure to have a pen/pencil with you, else the notebook is useless. I always have my tactical pen with me, so that’s easy for me.
  • I put a check mark at the top of each page when I’ve discusssed all the questions on the page with my language helper. That helps me keep track of what I still need to discuss with my language helper.
  • Bookmark somehow whatever page is the one you should write something down on (I use a sticky note). It’ll help you get to that page faster, while the question’s still in your head, rather than flipping through a bunch of pages.
  • I record the start date when I first use the notebook and the end date when it’s full, then store the filled notebook. It’s kind of fun to take a trip down memory lane by looking through the notebook later; it’s also a fun way to visualize your progress (or not!) as you look back at the questions you had in previous years of your study.

A page from my notebook

Here’s a sample page from my notebook; these two pages are probably notes from 2-3 conversations with my friends:

I think it may be helpful to you if I explain a bit of what I’ve written down, so you can get ideas for how you can use one too. My explanations are for the red numbers so you can easily follow:

1: qíngxù. A new word; I think it means “mood” or possibly “spirit”. I note in shorthand that I especially want to know how it compares with gǎnqíng, a word I know with a similar meaning.

2: shuōfu. A new word; I guess it means “to convince” but might be “persuade.”

3: yóupiào. A word I know, but I don’t have an audio recording for it, so I want to make that later.

4: – replica. I want to know how to say “replica” in the local language, but I don’t know how.

5: tōngxíngfèi. I don’t know what this means, so I record the context: something about international travel.

6: I want to know the difference between the words bǔhuò, zúzhǐ, tàozhǔ, and dǎidào.

7: I made a flash card for yùbèi and searched for a picture, but I found lots of unexpected picture of military and police. I want to know why those pictures came up because it will help me understand the semantic range of yùbèi.

8: nèi cún (chún) – I couldn’t hear clearly if the word was cún or chún, so I wrote down both, along with my guess of the meaning (memory / internal storage).

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3 thoughts on “Tips & Tricks: Carry a language notebook

    1. Glad it was helpful to you! There will be more language tips coming in the future, so make sure to subscribe so you don’t miss any others!


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