When I was training to become a translator, my language course was a pretty intense program. The pace was fast and I was expected to learn and retain a mountain of information every week, for over a year.
My classmates and I all knew that we needed some way to help us retain everything. Our solution? Almost without exception, we all kept a language journal.
The $4.95 Solution
A language journal is simply a notebook in which you write down language stuff that you need to remember. The procedure is pretty simple.
- Buy a notebook. I used to buy the wide-ruled, medium-sized (9 ½” X 6”) , spiral-bound notebooks. Those seemed to work out the best. Something about them being smaller helped me group information better, both physically on the page and conceptually in my head. The spiral binding helped as well, as I could turn to any page equally easily.
- Divide the notebook into two halves. The front half will hold your vocabulary words and short phrases. The back half will hold notes and random information about the language.
- In the vocab section, write down new words. Draw a vertical line down the middle of the page. Whenever you encounter a new word or phrase, write it on the left side of the page. Then write its English equivalent on the right side (or if you’re not a native English speaker, write its equivalent in your native language).
- In the notes section, write down anything else you learn about the language that you want to remember. Record information such as grammar points, cultural information, and—if you’re in a class—even assignment information.
Every day or couple of days, spend time reviewing the new entries in your language journal, as well as a few older entries. One of my favorite ways to review words is to cover the right side of the page with a piece of paper. Then I read the target language word on the left side and try to come up with the English word on the right side. I move the paper down, check my answer, and note whether I got it right. Then I work down the page, repeating over and over until I get every one right. Once I finish that up completely, I cover up the left side of the page and do the same, except now I try to produce the words in the target language.
Why Does This Work?
A language journal helps you learn a language in two ways.
First, the simple act of writing down words and concepts helps you remember them better. Hand writing forces you to take extra time to pay attention to the information in a way that you don’t when you’re typing the info out.
Second, it gives you the opportunity to review old words. Some people new to language learning think that they can learn a word after encountering it once. But in my experience, with 9 out of 10 words, you need to learn them several times to make them stick, over a period of weeks or even months.
- Don’t bother buying an expensive notebook. I went through six of these in my program. And anyway, the idea isn’t to keep these notebooks, but to retain the information in them.
- You might not want to write down every new word you encounter, but instead just words that stand out to you. I suggest 25 new words a day as the upper limit, but for most people, I’d lean closer to 10.
- At the beginning of each day, I find it useful to start a new page in both sections of the journal and write the date at the top. That way I have an idea of when I first encountered a word or idea.
- Pay attention to spelling and accuracy in general, because you don’t want to spend all this time preparing a journal just to learn wrong stuff.
- Consider converting some or all of your words to flashcards. That way you can mix them up and not have them stuck in any particular order. You also get the added benefit of writing them down another time. However, don’t feel obligated to do this either, because one of the benefits of language journals is their simplicity.