How I Keep a Language Notebook

Hey there guys, gals, and non-binary pals! So, back in August I read this awesome post from Kerstin over on Fluent Language titled The Miraculous Benefits of Keeping a Language Notebook. I highly recommend you go there and have a quick read if you haven’t already.

You’re back? Good. So after I read this post, it made me think about the way in which I keep a language notebook. I’ve always kept paper notes when I study, but since February I’ve been using specific notebooks for all of my language learning, which is somewhat different to how I’ve done it in the past. When I first started this, I googled a lot of variants of the phrase ‘how to keep a language notebook’ but there’s really not a lot out there about it, and while I know that you should do whatever method works best for you, I wasn’t really sure where to start. (I do sometimes like a clear path.) So, I thought that I’d share my language notebook(s) and my process of finding one and setting it up with you today – and hopefully it’ll give you a few ideas about keeping your own! (I hope you’re all settled in for a fairly long post from here on out…)

I think Kerstin’s post sums up pretty well the reasons for sometimes using the old pen-and-paper method over a computer; and I agree with her. I love using my laptop; I think e-books are great and I love flashcard apps and game-based systems and everything else for learning – but sometimes I find that I don’t always absorb information as effectively from a screen. Part of that is because it is so easy to wander off to another part of the internet but also part of it is that there’s no physical connection between me and the notes I type out. I found this at school and university too – it’s much easier for me to remember something if I physically write something out.

That’s where the language notebook comes in. Granted, it’s not going to make me instantly remember everything, but if there’s a tangible connection between me and a new word then it’s a little more likely. Plus, I don’t think I can learn to hand write Chinese characters on my computer.

So, first things first: choosing the right kind of notebook.

I definitely have a thing for notebooks. I have a shelf full of them (most of them not written in yet) at home and I always want more, even though I don’t use them as much as I did in my teens. That means I know what I like – and there’s a difference between what I like for studying and what I like for general writing/keeping a planner/etc.

Spiral-bound books are the best for me, partly because I’m left handed and don’t like that working from the back of the book idea. You also don’t end up breaking the spine and possibly having pages fall out (I’ve had that happen with both notebooks and books that I own). If you pick a non-spiral-bound book, then try and get one that will hold up to some wear and tear, especially if it has a lot of pages. I think mine were 100-150 sheets per book, though inevitably I end up ripping a couple of pages out during the course of the book’s use.

I also really like squared paper. Part of that is because I’m learning Mandarin, so it’s fun to try and fit the characters into the tiny squares – but I also have tables and charts and whatnot in there, and I sometimes don’t have a ruler. It’s easier to draw a straight line if you have one to follow. Of course, pick whatever kind of paper you prefer (incidentally: notebooks with squared paper seem to be really easy to find in Germany or Austria, but difficult to find in the UK), just make sure it’s pretty durable.

You also don’t have to worry about spending lots of money on your notebook, but since it will probably last you a while, it might be best to spend a little more than you usually do. My first notebook lasted six months, but you might get through yours quicker. See what you can find though, and work with that.

Alright, so you have your notebook. You have a pen (or maybe a few). What to do first?

I always start off with a contents page.

Language Notebook: Contents Page

That’s the page from my first language notebook. Whatever the title is on the page I’m using becomes the entry in the contents page – so usually textbook chapter titles or just ‘practice’ if I want to go over something but it’s not related to something I’ve already done. For this book, I was filling in the page numbers as I went along, but that led to lots of tippexing out numbers when there were too many to fit in the gap.

You might also notice that I have all different languages mixed up together there. That’s because I might study, for instance, Colloquial Slovak one day and then Teach Yourself Spanish the next – I don’t know how many pages I’ll need for Colloquial Slovak, so I just begin on the next available one and then I don’t end up wasting any paper (or not as much, perhaps). This means that a contents page (or an index) is absolutely essential for my notebook, so I can find what I’ve already studied.

For my second notebook, I also included a miscellaneous vocabulary page at the back (exclusively for German so far).

Language Notebook: Misc Vocab Page

This page I made after seeing Kerstin’s post; it’s a handy place to store all of that vocabulary that comes up when watching films, reading, playing games, etc. I’ll probably add one for Mandarin, too, but right now, it’s only German where I come across these extra words often. Having this list at the back of the notebook means I can flip straight to it and write the German word down, even if I don’t have time to look it up that minute. It’s then also easy to copy the words into a flashcard app or to learn them because they’re all in the same place.

Another thing I like having in my language notebook and you might have already seen on my Clear the List: October post is a goal-setting page per month.

Language Notebook: Goal-Setting Page

Because I’m trying to learn four languages right now, I try and assign one main language per day to make sure I keep vaguely on track with my studies. That’s what the calendar is for. The left hand side I colour in if I manage to study that day. Recently, my goals have also been to reach certain points in my language textbooks so I have those listed below. Writing goals out like this for myself is something I find really motivating – especially as I have all those different coloured pens right now!

Then, I start filling it in. Most of the time, I just use the notebook to work through my textbooks; I write out new words and sometimes the dialogues, if they’re short or I need the writing practice. I also write out grammar notes and obviously any exercises.

Language Notebook: Mandarin NPCR Dialoge
Language Notebook: Slovak Dialogue

I use highlighters to pick out new words (orange) and words I should know but don’t remember (pink) in the texts – if I don’t know them, I write out the meanings.

Apart from this, I also use this notebook to keep track of any challenges I’m participating in. The main one I use it for is the six week challenge, as this involves keeping track of time, which can sometimes be quite difficult.

Language Notebook: 6WC Log

With this log I track all kinds of things about an activity I’m working on, including whether or not I’ve logged it on twitter (sometimes I get confused about whether I’ve done that already or not). I have a similar log for the Super Language Challenge, though it doesn’t need the time tracker.

That’s basically it for my language notebook! I think another great thing to add would be things that keep you motivated – like pictures of a place where you can use your language, or motivational quotes, or lists of things you want to read/watch/talk about. You can put anything and everything you want in there, so long as it’s somehow useful for you.

Now, I’m off to do some studying in mine. Let me know what you have/would have in your own language notebook!


    • Me too 🙂 I used to have separate notebooks or folders but I think if you study more than one or two languages it just becomes an issue of space. Definitely one notebook is better for me. Thanks for stopping by! 🙂

  1. This is so cute and wonderful and language learner-y 😀 I usually keep a separate reference notebook and notebook for working through exercises etc. but it’s good to have things in the one place too if you keep the contents page organised ^^

    • Haha thanks! And yeah, that’s a good way to keep more than one notebook – I think more than one would be my ideal solution but I’d probably end up with too many. Thanks for leaving a comment! 🙂

  2. These are all really helpful suggestions. I usually start a notebook with the very beginning of a new language class, but hadn’t done that yet with Thai and was feeling totally lost. I took 5 hours this past weekend (halfway through the semester) to pull it together and I feel so much better already! One of my regular practices with language notebooks is to have word family or thematic pages for keeping my vocabulary lists (jobs, family members, body parts, colors, days of the week, etc.). Then I put words in the right place as I learn them. This year I’m also using post-it tabs to flag pages in my notebook for easy future reference.

    • Oh, that’s awesome! Yeah, I always try and get a notebook together if I have a class – but thematic pages for vocab lists is such a good idea that I’ve not yet tried haha. I’ll have to add it into my notebook. And yes, post-it tabs, I love those! Thanks for commenting; I’m sure other people will find your advice useful too. 🙂

  3. I’m about to start learning Korean and although I found a “language notebook” on a korean site (I’m in love with stationary and happen to come across this in a korean store I visited on my trip last year) which has one main line with two smaller ones above and below (for translations, notes, corrections, etc. almost like a page with structured editing space above or below the writing) but I think i’m in love with your way more!! I CANNOT wait to try this!! (especially because I just bought a large pack of graph paper since i’m a science major)

    THANK YOU <3

  4. Hi! I know that this was posted forever ago, but I was wondering if you could do a post on your current Mandarin nb? I want to start one, and think this would be a great guideline since I too, am learning Mandarin! Also, I love your name! (wink, wink)

  5. I’ve designed a notebook that makes language learning much easier! It contains 72 topics and there are lists of most common words and phrases in English on the left page where you need to write the words and phrases in your target language. The right page is empty so you can add new words and phrases about the given topic. By filling the left pages you will know more than 2400 words and then there’s still half more space. So it makes things much easier as you know which are the most common words and they are already organized under different topics.

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