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Language Learning Tip: Keep a Notebook

I’ve seen it repeated over and over that keeping a language journal is helpful to language learners. You’ll obviously get practice, and you’ll be able to track your progress as you get better by looking through your older entries. Plus, you can do it for just a few minutes a night before you sleep, so it’s not a huge commitment either.

That’s all well and good. I’m pro-journal, and if you can stick to it, more power to you. But I’ve never been one to keep a journal, not even in English. So I’d like to suggest something even easier, but just as useful: a notebook. So don’t keep a journal; keep a notebook.

Why keep a notebook at all? I remember the things I look-up and hear, so this is pointless.

No it isn’t.

Marketing Japan writes about how successful people often use notebooks to never forget things—and as a language learner, that is your goal. In order to learn a language effectively, you need to actually remember what you encounter, which is easier said than done.

When I watch anime there are lots of words I don’t know, and grammar constructions that I can understand, but have yet to have really practiced myself. I might make a mental note of a specific word I want to remember for later, but unless I write it down, I’m going to forget. There’s too much in a single episode of an anime for anyone to remember, and trying to make mental notes of everything while passively watching isn’t going to translate into efficient language learning.

Keeping a notebook makes your language learning active.

So the next time you hear an interesting word, or see something in Japanese you don’t understand, don’t just look up the word and then expect that you’ll remember it for next time—you’ll probably forget within a minute if you don’t focus on actually remembering it.

So how is this language notebook thing supposed to work anyway?

First, you need a notebook. A smartphone might also work, but I think the physicality of writing a notebook may work better—but to each his own. If you’re feeling especially pretentious, head down to your local Barnes & Noble and pick up one of those Moleskine numbers. But anything small and portable should do.

It’s then a matter of finding things to write inside of it. From an interview with David Ury (AKA: Ken Tanaka):

Where/how/from whom did you learn Japanese and what drove you to do it?

I went to Japan as a college student because I wanted to get the hell out of the U.S. While there, I became absolutely obsessed with becoming the most fluent white guy in Tokyo. I learned Japanese from everyone and everything around me. I used to walk home from the train station to my home stay house looking up every kanji on every sign I passed. It took me 11 hours just to walk 3 blocks.

Not all of us have the opportunity to be in Japan, but the importance of writing down and looking up any Japanese you encounter cannot be understated. Jumping into reading a high-level novel may be too much, but finding tid-bits of Japanese to note and review is what will make the difference.

The next time you’re watching an anime, wait for an unknown, but interesting, word and look it up. Then, write down that word in your notebook. Or if you come across a Japanese website, you might look up the meaning of a sentence or two on one of its pages. Again, note down these sentences in your notebook.

At the end of the day, perhaps half an hour before you plan to go to sleep (since material looked at right before sleeping is generally not easily memorized, but material half an hour before is), review what you’ve jotted down. Whenever I do this, I usually end up noticing said word or sentence in other materials whereas I wouldn’t have noticed it before (since I wouldn’t have understood it!)

Today, for example, I came across and looked up the word 身長, reviewed it a few times, and low and behold, while watching Legend of the Galactic Heroes today—an awesome, if occasionally slow-paced space drama that I recommend everyone to watch—it showed up. I plan to review the word again before I go to sleep.

Setting aside time to formally study—such as doing shadowing as I’ve recommended—is important, but keeping a notebook will help you remember the little things you often think you will remember, but then conveniently forget. It’s the same reason you (should) take notes in lectures: you may understand everything that is being said, but not writing it down or reviewing means you’ll simply forget later. As language learners, forgetting is not an option.


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