I keep a language learning journal.
Okay, yeah… It’s not really a journal. It’s just a notebook where I keep notes, questions, and interesting facts about the language I’m learning. But by the nature of the process that goes into creating it, it seems like so much more than just a notebook where I keep my notes. It’s very personal, very journal-y (-ish?).
Taking notes by hand is an incredibly important part of my language learning process. Studies have shown that it helps with retention, but there’s just something more focused about doing things this way that works for me. I don’t remember everything that goes into my notebook – I don’t need to – but I do remember a surprising amount.
But my notebooks don’t just help me with memory, they also do something far more important to my language studies.
They provide me with a means of assessing where I’m at, how far I’ve come and where I need to go next.
What do I mean?
Where do I go next in my language learning?
When I talk with language learners, I get the sense that many of them struggle with what the next step is. They’ve done this, or they’ve done that, but their progress has stagnated because they aren’t sure what they need to do next.
And it’s not just when I talk to other learners. I’ve been there. And there are times where I still end up feeling that way. Unsure of what the next step might be.
That’s why it’s so important to assess where you’re language skills really are so that you can figure out what you need to do next.
Make Notes to Yourself at the End of Every Study Session
When I was studying music performance in university, one of my saxophone instructors taught me a very important skill. He was excellent in terms of preparing me for the real world and I certainly have a lot to thank him for!
It’s easy to forget that once you leave the safety of school, you’re out on your own in the world. The chances of you continuing to study with a tutor or teacher or mentor are slim, so it’s important to learn how to keep moving forward independent of having someone to guide you.
You need to learn to figure out what the next steps are on your own.
He advised me to get a notebook and begin making notes to myself at the end of every practice session. It was to include things like:
- This note on this measure is out of tune
- My articulation is still messy when I ___
- This altissimo fingering isn’t working for me
- I need to diversify my jazz vocabulary over songs in this key
Because the next time I would sit down to practice, I’d have clear and specific things that I could work on. I didn’t need to spend any time figuring out what I needed to study, what I needed to do next, or how I could get better.
Those steps would be right there.
I started to do the same for language. After a study session in Chinese, my notes might look like this:
- Little Linguist asked me what the word for “sprinklers” was and I don’t know it – look it up*
- I still don’t know enough words for different animals (learn hedgehog, dolphin, whale, shark, jellyfish, skunk, lizard, etc.)
- I know how to tell someone not to do something, but I don’t know how to ask them to STOP doing something
- I also need to learn words for the following and the actions that go with them: swing (push you on the swing), slide (go down the slide), roll the ball, kick the ball into the goal, bruise (you fell down), jungle gym/playground
*Most of my Chinese studies revolve around being able to communicate with my son
But what if you aren’t able to determine what those specific things are as you’re going through your studies?
You can go through you past notes and see if you can pick out any gaps in your knowledge. Even if you don’t yet know HOW to fix the problem you’re having, you can still figure out WHAT the problems might be.
Taking a quick glance of each of the notebooks for the languages I’m actively studying, I can immediately see that I need to work on the following:
– Using the right measure word (I default to 个 gè far too often)
How do I know this? Because when I look at the phrases and notes that I’ve written in myself, I can see examples where I’ve used this in place of the correct measure word.
– Pronunciation (listen and speak more)
– can never remember the word for “establish”
How do I know this? Because I’ve written in the way I would pronounce certain words (the transliterations) for several longer Russian words I struggle to read on site. And there’s an underline under “establish” which means I had to stop and look it up.
– I forget third person (both plural and singular) conjugations far too often
– Finish at least one course book (I broke my own rule and am using two with two more calling my name)
How do I know this? Because I complete the exercises in my notebooks, so I know where I’ve stopped off. I also avoid writing examples in the forms that I can’t remember.
– Memorize more basic phrases
– Hurry up and learn to read (don’t worry about writing for now)
How do I know this? Because my notebook is mostly empty and I’m mostly using Romaji.
Immediately Actionable Language Learning Steps
After going through this process, I have immediately actionable steps that I can take to improve my ability in each of the languages that I’m learning.
And the most important thing is that these are steps that get me towards my goals for each language. They aren’t the steps dictated to me by a course book or a podcast, but those that I KNOW I need to take to get better at my language in the ways I WANT and NEED to get better.
How Do You Properly Assess Your Language Skills?
When you take notes, the are a few more things you can do to make sure that you can quickly see where your gaps are.
It’s really all about coming up with a system that you like and that works for you, but I’ll share a couple of techniques that I use personally:
- Color coding: If there’s something I think would be immediately useful to me, I star it with another color pen
- Dates and titles at the top of the page: When I want to be able to find something quickly, I add a date and/or title to the top of the page
- Use sticky notes to mark important notes
- Highlighting things that just don’t stick (but I need them to)
Bullet journaling is another way to keep your notes organized and your next steps clear. I haven’t personally started using this method, but I’m definitely thinking about trying it out in the near future.
Planning Around Your Assessments
Once you’ve decided what your next steps need to be after going through your notes, you need to create a plan for tackling them.
In some cases, what you need to do is clear and you can take on resolving them on your own.
Using my earlier examples, this would be things like:
- Creating a flashcard for the word “establish” in my personal Russian Memrise decks
- Spending a study session or two specifically on measure words in Chinese
- Looking up those obvious words for animals and things in Chinese and adding them to my personal Chinese Memrise decks and asking my tutor for help with those that aren’t so obvious
- Forcing myself to use the third person and plural forms in Croatian more (maybe have a conversation about my family with my tutor during my next lesson)
- Spend more time with Hiragana and Katakana to establish a stronger foundation
- Watch some of the JapanesePod101 videos on Youtube to learn a few more basic phrases
Taking detailed notes and going through them is an excellent to figure out what is next for you in your language studies. If you ever feel stuck, or like you don’t have any direction, making a few small tweaks to your note-taking system can help you break through that wall.
What about you?
What do your language notes look like (if you’re feeling brave, I’d love for you to share a photo with me in the comments below or on social media.
How do you create a plan in your learning so that you know what the next steps are?
I’d love to hear from you!
16 Oct 2017 - Language Resources