4 In Others / General

How to take notes when learning languages

Notetaking is one of my favourite topics of language learning and I can go on and on about this (if anyone wants to hear). Thought to share my two cents on the topic today – I probably have written on this before, but my views may have changed with experience (I mean age).

Purpose of Notetaking

One very important question to ask yourself – why are you taking notes and how would you use them? To answer this question, you must understand your own learning style. Personally, language notetaking to me is a process and hence I feel that the learning comes from the act of processing and organising the information as I write the notes. Hence, I have almost never flipped through / reviewed my language notes after I’m done writing them. A lot of my language notes is actually writing down vocabulary and it’s meaning and sample sentence. I have no use for reviewing what would essentially be random vocabulary lists – the learning comes when I’m actually writing them down and internalising and remember the words in the process.

Hence, I have no qualms throwing away years of notes (which I did). I still recalled the outrage (?) and shock when I posted online that I was doing so haha, and received so many comments that it’s a waste to do that and people even asked me why I didn’t sell my notes. ;;; hahaha what would people want to do with a random vocabulary lists? Even for the part of my notes when I was writing down grammar points etc, I see them as only useful if you are the person writing them (and learning through the process). I see language notes as different from those organised notes I did on subjects like Chemistry / Economics back in school – those I admit would be useful to review and pass on to others (I kept them until now!).

Notetaking is a trial and error process

Not everyone will face this issue, but as someone who prefers structure and neatness, I admit that I struggled with language notetaking at first. I had (rather) frivolous concerns like – should I have separate notebooks for grammar / vocabulary? / how do I organise the information? etc. My piece of advice? – Don’t think, just start writing. Just like how you can never be fluent at day 1, there is no reason to expect yourself to be able to organise your notes properly at day 1. It’s through a trial and error process that you learn how best to organise the information for yourself.

I’ve developed a system which I am comfortable over the years and will use it when I learn new languages. I use one notebook at one time, and even though I may be learning from several books at one time, I will just continue writing in the same notebook without going to a new page. So a single page in my notebook can contain my notes from two different textbooks I’m using.

Never re-write notes

This brings me to this point. Neverrrrrrr re-write notes. Sorry this is such a waste of time and there’s minimal value in the process. You will be better off using this time to read a new chapter, or something.

Aesthetics – do just “enough”

Uh. So… I realised that “aesthetic notetaking” has become a thing on social media. On one hand, I’m very impressed at how pretty people can make their notes – the colours, the doodles, the perfect handwriting, the use of washi tapes and dunno what other things.. On the other hand… I DUN GEDDIT. I’m all for do-whatever-makes-you-happy but I do sometimes question if the time and effort that went into those notes is considered well-spent and effective for learning?

As someone who is aesthetically challenged, I honestly think that notetaking to that level is very time-consuming (correct me if there are people who can do their notes reasonably fast and maintain that level of aesthetics) and I won’t do it. And I don’t recommend it. Honestly (this might be an unpopular opinion), I feel like sometimes it’s veering into arts and craft rather than learning. hahaha sorry if I offend anyone. /looks around/ I just hope it doesn’t set some form of unrealistic expectations for learners/students to deliberately try to follow those notetaking style and feel that that is how good notetaking should be.

I recalled how back in school days, I have friends who will also take time to beautify their notes with like a whole pencil case of colour markers (hahaha) and write their notes in a certain font (dunno if anyone gets it? hahaha). But honestly, students these days have levelled up so much in the aesthetics department. I feel like I’m looking at art pieces 🙂

(yes I secretly have a lot to say on this topic)

I used to colour-code my notes (sticking to max about 5 colours) for ease of reference but I have settled into a comfortable routine of using mostly pencil for my Korean and Japanese notes (mostly vocab these days), but I do use a couple of colours for Thai/Russian, where I am just starting out and I find a couple of colours useful.

On aesthetics – I do admit that when I take photos for social media / this blog, I do (pretentiously) find some props and arrange my stationery neatly. (duh, I don’t actually study with random props like my camera lying flat next to my book, with dried flowers and dunno what other rubbish). I don’t think anyone will deliberately spend effort on their notes for the gram (and not just due to personal style), cos that’s really another level.

So if you are wondering why I haven’t exactly shared how I take notes, it’s because the gist of this post is find a method that you are comfortable with and fits your objectives. 🙂

hahahaha ok I will write a separate post on how I do language notetaking.

Till next time!

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  • Reply
    12 May, 2020 at 10:48 PM

    In a perfect world, I would keep two sets of language notes (Korean, in this case).

    One is like yours, just scribbling things down as I go, solving exercises, practicing vocabulary, and not paying any attention to my handwriting or aesthetics of it. I write it squeezed together and all over the place to preserve paper, and as soon as I fill the notebook it goes into the recycling bin.

    The other would be a collection of notes on points that cause me trouble or that I make mistakes in often. I come across various useful tidbits as I switch between sources, and I like to have it all in one place to refer to it later, without having to wonder which website or textbook it was I saw it in. I don’t do anything fancy with these notes, but I do try to write them more tidily and make them more visually organized.

    These second type of notes would in a way become my own personalized textbook, without all the superfluous things I already know and don’t need to revise.

    But since the world is not perfect, I now only do the first type of notes, since I’m bedridden and don’t have the energy to collect and organize information.

    Oh, and I totally agree with your opinion on the aesthetic note-taking. I love looking at them but there is no way someone can effectively keep up that level of decorating and still be able to study effectively for hours on end. I do however, enjoy crafting and when I craft I apply it to the language learning since I otherwise have no inspiration and spend more time trying to figure out WHAT to create than actually creating, LOL.

    • Reply
      14 May, 2020 at 12:24 PM

      Hi Luna! hahhaha indeed that would be the best in the perfect world. I used to (oops) keep a notebook to write in good phrases or quotes that I come across in books etc, but never managed to keep up with it. I tried to be a little bit more aesthetic with that one (with stickers hahaha) but nah it was too much effort haha.

  • Reply
    13 May, 2020 at 8:01 AM

    Interesting! I use separate notebooks for each textbook and topic, but you’re right, I find I’m constantly shuffling everything around to find the notebook I want to use. And the one notebook I finished, I never go back to look at it. I’ll try keeping the one notebook for a while and see how I like it….

    • Reply
      14 May, 2020 at 12:22 PM

      Thanks for leaving a comment! Can try out this method and see if it works for you. I like having single notebooks, so it makes me finish using one before I start on another.

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