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If you didn’t already know this (then pleased to meet you!), I’m a bit of a language enthusiast. And I’m a bit of a journal enthusiast. So I’m very excited to share this article with you today.
My bullet journal’s undergone a massive transformation into a powerful memory-retaining language journal. ‘Cause it seems like nothing quite sticks vocabulary in my head like writing it down with some good ‘ole pen and paper.
And after successfully completing a $195 course on How to Learn and Memorize the Vocabulary of Any Language, I think I’m more than qualified to share journal memory methods that are actually worth your time.
If it’s not self-explanatory, a “language journal,” otherwise known as a “language learning journal” is, in essence, a notebook for foreign language acquisition. A notebook dedicated to new words, forgotten words, vocabulary rules, verb conjugations, irregular verbs– you name it.
If it has to do with a foreign language, then you can 100% write it down in your language journal. For me personally, my language journal takes the form of a bullet journal. A beautiful leather-back bullet journal I bought from Michaels.
But your language journal can truly be any notebook. I’d recommend a notebook with dotted grid pages or blank sheets for maximum writing flexibility but any old notebook should work. I find that a language learning journal helps gives my self-study routine some structure.
When you’re trying to teach yourself a language, it’s pretty easy to get lost in the jumble of new words, old words, “in-between” words, and everything else. There’s so much to learn and sometimes our eyes move faster than our minds. It’s pretty easy to write down a new word, but remembering it?
Now that’s another story. If you know how to use your language learning journal right, then it could easily become the most essential tool in your study routine. But that’s only if you use it right.
When you dive into creating a language journal blindly, you’ve got a pretty high chance of going about it wrong. As with anything in life. Where the “bullet journal” aspect joins with my language journey is through the way I organize foreign vocabulary.
All my journal spreads are organized by dates. I’ve got monthly spreads, weekly spreads, and daily “rectangles” for writing in. This way, later down the line, I can view my language progression in real-time.
And I force myself to only focus on words I’ve newly learned or have forgotten. No use wasting time on terms I mastered 2 months ago. Understandably though, a language journal can only take you so far. You’re not going to learn anything new through writing and you won’t be honing your listening skills.
A journal improves your writing skills and through proper engagement, your reading skills. My two-way formula for successful memory retention includes not only my language journal but also a spaced repetition flashcard system.
If you don’t know what a spaced repetition flashcard system is, then oh my goodness, you need to find out. Spaced repetition is scientifically proven to speed up memorization rate and is a method sworn by for many polyglots. Anki, the SRFS application I use, is a tool I use daily no matter what.
I’ll admit though, using any kind of flashcard system isn’t all the fun. But that’s where your journal comes in– to make it a totally engaging and interactive process. Before I get ahead of myself here, I want to make sure you have the writing tools you need to get started.
- Bullet Journal: I sell hand-designed bullet journals on Amazon for just $9.99, so grab one if you don’t already have a language journal!
- (Fluorescent) Highlighters: Bold Sharpie Colors or Pastel Bic Colors (Smear-proof or Smear Guard highlighters are preferable!)
- Mildliners: Double-ended markers with quick-drying ink in soft colors (not as necessary as the others!)
- (Gel) Colorful pens: Papermate’s colorful reduced smear pens Make sure you have red, blue, and preferably green. Science has proven that these colors are the best for notetaking for multiple reasons.
- Smooth Ballpoint black pen: Zebra Z-Grip Retractable Ballpoint Pen
- Sticky notes: Mini colorful sticky notes or Traditional Colorful sticky notes (Sticky notes are more specific to students and language learners, which is why you may not see them used on that many bullet journals shared online!)
Once you’ve got your tools assembled, you’re ready to start creating. Here are the 10 things you need to include in your language learning journal. You’re going to be shocked when you experience how much more easily you’re able to retain words after implementing these!
1. Mind Maps
I know, I know. This probably isn’t what you were expecting. I blame the language teaching industry for that.
If you are completely unfamiliar with this term, a mind map is a diagram used to visually organize information. A mind map is hierarchical and shows relationships among pieces of the whole. (Wikipedia)
Check out this course Complete Mind Mapping — Accelerate Learning w/ Keywords for an in-depth explanation of mind maps and how to make them.
Here are two great mind maps that simultaneously explain what they are.
Aren’t they cute! Aren’t you excited to get started making your own? Don’t worry– they’re simple. Take a word from your target language that encompasses a sizely realm of words and place that term in the center.
Then just attach “branches” that connect to words related to that main term. Your goal here is to go from the general to the specific. So branches should reflect hierarchy in relation to that main term.
If your central term is “read,” then your most closely related branches would likely include the foreign language equivalents of “publications,” “Literature”, “Grammar,” “words,” etc.
Then from “publications,” you could stem off to “level 3” words, including book, magazine, brochure, newspaper, etc. Or from “grammar,” “level 3 words” could include verb, adjective, noun, adverb, etc.
From “noun”, you could stem off to “level 4” terms like “idea,” “person,” “place,” and “thing.” There should be fewer words in each section as you narrow down.
Use visuals wherever possible, but make sure your mind map doesn’t get cluttered. You’ll want it to serve as a visually appealing diagram for easily understandable reference.
2. Doodle Pages
These might just be my favorite on this list. They’re pages dedicated solely to drawing illustrations of words you’ve learned in your target language.
You can view my Instagram page below to garner some inspiration for your own visual ‘dictionaries.’
Personally, I believe language learners should try and create a visualization for every single word they learn. But I also fully understand that this isn’t always possible. Certain words are not at all visual and there’s no use wasting time trying to stretch an image out of it.
Nonetheless, time and time again experts have sworn that visuals are some of the most powerful tools when learning literally anything. I find that pictures better replicate the natural acquisition process young children undergo when interacting with their mother tongue.
I’m sure you’ve seen the playful images of smiling apples, adorable mice, and running silverware. They’re visuals made specifically for learning minds that find pictures easier to comprehend than more advanced words.
So don’t be afraid to test out your artistic skills. Your doodles don’t have to be good, just good enough for you to know what they’re depicting.
3. A Mastery-based Labeling System
This is one that I really don’t see enough language learners using. When you’re your own teacher, you’re 100% in charge of what you know. Even if you’re enrolled in a foreign language course, you need to know what words you know and what words you don’t before getting tested on them.
Having a curriculum simply tells you what you should know. So in your language journal, create a labeling system you easily understand. I suggest using shapes, but realistically any simple icons should work.
In effect, one shape would denote “newly learned terms,” another shape would denote “newer terms,” another would denote “older terms,” and yet another would indicate “forgotten terms.”
For this to be an actual labeling system, you would need to draw in one of these symbols next to each word you write down. If you’re thinking but why I write down words I’ve already written down in the past?
If you’re using a spaced repetition flashcard system, like I strongly recommended in the introduction of this article, then you’ll be viewing words of all levels daily. Notice I don’t say write down “old words.” You don’t even have to write down “older words” if you don’t want to.
But I’d suggest rewriting any word your SRFS application throws at you, if you haven’t yet mastered it. No need to take up space on your precious pages for ones you have already. But for those you haven’t, having a labeling system will be extremely useful in understanding which terms you should be prioritizing in mastering.
As a general rule of thumb, focus on mastering older “forgotten” words first and then move on to newer ones. The symbols you draw (for me, forgotten words are represented by triangles) will easily distinguish your level of mastery on the terms you’ve learned.
Again, this is why my language learning spreads are organized by week and day. Because a word that I would consider “new” today would be “newer” next week and “older” the week after that. I encourage you to organize your language learning journey in this ‘chronological’ structure as well.
4. New Vocabulary Page
I create a new vocabulary page per week, but this could totally be more or less depending on your learning rate. Honestly, at the number of hours, I’m studying Vietnamese each day, 1 page isn’t really enough for all the new terms I’m learning.
But since I also include new words on my specific days of the week ‘spreads,’ my new vocabulary page contains words I consider to be more important.
On this page, you don’t just write down the new vocabulary term. Any word I add to this page includes its English translation, a sentence containing the term, and/or an image.
This allows you to interact with the term as soon as you first learn it. For me, it forces me to slow down and actually envision using this word. It allows you to associate the term with its context and in effect, develop a deeper understanding sooner rather than later.
Plus it allows your language journal to also serve partially as your own personal on-the-go dictionary. Just one that includes images and phrases customized to you.
I suggest this page be relatively plain initially to allow for proper labeling and coloring…. which I’ll get more into in the next essential.
5. (Efficient) Color Coding
Don’t we all just love colors? A bullet journal wouldn’t even feel like a bullet journal without a splash of color every now and then… Unless you’re a lover of minimalist spreads.
Well, I apologize if you’re devoted to simplistic black and white spreads but B&W anything is so 1900s. It’s time for you to create a color coding system that’ll organize words in more ways than one.
The key here is choosing your colors and sticking with them. Consistency is key when it comes to labeling of any kind within your language journal.
Your color-coding system will be best if it’s determined by you. What colors do you want to represent adjectives…. or better yet, the emotions associated with adjectives? What color screams abstract nouns to you? What color screams concrete nouns?
You’d be surprised how many different ways there are to organize words. If you’re just getting started and truly believe you don’t have enough time to add any more than 4 colors to your coding system, then at least decide on colors to organize nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs.
The more colors you use is actually better as it allows for you to really narrow down to the contextual situation or connotation of the word. If you can find a way to associate colors with emotions or “connotation categories,” then you’ll be more likely to memorize the meaning of words– over just the words alone.
It’s almost like breathing life into dull vocabulary. Your color-coding system ultimately comes down to how many colors you own and how much time you’re willing to put into categorization. I suggest you own at least 4 highlighters, and 3 different color pens.
Warmer color highlighters are preferable for grabbing your attention, and red, blue, and green ink each have their benefits in note-taking.
You should still have a classic black pen as well– for optimal contrast on the white/cream pages of your journal. Definitely head over to 5 super-efficient ways to color code your language notebook before you dive into creating your categorization.
6. Memory Palaces
Alright, I’m not going to pretend like I’m an expert in the field of “memory palaces.” Anthony Metiever, best-selling author of memory books, explains memory palaces perfectly in his article on the science behind it here.
The use of memory palaces is a method that dates back to the ancient greeks yet is just as effective today. To at least provide some form of definition, a memory palace is a mental construct that appeals to your spatial memory. You form connections in your mind between foreign vocabulary or grammar and allocate these to locations you know by heart.
Believe me when I say it’s a bit difficult to explain. Take the street you live on for example. Think of your house as “my house” and allocate a word, phrase, or multiple words starting with that sound “M” to that specific location.
In Spanish, these could be words like “madre” (mother) and/or “mono” (monkey.) Then you create a vivid image in your head of your mom and a monkey engaged in some memorable action at your home. The starting letter of the location– in this “M” for “my home”– serves to create the initial link between the word and its pronunciation.
So if a letter sounds different from it’s English pronunciation; like the fact that “I” in Spanish sounds like “E” in English, you would store a word starting with “I” in a location like “Ethan’s house.” A location that matches the initial sound, not the initial letter, unless the two coincide.
I used the example of your mother and monkey above since that scene would be memorable in itself. But realistically, when forming a memory palace the scene should be formed with visualizations of English pronunciation equivalents to the foreign word.
So a better image for remembering pronunciation would be your ma standing next to a dray (a truck or cart for delivering beer barrels) with a lawnmower that’s on top of no grass. Sound like a crazy image? That’s because it is.
The crazier the image, the better, as it becomes that much more memorable. Once you have your images down, you’ll need to decide on actions that relate to the meaning of the word in your target language. In this case, “madre” is super easy to remember as your “ma” is already part of the scene.
But to remember monkey, you’d need to incorporate some monkey-like action into your visualization. Like your mother bouncing back and forth and making monkey sounds. The fact that she’s mowing nonexistent grass may be enough for you to make the connection in your head that she’s clearly behaving like a monkey.
Now how to incorporate this into your language journal? Well just flex your architectural skills. Sketch out your memory palace– remembering that it should a be a location you know like the back of your hand. In my example, it was the street you live on. So sketch out an overhead view of the 10-15 houses you know best on your street.
“Know best” simply means the ones in which you know your neighbor’s names and know what the house’s exterior looks like. With a memory palace like this, all of your visualizations would be occurring outside.
Once you have your sketch, allow your neighbor’s name to represent the initial sound of words you’ll be allocating to that memory palace station. Like “Ethan’s house” for “I” words in Spanish.
Then choose your word or words and get to creating vibrant scenes in your head. Even those these are mental constructs when you first start out making memory palaces, you’ll want to write them out to make sure you’re doing them right.
Plus by writing the visualization you’ve created down, you’ll later be able to access whether or not these visualizations were memorable enough. With time, your ability in creating naturally vivid, memorable mental scenes will improve.
Grab your free guide on exactly how to get started creating your own memory palaces here!
7. A ROTE system
Rote learning is a memorization technique based on repetition. The idea is that one will be able to quickly recall the meaning of the material the more one repeats it. (Wikipedia)
Even though I hope you’re already using a spaced repetition flashcard application, it’ll still be useful for you to develop some form of “flashcard” system right in your bullet journal.
Something that’ll let you see the English translation initially and then reveal the foreign word after presumably remembering it correctly.
Get your free copy of 3 quick ways to transform your language journal into an on-the-go Flashcard system. There I share 3 totally efficient ROTE-based methods you can design yourself in less than 5 minutes.
And if you find mind maps to be as enjoyable to create as I do, then I’m sure the amount of time you spend studying will naturally increase.
8. Page Indicators (Mini Sticky notes!)
Ugh, I can’t tell you how much time I’ve wasted flipping through my journal trying to find the page where I wrote certain words down. While organizing learned words by week typically makes locating the week I’m currently in pretty easy, everything else is hit-or-miss.
Since I have pages dedicated to the whole month, pages dedicated to doodles, and pages dedicated to curriculum planning, navigation can get pretty complicated quick.
I encourage you to put all these things as close to each other as possible, but this becomes particularly challenging when faced with monthly spreads and auxiliary planning.
So to cut back on wasted time, and ensure that your bullet journal experience is an enjoyable one, make sure you create a navigation system. Big words, I know– but “sticky note system” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Or even “post-it note system” if you’re fancy like that. But allow me to make a quick distinction. Mini Post-it notes and Post-it page markers are totally different sizes and both useful for different things.
Depending on how big your journal is, and how many pages you need to mark, it’s up to you to decide what size is best. But generally, I strongly encourage you to use Post-it page markers— otherwise known as “post-it flags.”
Just keep in mind that post-it flags are partially transparent– meaning they could also be incorporated into your color-coding system if you’re able to figure out a practical way to include them.
I’d suggest you mark your “new vocabulary” page, your current “doodles” page, your monthly goals page(s), and the week you’re currently in. The two more “artistically limited” packs above contain 6 colors; so you’ll probably want to cap off the pages you mark at 6 as well.
9. Fave Daily Phrase
This one definitely seems less obvious than some of the others, but I’d actually say it’s more important than at least 4 of them. Your “fave daily phrase” is exactly what it sounds like.
A phrase you learned that day that you liked more than all the others. Granted, this phrase may be something painfully basic but as long as it resonated with you more than all the other phrases you learned– it counts.
If you only learned one phrase that day, then that phrase is (by default) your favorite phrase. If you only learned words that day, choose your favorite word and find a grammatically correct sentence that the word is used in.
I wouldn’t suggest you make the phrase up yourself though unless your 100% confident you got it right. The point of having a daily favorite phrase is that it forces you to focus on the language from a communication standpoint.
You’re not going to speak, listen to, or read one-word dialogues. At some point you’re going to have to connect all the words you’ve learned into comprehensive sentences.
You’re going to have to address grammar rules and linking verbs and figure out how to form correct sentences yourself. So it wouldn’t make sense for you to solely write down singular words all the time.
That’s why I encouraged you for your “new vocabulary” page to not only include the word and its translation, but also a sentence with the word being used. You’ve got to make sure you’re learning words in their proper context.
For me personally, I made the mistake of learning the Vietnamese word for the English word “alert” and assuming that the translation was for the English noun. But the translation was actually for the English verb of alert.
If I had researched the word’s use in a sentence, I would have known that from the get-go. A lot of language learners claim you should actually write down multiple sentences daily in your target language to really impress what you’ve learned in your mind.
But I totally understand that that isn’t time-allowing for everyone or even enjoyable. So I figured a singular phrase is something even the busiest of us could squeeze out.
It’ll make sure you’re getting in writing practice that progresses beyond an elementary level. And it’ll make you more confident in your writing skills later down the line.
10. Study Tracker
Of course, this a spread students of any subject could benefit from. But when it comes to language learning, this is a defining measure in your journey to fluency.
Think about it; there are expected time requirements English speakers need to dedicate to a foreign language for them to be deemed “proficient” by the Foreign Service Institute.
This vaguely differs by person, but in general, category 1 languages need 575-600 hours of study. Category 2 languages need 750 hours of study. Category 3 languages need 900 hours of study. Category 4 languages need 1100 hours of study. And Category 5 languages need 2200 hours of study.
So time isn’t only precious, but it’s nearly everything when it comes to acquiring a foreign language. It’s smart for any of us who are learning a language to set daily or weekly goals we plan to hit without fail in order to reach our overall time goal for reaching fluency.
No one else is going to hold you accountable for reaching your goals except you. So by keeping a study tracker, you’ll know exactly how much time you’ve actually devoted to learning your target language.
Then you’ll be able to assess your proficiency in the language accordingly. This may mean you need to adjust your study routine if you realize the number of hours you’re putting in isn’t on your par with your fluency progression.
No point putting in 20 hours per week if you’re progressing at the same pace as someone whose studying for 14 hours per week. Study smarter, not harder right?
To my fellow Journalista
For guided language study pages focused on planning, tracking, vocabulary, grammar, and more, grab your 51-page printable bundle here! You can view some of the spreads you’ll score in the image below.
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Before you head off on your language journey– I want us to stay in contact with one another. Us language learners have to stick together right?
My language craziness expands to multiple platforms so you can also find me cranking out polyglot inspiration on Instagram and Pinterest. Don’t hesitate to direct message me or comment on one of my posts! I’d love to get to know you beyond this blog.
Aside from that fun, if you’re still here then I want to make sure you don’t miss out on your free language learning toolkit– which will be including more and more language journal specific content in the very near future!
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Keep learning languages my friend! And I look forward to seeing you again real soon.
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