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Write Right: 5 Steps To Awesome Language-Learning Notes

Whenever I see new language students in my school anxiously clutching their brand-new notebooks, I cry a little.

Many of these notebooks will be totally useless by the time the course is halfway through. Some of them will be half-decent, but never used in any meaningful way. And even the good ones, the ones used often, will be forgotten by the time the course is over.

This is sad. But it doesn’t have to be. Read on and you will find how you can do better.

Research vs. React: Penalty Shootouts vs. Language Learning

In 2006, Argentina met Germany in the Soccer World Cup. The game ended in a penalty shootout.

The person to watch below is the German goalkeeper (the one in light blue sweatshirt):

He may not be able to stop every ball. But he always KNOWS where the ball will be. The Argentinian keeper falters and goes the wrong way on several occasions – the German goalie always makes the right move.

As it turns out, the German goalkeeper actually knew where the ball would be going. His team had done the homework, and studied the habits of penalty takers. Just before the shoot-out, the goalkeeper was given a note: a list of names and recommended actions.

As you can see, it worked pretty well.

Two questions for you, before we move on to languages:

1) What if the keeper hadn’t been given the suggestions? Would he simply lose the know-how – or would something more be missing?

2) How useful would it be to take any notes during the shootout (e.g. guy X went for the left corner, so guy Y must go for the bottom-right now…)?

You might have guessed it: 1) a well-maintained and trusted system of notes meant more than just the info for the German keeper. Imagine being him, just after the first round: sure, you didn’t catch that one (who would?!), but you saw it go where you thought it would. You know the system is working. Suddenly, in a stressful situation, you find a source of comfort. By the time he denies the final attempt, he’s as cool as a cucumber.

And, sure enough – 2) if you decided to react to what was happening around you at a stressful time like that, you would definitely end up being more stressed. You would lack the knowledge, the detachment, access to facts. This can sometimes be seen in the other goalkeeper’s face, as he is sent once again fumbling into the wrong corner.

Think about that note again.

It could never have been used. Germany could win or lose in regular time, or in extra time, or never end up meeting Argentina.

The note was made nonetheless. It was prepared by people who had done their homework, and designed to perform only this one function: give the goalkeeper means of outperforming the strikers.

This is what your notes should be like. Let’s see how to do it.

Five Steps to Awesome Notes

1. Choose a fail-proof system. I’ve got half a dozen half-filled paper notebooks at home. They’ve been around for about five years. That’s how long it took me to realize that I actually hate paper in the long run. Surely, you can figure it out sooner? Stick to paper or use online note systems – it’s your choice. The key thing here: own it. Make it work for you, and you alone.

2. Experiment, play, rehearse. Many people are still stuck in their primary-school frame of mind – that notes must be kept clean and orderly. Yes, sure; at some point, they had better be! But when a lot of things are happening – when you’re listening to a fast-paced live broadcast or taking notes during a lively presentation – you may have too little time and too much energy to dot all your Is. Don’t be afraid of mess at this stage.

3. Revise, clean-up, organize. That’s where order comes into play. Is there anything you may want to add to your notes? Any afterthoughts? This is also a good moment to transfer your notes to a medium you trust. For rough drafts and impromptu note-taking, paper is still hard to beat – but now, if mindmaps, flashcards or Evernote is your thing, use it.

4. Get what you want. If you’re noting down new words without their stress patterns and pronunciation, you’re probably wasting your time. Try to figure this out early, and brush up your phonetic alphabet skills. On the other hand, if you’re preparing for the exams, it’s foolish to overdo the note-taking: go by what is needed, and discard the irrelevant details.

5. Never stop. This one is essential, and the hardest part: what good is a half-forgotten notebook? (eh? self?) Know this when you begin your note-taking adventure in language: these things will be coming in handy long afterwards. So it’s really important to plan ahead, and build a system you can recycle.


Here are just a few resources you can use for taking notes in learning languages:

– Mindmaps – good for learning lexical sets (i.e. “word families”) together.

– Flashcards – the best solution for revising huge sets of vocab / concepts quickly. (Check out this blog’s discussion of the Android flashcard app, or the flashcard maker here).

– This Lifehacker guide tells you all about note-taking. Ignore at your own risk.

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3 Responsesso far.

  1. customic says:

    I love the tips! The line about half-filled notebooks was so true for me, too… It took me some time until I realised that I learn new words quicker (and much more efficiently) when I store them digitally (using SRS) than when I relied solely on my hastily taken notes from the classroom. But nobody has ever taught note-taking at school…

  2. Wiktor K. says:

    Piotr, I feel your pain – when there’s so much information around, not teaching people how to make sense of it is a crime, almost.
    Check this out: “40 Ways To Take Notes Online” – should come in handy 🙂

  3. Gary says:

    So many awesome resources listed in this post. Awesome! I just spent the last 45 minutes following them through. It’s always annoyed me that students aren’t taught notetaking like any other subject in school. There are certainly different styles of notetaking that work best for math, different styles of notetaking that work best for languages, different styles of notetaking that work best for science. Why do we leave the student to make it up for themselves???

    I didn’t learn about structured note taking methods until post-college. Oh, the many wasted hours and many wasted pencils…