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New Language Learning Dilemma: To Note, or to Log?

The idea came to me after a boat show. It’s about captains, sailors, and independent foreign language learners. I hope it makes sense to you – as it begins to make sense to me – and I’m certainly looking forward to discussing it with you!

1. Known vs unknown: the need for record

There’s no need to note down things you know well. And there’s nothing to write down when you don’t know about it. In essence, a note is an expression of change: “now I know this.” We note things down to remember – and the things we choose to note are coming to us from the unknown, and become familiar.
A German learner will note down new vocabulary, articles, possibly preferred cases with certain phrases. Chinese study would involve tones, stroke order for characters, lots more phraseology than grammar.
A sailor may choose to make notes of current position, weather conditions, events on board and so on. Let’s discuss reasons for this further: these are important for language study and sailing alike.

2. Incidents vs trends: notes become logs

Imagine a notebook that lets you take notes at will – but only displays one or two past pages, without access to the previous notes. Crazy, right? A bit like in this film:

Leonard Shelby has problems with his memory. The life he leads – well, it’s interesting to watch, but probably hell to live. The reason for noting things down is to help our memory – and one of the most valuable things we can do with our memory and notes is to notice patterns, trends, habits.

Does my French homework always get graded this badly – or only when it’s about formal language?
Do all my Spanish online chats stress me out, or have there been any really good ones?
How often has this German business phrase appeared before?
Hey, I know that word means something in Portuguese as well…

3. In it for the long run: small notes and big picture

Right, so we know that making notes is a big deal. And you’re probably sold on the idea of doing this regularly enough for the trends, patterns and valuable insights to actually emerge.
The easy mistake to make now, though, is to automatically assume that everything we note now has to be momentous and important – that every entry in our learning journal will need to be extremely witty and valuable – and that we’re only going to write down Important Words that Enable Progress.
Here’s the thing: making notes and noticing are two different processes. You note down a list of Arabic verbs on a Monday – without much thought, just because you picked them up from an article. It’s only later, as they appear in a different context – in a set of flashcards, during your review – that you notice similarities with other verbs, and…voila – a connection is made.
Find a way to capture as much as you can. And don’t worry too much about the big picture when you do that. You will need to sort it out later – but when in note-taking mode, your job is to capture the “now I know” moment.

Errm…did that make sense to you? What is your note-taking philosophy? Should I stop writing after three strong lattes? Kindly advise, dear readers.


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