Do you have an old vocabulary notebook lying around the house? Maybe you have more than one.
And how many of the words that you've written inside those language notebooks have you ever managed to learn?
For me the answers are:
- A lot, and…
- Not very many (Unfortunately, in that order.)
So was all that frantic scribbling worthwhile?
Or should I not have bothered with it at all?
Is a vocabulary notebook worth keeping?
Well, I think the answer is clearly Yes.
But perhaps not for the reasons you think.
When you're writing words and phrases in your foreign language notebook, you're probably thinking to yourself: “This is gold! I'll come back and learn this later!”
But given that you hardly ever do, that cannot be the actual benefit of keeping a word notebook.
(This is why the 10 Rules of StoryLearning are so crucial to follow!)
For me, it's the process of writing down what I've just heard that's beneficial – not the fact that I've got it written and recorded.
When you write something down, you have to put some degree of thought into what you've just heard.
By hearing a new word and writing it down, you've “primed” your brain to learn that word at some point in the future.
Now, I don't know about you, but I pretty much know that if I write something down in my notebook, I won't ever learn it.
I probably won't even go back and look at it.
I'm just not that kind of learner.
Basically, although you may feel like you're being a good student by diligently writing down everything from your lesson in your vocabulary notebook… that is not the same things as learning it.
The reality is that you haven't even started yet.
How to get it learnt
The challenge for you as a language learner is to have a reliable system you can use to filter through everything you write down in a vocabulary journal, and then know what you can do to actually learn it.
But, the basic problem with a vocabulary notebook is that you end up with far too much stuff in it! Even the best notebooks for language learning end up disorganised and hard to manage.
That's one of the reasons my StoryLearning courses (find a free trial here) are based on stories… you get natural repetition from the stories, instead of having to write everything down in a language notebook.
When I was looking back through an old language learning notebook recently, I realised that of all the words and phrases I'd taken the trouble of learning, I hardly ever used most of them in conversation.
However, there was a small number of words that I realised had become insanely useful for me and that I use all the time!
As a busy person, trying to learn a new language, there was an important lesson in this, and it follows the 80/20 rule.
You don't need to learn all the words in your notebooks for language learning.
Quite the opposite.
While it would of course be nice to learn everything, the smart thing to do is to identify the small number of words in amongst everything else that you think you've got a realistic chance of actually wanting to use in conversation.
And then spend all your time and energy learning them!
It's a classic application of the Pareto principle – a small number of things will give you the majority of your gains.
You might learn less vocabulary overall, but what you do learn will be extremely useful, and will have the biggest impact on your ability to speak your target language.
How to organise a foreign language notebook
How do you choose which vocabulary to learn? This gets easier the more you do it.
You want to choose vocabulary that is “generative”. In other words, choose words that help you express yourself better and that you can use in a variety of situations.
Here are some language notebook ideas for high-value vocabulary:
- Common verbs (to choose, to explain)
- Common adjectives (interesting, busy)
- Adverbs that help you express yourself (regularly, unfortunately)
- Discourse markers (Right, OK)
- Anything directly related to your life or work that you need to explain often
If you're unsure, the best thing it simply to think to yourself: “Is this a word that I find myself wanting to say regularly in my conversations?”
Once you've chosen what to learn, you can simply use your method of choice to go away and learn it!
Personally, I use the StoryLearning method, but you may have another.
The point is, with most of your vocabulary eliminated and only a small amount left to learn, the task doesn't seem half as daunting any more, and is infinitely more manageable.
Even if you hate studying, it's much easier to do it when you know that there isn't much to do.
And the fact that the vocabulary you have chosen to learn is massively valuable, should provide that motivational boost you need to get off the sofa and do the work! 🙂
But what about the rest of the words?
The biggest objection to this approach is always the fact that you're discarding a lot of potential learning material in your notebook for language learning.
I would simply point out this…
- None of it is “lost” – it's still in your notebook and you can go back to it any time
- Remember that you'll almost certainly never learn everything in your vocabulary notebook… even if you try
- You need to prioritise learning that small amount of vocabulary that you've identified as being super-useful… whether you learn the rest of the stuff or not
- It's smarter to focus on what you can gain than what you might lose
- Make sure you understand the principle of Loss Aversion
Whether you agree with this approach or not, the important thing is to be aware of the way you do things, and look for ways to do it better.
For me, it's all about using the least energy to learn the most language possible!