What did Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci and Mark Twain have in common?
Well, besides the hideous facial hair.
They all kept journals! They wrote regularly about their thoughts, plans and experiences.
And it’s safe to say they were all pretty smart, successful people.
Why not take after them?
In this post, we’ll walk you through the virtues of keeping a language journal. Why should you do it and what are its best practices?
Then we’ll give you six inspiring ideas for effective journaling every day, without writer’s block.
Why Should I Keep a Language Journal?
First of all, a language journal gives you a space to express your anxieties, thoughts and insights as you’re learning. The language learning path is never a straight one. It has hairpin curves, rough patches and humps from time to time. Writing is cathartic and your journal can become your emotional outlet during the ups and downs.
Deathly afraid of talking to native speakers? Well, why don’t you write about it? And when you know that the fear is there, maybe you can then do something positive about it.
Second, a journal is great for language review. Besides serving as a written record of your day and your musings (very much like a diary) a journal can also be topical in nature. A scientist can write about what happens in the lab. For example, Marie Curie’s journals are full of notes on her discoveries about radioactivity. (In fact, her notebooks are kept in lead-lined boxes because they’re highly radioactive. You need special suits and a waiver to peruse them!)
For our use, it need not be so dramatic. You’ll be doing language-related entries, writing about words and phrases you find interesting, grammar rules that defy explanation or cultural tidbits that push the limits on what you thought was normal. When you read the entries at a later date, they’ll serve as a great review for everything you’ve learned.
Third, the very act of writing itself serves as a memory-enhancing exercise. It gives you a closer relationship to the material and it’s an extra layer of processing that your brain goes through.
When Should I Write?
Should you write daily? Three times a week? Or only when the mood strikes you?
Ultimately, it’s a personal decision based on your goals and schedule. That said, there’s an argument for treating journal entries like fresh bread—made daily.
We just talked about the benefits of keeping a journal. Now, wouldn’t you want to enjoy those benefits on a daily basis, instead of just once or twice a week? Daily journaling lets you grapple with language concepts when they’re still fresh.
The danger of waiting for the writing bug to bite you is that it may never come. And once it comes, you may’ve already forgotten what you wanted to write about. Doing short daily entries gives you a more detailed record of your progress.
What did you learn today? Write about it! Even for just five minutes. Don’t worry if it seems insignificant. Seven seemingly insignificant entries a week will snowball quickly.
Daily journaling also builds positive study habits. If you’re writing five minutes everyday, you’re also telling yourself on some level, “Man, I need some study time!” Because what’ll you write about when you haven’t even cracked that German book in weeks?!
Tips for Effective Journaling
Don’t forget the title and the date.
You already know why it’s important to date your entries, right? If you don’t, you’ll never be able to piece together your language journey, especially if you decide not to write every day. Dates are important because they’re timestamps of your progress. They let you know the chronology and pace of your learning.
While you’re at it, why not include the exact time you started writing? When you read the entry later, the time will take you back to that moment. (It’ll make you feel warm and fuzzy inside.)
Many don’t bother with titles, but they actually make your entries more interesting. An entry titled: “Why I Hate the Spanish Word Con (With)” will clickbait you into re-reading your experience and re-learning along the way. Plus, titles really come in handy when you’re looking for a specific entry. They’re great time savers, so you should make your titles highly descriptive of the content for that day.
Silence the inner critic, the grammar fascist, the perfectionist who wants every word and every line to be perfect. Don’t get sidetracked with making the words fancy or thinking up a synonym for a common phrase. Get in there and write!
Writing fast, without regard for aesthetics, allows you to capture those thought bubbles before they burst and disappear. Know that there’s no judge, no penalty and no contest. Erasures are fine. Scribbling almost cryptic fonts can be forgiven.
Plus, a fast first draft gives you a great opportunity to self-correct afterwards and catch your bad habits.
If you want a clean copy of your work, you might want to start with a loose piece of paper to write the draft. Transfer it to your journal once you’ve made your corrections.
For those of you who decide to keep things digital in the first place, muddled scribblings might never be an issue. Check out LifeJournal and Day One for some online journaling options.
Read what you’ve written in the past.
As noted earlier, writing is just the first part of the process. You need to review your entries, and often! Each time you leaf through the pages, something new will jump out at you—a mistake you didn’t catch before, different words you’d use this time, or just a new way of looking at things—much like how watching “Titanic” gives you an ever growing admiration for Kate Winslet. (Ahem!)
Don’t wait for three months before you start re-reading what you’ve written. You might even write a reaction to what you’d written, say, a week ago.
Or, did you journal about a language question or point of confusion previously? Address it in a different entry now that you know better!
Write for two audiences: you and “future you.”
Writing a journal is like talking to yourself.
There’ll come a time when you re-read some of your entries and you won’t know what the heck you’re talking about. So you need to give your “future self” some context on the issue or topic you’re dealing with.
If the entry is about why you’re changing your French tutor, for example, then give some clear reasons why you’re doing so. Because “future you” will have forgotten just how frustrating it felt when he failed to show up on Skype.
If your entry is about a grammar question, try to state your question as explicitly as possible—not just a broad complaint like, “the past tense is so confusing!”
Spit the details.
Make your entries highly immersive. That means talking about what you see, hear, feel, taste and smell.
Let’s say you’re talking about the productive time you’ve had learning Italian while in line for coffee. Write how devastatingly cold it was while you waited in line, flipping through your FluentU flashcards. Then talk about how warm and toasty it felt once you finally got in and were greeted by the rich aroma of your favorite brew.
These lines don’t directly correlate with language learning, but they do punch up your entries. Better yet, write the whole entry in your target language to test your vocabulary and stretch your writing skills.
This one’s a biggie! A journal is a commitment.
I don’t want to scare you from starting one. Instead, I want to let you know that this is one of life’s activities that always gives back.
The time you put into maintaining a journal will always be worth the benefits you’ll get. The rewards come in the form of a better understanding of yourself, a better understanding of the target language and a better idea of what works for you as a language learner.
Let’s say two people decide to learn Mandarin. They’re both starting from scratch and both use the same learning material. But one decides to maintain a journal, while the other doesn’t. I’ll wager my final dollar and say that the former will have a faster, more rewarding language learning experience.
How to Keep a Language Journal: 6 Ideas for Endless Entries
Okay, you’re sold! You’re going to keep a language journal. Then comes the vital question: what’ll you write about?
1. Record milestones on your learning journey.
What topics have you learned so far? What areas of the language do you have difficulty with? Are there achievements that you should be celebrating with a cone of strawberry ice cream? Write about them no matter how trivial they might seem. They can serve as your entry for the day and encourage you to move forward.
In addition to updates of what’s happened, talk about the milestones you’re working towards. What are your language goals? So you want to tackle prepositions next? Why and how soon?
The simple act of recording these plans can prevent procrastination.
2. Play with new words.
The best way to remember new vocabulary is to use it. Here are some ideas to play with new words in your journal entries:
- Write a story or daily diary entry that naturally uses the word(s) you learned that day.
- Collect word families or words that are related to a certain topic—beverages, for example. For Spanish, you can easily create a chart or vocabulary list for words like cerveza (beer), botella (bottle) and jugo (juice).
- Research a single word or phrase that particularly interests you. Maybe it has a nice ring to it and you like how it’s pronounced. Make that one the topic of a whole entry. Research its etymology, usage, synonyms and the different contexts it’s used in.
3. Look for activities that’ll turn into journal entries.
Go to a local restaurant where they speak your target language and serve its cuisine. Go to a foreign language bookstore and pick something up. Have coffee with a native speaker. Then write about the experience.
In short, put yourself on the language learning train and watch as future entries present themselves to you.
There’s an added benefit here. Not only will this give you more to write about in your journal, but it’ll also get you immersed in your target language in your day-to-day life. You might already know that immersion (surrounding yourself with the written and spoken language) is one of the most effective and fastest ways to get fluent.
That’s what makes FluentU an especially useful tool here.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Just like your journal, it’s totally personalized—choose videos based on genre and learning level, and FluentU will also suggest new ones based on what you’ve watched.
Want to watch the full movie of that trailer FluentU showed you? Keep tripping up on the same word in different videos? It’s the perfect bite-sized, fun and immersive learning practice that you can journal about every day. Check out how it works for free with a FluentU trial.
4. Compare grammar rules to your native language.
Yes, even grammar can be an interesting topic for your journal.
You can compare the rules with those of your first language. How are they similar or different? Does your native language have an equivalent grammatical mechanism? Are there exceptions to the rules that surprise you?
For example, a Chinese learner might write about how plurals are expressed very differently than they are in English. Or a Romance language learner might simply complain for a page and a half about all the grammatical genders that need to be memorized for every noun.
While standard grammar rules are definitely useful, this act of comparison makes the grammar seem more relevant, more immediate. It’s just a different way of doing things that you’ll master before too long.
5. Write about your thoughts and feelings.
What did you think about your new language partner? Did you feel a connection between you two? Or how about that new textbook you bought online—was it everything you thought it would be? Think about the movie you just watched in your target language. Did you like how it ended?
Write about your feelings and you’ll quickly find out, after a sentence or two, that you only have a cursory knowledge of what you’re actually thinking and feeling. Yeah, you know you don’t like the book you bought… but then ask “why?”
Maybe you’ll realize that you don’t like the book because the vocabulary isn’t relevant to your life. Write down that insight! You’re now in a better position to pick materials that actually bring you closer to your goals.
As you get more and more advanced, try to write these entries at least partially in your target language. Don’t be afraid to stop and look up the new words you need to express your full thoughts.
6. Write about cultural customs.
How many cheek kisses are appropriate when greeting friends in Barcelona? What are the mechanics of bowing in Korea? What gestures should I never make in Italy?
Studying language is tied to learning about culture. So what elements of the target culture surprise you? Do you agree with them? Do you think they’re possible to adopt in your everyday life?
No matter the language you’re studying, its associated culture(s) will have some interesting nuggets that are worthy of a journal entry.
Writing about these things will help you widen your cultural horizon and melt your biases, making you more appreciative of others. And if that’s the only benefit you get while maintaining a journal, it’ll still be worth it. But you already know there’s more to it than that.
Just knowing there’s a wonderful culture and an awesome group of native speakers behind the language gives you more motivation to work towards fluency.
So go right ahead, start keeping a journal today! Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Mark Twain and Marie Curie did it to their profound benefit. So should you!
Journaling is your partner in language learning. The time and effort you put into it will be richly rewarded. You have to trust the greats on this one.