Diaries—we’ve all kept one at some point.
Maybe yours was a record of those teenage flings, your worldwide travel or just some things to remember in your daily life.
But did you know keeping a diary can help you learn a language?
It can help you track your progress, motivate yourself, be smarter about your learning and more.
A language learning diary can be your closest companion as you pick your way through a foreign tongue.
Sounds great! But how exactly does it work?
What Is a Language Learning Diary?
In its most basic form, a language learning diary is where you keep a record of what you’ve learned and what you’re learning on your journey to fluency.
Here’s what a language learning diary can include:
- Regular updates. Part of the whole point of a diary is that it has entries at frequent intervals. The word “diary” comes from the Latin for “day,” but even if you keep it every week or after each class, the important thing is that you know when you need to make an entry!
- Your target language. This might sound obvious, but it’s a consideration to take seriously. If you’re an advanced learner, you’ll probably be aiming to put at least some of your entries in the target language to help you practice and get into the habit of organizing your thoughts in your new tongue. However, if you’re just starting out then it might be a little different.
You may decide to challenge yourself to avoid your native language entirely, in which case it’s a good idea to have a speaker of your target language check over it from time to time; you may also like to try some translations or notes on what you were thinking in your native tongue. There are a lot of approaches—try a few different things and see what works for you!
- Language points you’ve learned. Of course, you may have other exercise books or places you’re writing down vocab and grammar, but here’s an opportunity to help things stick in your memory. What was your favorite recent word you learned? Which grammar point are you finding particularly difficult to get your head around? A diary should be personal, not just lists of language or language exercises.
- How you’ve practiced. Think of this like a regular diary, where you would record the things you’ve done or thought about during the day. Did you ask for your cappuccino in Italian? Write it down! Learned a new Japanese song? Where did you hear it? All these points give a diary color, making it an excellent memory tool and a wonderful record of your language journey.
Every language learning diary is personal and you need to make it your own, but these are the nuts and bolts of it.
What Can a Language Learning Diary Do for You?
So, why bother? You already have to do writing and reading practice, communicating with pen pals, learning vocabulary… Why should you have yet another book?
Well, it’s up to you, of course, but there are huge benefits in dedicating the time to a diary, whether you’re learning in classes or independently.
Benefits for guided study
Attending that French class every week? Here’s how a diary can help you:
- Most obviously, it helps you to keep track of materials studied—both in and out of class. Sure, you have a syllabus, but we often tend to remember far more of what we write than what we read or hear, so a diary will make it easier for you to remember everything you need to about that subjunctive.
- It’s a perfect study and memorization tool—written by you! When it’s time for that test, you can go over what you’ve written. More than just an exercise book, this is your living, breathing narrative of learning a language, and it helps you dive right back into the moment of study.
- It helps with a different kind of practice. If you’re making notes of the things you’re finding most difficult, you can scribble spellings or little sentences in the margins. This is much freer practice than doing an exercise, and you may find it just as helpful, if not more so.
- If you move to a new class or take another class in the future, you can show your teacher your diary and it will help place you at the right level—and give you confidence that you can meet it! You may also have the option of sharing your diary with a teacher or tutor just to give them a better idea of where you’re at with the language and what you may be struggling with.
Benefits for independent study
But what if you’re learning by yourself? That diary is still a great tool for these reasons:
- It improves study discipline. Hands up—I am the worst procrastinator I know. Even with something I love, like learning a language, I will find reasons to put it off! But getting into the habit of keeping a diary is super helpful. If you commit to writing in it once a week, that blank page will keep you up at night… This helps you stay regular in your learning and make progress towards your goals.
- It can help structure your learning, which can be difficult when you’re learning on your own. Keeping a diary gives the feel of a class without having to be in one. You can take a look at what you’ve learned with a date for each item, so you can feel like you’re making progress.
- It helps you to identify areas you might be neglecting, and ones in which you’re particularly strong. If you read back over the past few weeks and you haven’t been doing your past tense conjugations, that can be your area of focus for next week. Meanwhile, if you notice you’re building a really strong vocabulary base around sports, it’s time to go and chat about soccer with your nearest native speaker!
For independent learners, a diary is a great supplemental tool, especially when combined with a study app like FluentU.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Keeping a Language Learning Diary: 5 Tips for Success
Hopefully I’ve sold you on the benefits of keeping a language learning diary. But how do you do it? Here are my top 5 tips.
Tip 1: Make it easy to keep
If you don’t obey this tip, the rest don’t matter. The most important thing about your language learning diary is discipline, and to get that discipline, it needs to be easy for you to make it a part of your routine. This means it has to be both convenient and enjoyable!
Some of this comes down to the format you use:
- Some people get a beautiful notebook that they can decorate, doodle in and carry around in their bags at all times.
- However, if you might find it difficult to do that, just use the memo function on your smartphone.
- You could also use a cloud-based tool (this blogger demonstrates how you can use Penzu to keep any kind of learning diary) so you can access your diary from any device at any time.
- Some people choose to keep their diary as a blog in order to share their progress with others (more on this later).
Another nice way to make it fun is to take the opportunity to play with the language. You’re not being graded on this! For example, maybe you want to remember some similar sounding words in Spanish, so you write…
El papa empapa las papas de papá. (The Pope soaks dad’s potatoes.)
It’s silly, but you’ll remember it—and perhaps laugh when you read it back.
Tip 2: Make it multimedia!
Another excellent way of making your diary more interesting for yourself is to mix up the media you’re using.
This could be as simple as newspaper or magazine clippings stuck onto pages of your notebook. However, you can think bigger—gone are the days when diaries need only be a written record of your exploits!
Not only do modern phones have notes functions, but most will allow you to record audio and save video, too. If you have a FluentU account and your diary is digital, you can link to the videos you’re learning with. Practice your speaking and listening, and leave little notes for your future self.
I’m also a huge advocate of using music as a tool to learn language. Rhythm and rhyme are some of your best friends. Make notes of the songs you listen to in your target language so you can go back to them later—and hopefully understand them even better.
Tip 3: Write your goals
A diary doesn’t only need to be backward-looking. Use it to record your ambitions, too. For example, my ambition in Italian is to be able to sit at a dinner table with my girlfriend’s friends and family and have them not have to speak a single word in English—and that’s noted in my diary so I can hold myself to it! This means I can check in on how well I feel I’m progressing and tailor my learning accordingly.
For instance, a few weeks ago I recorded in my diary that I had been able to be more confident listening to a conversation where I knew what the topic was and answering basic questions, in this case one about Italian politics. I then noted that my goal the next time I met with friends was to ask their opinion on politics—and understand the answers!
Tip 4: Involve other people
Obviously a diary is personal… but you’re not writing about your high school crush here. (Well, maybe you are, but at least you’re doing it in Arabic!) Getting other people involved can help you discipline yourself as you have someone else to hold you accountable, as well as improve your learning.
Challenge someone else who’s learning a language to keep a diary, too, so you can meet up and compare your progress.
If you’re keeping your language learning diary as a blog, like this one, allow and encourage others to comment on your entries and share their experiences.
If you’re taking classes, you could get your teacher to cast an eye over your diary. However you do it, sharing is caring!
Tip 5: Read back over what you’ve written, regularly
Of course, the act of writing things down will itself be helpful to you, but only a fraction as helpful as if you read over it later.
Make time every month to read back over what you’ve written. This can sometimes just be the last few weeks. But it’s also worth occasionally going right back to the very beginning and reminding yourself of some long-forgotten language points.
Rereading the highlights of your journey will help language stick in your mind better. It will also allow you to revel in your progress—what a motivator!
So there you have it.
What are you waiting for?
Write your first entry today!