The Value—and Downside—of Vocabulary Notebooks

Written by guest contributor Olly Richards

How many old vocabulary notebooks do you have lying around the house? And how many of the words that you’ve written inside those notebooks have you ever managed to learn?

For me, the answers are: 1) a lot, and 2) 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?

Are vocabulary notebooks worthwhile?

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 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 notebook. For me, it’s the process of writing down what I’ve just heard that’s beneficial—not the fact that I have it written and recorded. When you write something down, you have to put some degree of thought into what you’ve just heard. We remember better when we write things down. By hearing a new word and writing it down, you’ve primed your brain to learn that word at some point in the future.

But, vocabulary notebooks aren’t the perfect solution. 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 really learn from vocabulary notebooks

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 notebook, 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! So you need to be smart.

When I was looking back through some old notebooks recently, I realised that of all the words and phrases I’d taken the trouble to learn, I hardly ever used most of them in conversation. However, there was a small number of words that I realised were 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 vocabulary notebook. Quite the opposite.

Of course, while it would be nice to learn everything, the smart thing to do is to identify the small number of words that you think you have 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 80/20 rule—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 choose which vocabulary to learn

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.

High-value vocabulary words tend to be:

  • Common verbs (ex: to choose, to explain)
  • Common adjectives (ex: interesting, busy)
  • Adverbs that help you express yourself (ex: regularly, unfortunately)
  • Discourse markers (ex: right, OK)
  • Anything directly related to your life or work that you need to explain often

If you’re unsure, the best thing is 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 learn it! Personally, I use spaced repetition flashcards, but you may have another preferred method. The point is, with most of your vocabulary eliminated and only a small amount left to learn, the task no longer seems daunting, and is infinitely more manageable. Even if you hate studying, it’s much easier to study when you know that there isn’t much to learn. And because the vocabulary you have chosen to learn is massively valuable, you will have 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.

But you should keep the following points in mind:

  • None of it is “lost”—it’s still in your notebook and you can go back to it any time
  • You’ll almost certainly never learn everything in your vocabulary notebook
  • 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"—that people prefer to avoid potential losses more than they wish to gain something favourable

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 looking for ways to improve my ability to speak and communicate in my target language in the shortest amount of time!



About the author:

Olly Richards is from the UK, and speaks 8 languages. He is the founder of the popular website I Will Teach You A Language, a best-selling author, and runs language workshops around the world.

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