If you’ve studied abroad or are currently studying abroad then you’ll know that it takes a bit of work to get used to taking notes in a foreign language (or foreign to you, at least!). Certainly, it took me a little while to get used to all of my lessons and all of my notes being in French. In fact, if I’m honest, I still use a lot of English in my notes, but I do try to make sure that the majority are in French as this will help me more in the long run.
So, to help out anyone who is currently or will soon be studying in a language that isn’t their native language, I’ve decided to compile a little guide into how I take notes in French, but I think this can be applied to any language. I also think that this could work if you’re studying in one language but want to get some extra practice in another language, but you’d have to translate your lectures or source materials which could be a lot of work. Too much work for me at least.
Part one of the guide focused on taking notes during your lessons, and I mentioned that it’s a good idea to go over what you’ve learnt afterwards and fill in any blanks if you didn’t understand something during the lesson. So part two will be focusing on making more notes based on the notes you already made during the lesson!
Of course, as a little disclaimer, it’s worth noting that not all studying or note-taking methods work for everyone or for every subject, so naturally you will find yourself adjusting this guide so that it suits you. Don’t worry, I won’t be offended and am open to hearing more bilingual (or nearly-bilingual) study methods.
Step 1. Think About The Type of Notes you need
So, the first thing that you are going to want to do before diving in and writing (or typing) out some notes, is have a think about what sort of notes you need. Consider the following:
Will you be using your notes to remember facts or dates? Or will you be using them to remember how to perform a more practical task? Or something else?
How much of your note taking do you want to be in the language you are learning (your “target language”) and how much in your native language? Does that amount seem achievable for your level of knowledge of you target language, or will it just confuse you more when you go over your notes later?
What language were you taught this information in? What language will you have to use in your exams and assessments?
How do you usually take notes? Do you want to be more thorough when using your target language so you definitely get all the information you need, or do you want to be more simplistic so that you understand everything?
As an example, for this blog post, I made notes on one of my French linguistics modules. This is probably more of a recall-based topic, so I have focused on getting in a lot of information down on the page. I also like to make super-detailed notes that don’t differ much from what was taught in lesson, which I know doesn’t work for everyone. This module is taught in French and all of the assessments will be in French, so I figured I’d go all in on the French-ness of my notes and only use English for clarification on difficult parts.
Step 2. Go over any Notes/handouts/Presentation Slides from the lesson
If you have access, make sure to have a little read of any materials from the lesson before starting to take notes. This could be any handouts you received, which I would recommend highlighting, or some PowerPoint slides, which I would recommend having a quick read through.
Have a quick read oc through any materials you have access to, including your own notes and make sure you understand them. If there’s any areas that you don’t feel you understand, especially if your lesson was in your target language and not your native language, make sure to write them down and consider looking up more information about them, first in your target language but if you’re still struggling, try your native language.
This is also a good point to go over some unfamiliar vocabulary if there was any in your lesson. If you’re a more dedicated language student than me, you might have a notebook or document/spreadsheet where you note these new words down.
Step 3. Write your notes
I mentioned using a loose version of the Cornell Method for taking notes during a lesson. You might want to stick to this but just make it a bit neater, but I personally just prefer to write everything down as if I was writing some sort of personalised study guide. If you want to go crazy with fancy titles and cute doodles that help you remember then this is the time to go for it.
Basically, get everything you could possibly need down, in a clear and easy to read and understand format. Oh, and stick to writing everything in your target language.
When you get to the things you didn’t understand, spend some more time looking them up if necessary, in whatever language you need to fully develop your understanding. But make sure to switch back to writing it down in your target language.
Step 4. Read through your new notes
Once you’ve gotten everything down, take a bit of time to read over it. If you want to highlight important bits or add any extra information, do that in this step.
I personally highlight key information at this point. I also take some time to correct any mistakes I have made, such as grammar and spelling. Obviously I try to avoid mistakes while writing, but sometimes one or two slip through. Plus going over your own writing in your target language and checking for mistakes is always good practice.
Step 5. Add additional information in your native language
This step can be skipped if you’re confident in your language skills, but quite frankly, I am not. So this is where I like to switch back to English.
However, I’d recommend keeping your notebook completely free of your native language and opt for adding this information on sticky notes instead.
The first thing I do is write down any key vocabulary. If necessary I’ll add a definition, or I’ll just write the English equivalent because I’m lazy. Notice I said key vocab and not new vocab, that will come next. Even if I’m pretty sure I already know it, I like to add any of the terminology that will probably only every come up in the module. For me this might be things as simple as “un adjectif = an adjective” (make sure to add info about the word’s gender if necessary to your target language), because I recently sat in an exam and completely blanked on some of these terms, even though they’re practically the same as English. I’ll also add any more complex linguistic terminology.
Next you’re going to want to add a sticky note of all your new vocabulary. If you’ve written it down elsewhere you can consider skipping this step, but I find the sticky note more useful as I may forget the word by the time it comes to the revision period, and it’s much easier to refer to the sticky note on the page. If you’ve got some words that fit in both Key Vocab and New Vocab, it’s up to you to decide if you want it on both sticky notes, or just one.
You could also use some more sticky notes to write out explanations in your native language of anything you found hard to understand at first. Or anything that you think you might be likely to forget. This bit is completely up to you, but I find that there are some bits that I’d also like to have written down in English, with the option to remove them later, when I feel confident in my understanding.
When you’re all done with the sticky notes, that’s pretty much it for now, notes complete in your target language!
Later on you might fancy making a mind map or some flash cards, with a little less information on them.
And of course, as I mentioned this is the method that works for me, but it might not work for everyone. I definitely find the main thing is sticking to using your target language for all of the content, but adding in extra explanations in your native language if necessary, but the notes themselves can look however you want them to!