Is your vocabulary notebook out of control?

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 was 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 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’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 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 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 vocabulary notebook.

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 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.

High-value vocabulary tends to be:

  • 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 spaced repetition flashcards, 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.

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

Are you looking for ways to memorise more vocabulary? Here’s something you’ll love… 

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  • I know this article is mainly about flashcards, but I’d like to share my opinion anyway. First you have to have a strong will. Make a habit of learning. Either using flashcards or any other way. Second, find a good dictionary that will tell you how to use that word. might do the trick for beginners (great for understanding the words, not so great in number of entries). Third, use any suitable flash cards app – whichever suit you (I heard also Quizlet’s ok, but I never tried it). Fourt, repeat 🙂

    • Right on the money, Jakub! I think your first point is the big one… without the strong will and intent you don’t get anywhere! Thanks for the comment.

  • I sooo needed this post. I’m about the finish filling up one of my notebooks and was debating whether or not to transfer the useful stuff into a new notebook or not. Now I have an even better plan. Thanks Olly!

    • Give it a try and let me know! 🙂

    • Hi Shannon! For me, moving words from one notebook to another, wasn’t worth the work. Good luck!

      • Yeah… it’s kind of just “processing” the information one more time. I mean, it’s useful, but it’s not the same as actively trying to learn the stuff.

  • This is great advice, Olly. I have been thinking a lot about it since I read and listened to this:

    Identifying the words we will probably use and focus on them is something we should do more, specially if we want to get faster to an operative level.

    Having said that, I have to say that working with a notebook where I put any word that I found interesting, even if they were not so important, has helped me a lot with vocabulary learning in the past (I used to review my vocabulary notebook in the underground, but I ride my bicycle everywhere now).

    I would have just a list of words and review it as much as I could. This may not be as smart as using a spaced repetition flashcards system: when the list was still short, I got to review all the words, but as it grew, I had to review it in chunks until I finished the list and thus the time between repetitions was too long, or I randomly reviewed only parts of it, and stumbled into the same words many times, and wouldn’t practice some of them enough.

    But the words being always in the same place, with the same words above and bellow, and some of them being rare words, made me remember the context where I found them: the book I was reading, the class I was attending, the poster I saw at that station, the language partner I was practicing with… and this created some emotional connections to the words that helped me memorize them better. I find this compensated the fact of having too many words in the list.

    • So kind of like grouping words by topic or theme? That’s always a good idea.

      • No, I didn’t group the words in my notebooks; just wrote them in the order I found them. They were only related in that I had found them in the same context, and they reminded me of that context. But I do group them in the vocabulary lists I keep in my computer.

  • Great post, Olly. I remember when I first started learning French and was obsessing about how to learn as much vocabulary as possible before I went to France for my Erasmus year. I was surprised when I finally got there that people thought some of the words I was using were ‘impressive’ – meaning not the usual kind of words French people would use to communicate. Maybe I went a bit over the top but then I did go there to study translation and linguistics 😉

    • The dangers of studying from books, rather than from people! 🙂

  • Pavel Saman

    I think even though you don’t go back to your vocab notebook, some of those words stick in your brain, without you even knowing how. And those words are from some reason important because your brain simply remember them.

    Sometimes, I also write a story from words in my vocab notebook. It seems to be more powerful than SRS apps, however, I do both, SRS requires less time, which is the biggest advantage.

    • Hi Pavel. Yes, I find that that happens too… just seeing a word kind of “primes” it in your brain so that next time to meet it, it won’t be the first time!

  • Basten Huisman

    Thank you so much for this tip. Before I read this post, I didn’t even know that there excist vocabularynotebooks. After I read this tip I immediately started using your advice. Again: thank you so much!

  • What i do to gather useful vocabulary and not fill notebooks with words and words is grabbing a novel in the language i’m studying and jotting down the words that i don’t know. i make sure the book is somewhat average, as far as topic is concerned, say a drama or some mystery one, nothing too technical, say sf. even a history book will perfectly do. after compiling these new words i put them on memrise and study from there. as i go along the book these first works will repeat themselves eventually so, while i’m learning new words and getting to read a novel, double gain.

  • Nicky crane

    I keep a vocab book with me, specially at meal times when in the country, and write down everymword I need to ask for. If I need it once I shall need it again. Every evening I choose the 3-5 words or expressions I most want to,learn and practise them at every opportunity next day. Learning Kurmancî from a distance I try to pick 5 words or phrases a day. Thank you, Olly, for reminding me that I don’t need to try to learn everything!