Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

How I used a notebook to learn more Chinese, and why you should too

The humble notebook is a powerful tool for learners of Chinese. Whether an exquisite leather-bound journal or a digital text file, a notebook offers more than a space to record information about vocabulary or grammar. Recognising the value of note-taking is one thing; understanding how to use this tool effectively is another!

In this article, I want to share my experience using a notebook for learning Chinese. I used to not rarely take notes, but I’m now fully convinced that actively writing things down has serious benefits both for learning languages and leading a life without stress. Most of the experiences this article is built on are from when I studied Chinese full-time, but the insights have been updated based on everything I’ve learnt since.

Both digital and analogue notebooks work well for learning Chinese

In the following discussion, I will use the word “notebook”, but as mentioned in the introduction, it doesn’t matter if it’s digital or analogue. Naturally, both have pros and cons, such as digital notes being easier to search, backup and transfer, or pen and paper being simpler, more deliberate and perceived as less intrusive in real-world interactions.

To each his own; most of the things I will discuss in this article are relevant in both cases. I normally rely on digital notes in front of a computer, but I still prefer taking notes on paper when interacting with other people.

The discussion about digital or analogue is similar to the one for language logging, something I wrote more about here. Indeed, there’s an overlap between taking notes and language logging, so you might want to check out the whole series, starting with this article: Chinese language logging, part 1: Why and how to track your progress.

Chinese language logging, part 1: Why and how to track your progress

Keeping a notebook increases learning opportunities and declutters the mind

There are several reasons why you should keep a notebook for learning Chinese:

  • You won’t forget to learn cool/interesting/important words – When I encounter a word I should know or an expression I want to learn, I write it down in my notebook. It’s not enough to encounter it once. Writing it down makes it accessible later and opens up more engagement. If you read and listen to vast amounts of Chinese, you can learn most words by osmosis, but few students read and listen nearly enough to achieve that. Check my article about extensive reading and listening for more details.
  • You don’t risk losing important insights – Insights into language learning or language usage seldom come when sitting in front of a computer, especially not if you live in an immersion environment. Rather, insights tend to pop up randomly, often when it’s inconvenient or inappropriate to focus on them too much by asking questions or directly discussing them.  When studying full-time, I typically had dozens of new ideas for each lecture, lesson, or seminar I attended, but wasn’t the right time and place to bring up all of them immediately. I wrote most things down for later.
  • You never miss an opportunity to ask questions – If you keep a notebook with you at all times, you will never miss an opportunity to ask questions. Before I started using a notebook, or when I forgot to bring one, I often encountered situations where I had the opportunity to ask a teacher or a friend a few questions, but I couldn’t up with any. You might think that you’ll recall all your questions about a text the next time you see your tutor, but in my experience, this is rarely the case.
  • You free your mind to do other things – Having a lot of unnecessary things to remember burdens the mind and might make you feel stressed. Keeping a notebook is an excellent way of relieving our minds and thus freeing us to accomplish other things, such as learning Chinese. While we’re talking about language learning in this article, decluttering your mind by using proper note-taking is a great idea for a more relaxed life in general.

Now that we have a general idea of why keeping a notebook with you is useful, let’s look at the practical details.

What should you record and how should you record it?

I realise that we’re all different and that my system might not work for you, but I thought that providing a concrete example of how I used to take notes when I studied full time would be helpful. Feel free to ignore the specifics here or modify what I do:

  • Use basic tags – Make it easier to find things later by using a simple category system. With digital notes, this is trivial, but it can be done in a paper notebook too. For instance, I write “+” in front of new words I might want to add to my flashcard app later, “?” in front of things I need to discuss with someone, “HC” in front of ideas related to Hacking Chinese, “R” before references (books or articles) I know I might want to look up later. And so on. The details aren’t important, but the principle is.
  • Record anything that sticks out – As discussed above, there are many reasons why you want to record words, patterns and ideas. In short, anything that sticks out in the flow of the Chinese I’m exposed to gets written down. Did a native speaker use a word in a way I thought was wrong? Write it down. Did someone express something I often want to say very neatly? That goes into the notebook too. The idea here is to highlight things that don’t match my current metal model of how Chinese works, in the hope that I will gradually be able to update them to be more accurate. I jot down most things that suggest that a change in my mental model of Chinese is necessary, especially if I think that I might have been wrong about something and need to verify this.
  • Provide context and/or explanations – When I first started using a notebook to learn Chinese, I often made the mistake of not giving enough context or explanation of why I wrote something down. Perhaps I felt that I would surely remember the reason I thought a question was interesting or the context a word appeared in, but that was seldom the case. When I went through the list of things I’d written during the week, many notes seemed interesting, but that I had no idea what they meant. So, provide context or explanations.

Note-taking as a staging area for further learning

An often overlooked benefit of taking notes is that your notebook serves as an intermediary step, a staging area, where you can decide what to do with each note. For example, hen reading, it’s easy to think that all words are important and want to bulk add them to your favourite flashcard program. This is never a good idea, though, and anyone who has tried will have experienced what it’s like to drown in flashcards, something I wrote more about here: Overcoming the problem of having too many Chinese words to learn

Overcoming the problem of having too many Chinese words to learn

One solution is to write words down, with a keyboard or pencil, then go through your notes once or twice per week. In hindsight, are these words important enough to learn right now? You can’t learn all words at once, so choosing to learn one word essentially means that you will not learn another word. Vocabulary items that seemed very important when you read that specific text might have seemed crucial to learn then, but when you go through your list a few days later, you should be able to discard at least some of them.

Managing your Chinese notebook

Taking notes can be useful in and of itself, even if you don’t do anything with the notes later, or maybe do not even look at them. Still, many of the benefits only apply if you actively manage your notes, such as by pruning vocabulary you don’t think you need and adding the rest to your flashcard program.

Typically, I went through my notebook once a week, usually during the weekend. This is what I did:

  1. Cross out any note that no longer seems relevant. I mentioned this for vocabulary already, but it can be applied to anything. In hindsight, most of the things you write down will seem less important than when you wrote them down. That’s natural, but it’s almost certainly the later evaluation that is the most accurate, so cross out anything that no longer seems important enough to deal with. You also have limited time and the fastest way to deal with an issue is to ignore it.
  2. Solve problems that can be solved without help. Most questions can be dealt with using a search engine or an online dictionary. If I couldn’t solve the problems myself, the next step was to consider how important the question was, and if important, find help online or elsewhere. I discussed how to find answers to questions and resolve issues in two articles: Chinese language question triage: When to ask whom about what and 5 websites to help answer your questions about Chinese.
  3. Mark remaining notes with colours indicating when they can be solved. For example, yellow might mean “ask teacher 张三 (who is great at explaining grammar)”, green might mean “discuss with native speaker friend 李四”, blue might mean “consult advanced second language learner 王五”. This means that the next time I meet 张三, 李四 or 王五, I can easily see which questions I want to ask or what interesting topics I want to discuss. Also, these questions are out of the way and won’t bother me until I have a chance to actually resolve them. This is particularly helpful if you have limited access to a professional teacher to make sure you make the most out of the time you have with them.
  4. Sort ideas, insights and other notes. Most of the things I write down aren’t questions as such. These notes should be transferred to the appropriate place. I keep a fairly complex system of notes for Hacking Chinese using Notion.so, a much simpler one for teaching and learning Chinese in general and just a text file for the rest. Consider if the idea is worth saving, and if it is, store it where you can find it later.

Naturally, if your life is highly digitised already, taking digital notes will make it easier to do all of the above, but don’t forget that having to write down a word or phrase more than once can be beneficial in itself; saving time is only good if you use the time saved for something worthwhile!

5 websites to help answer your questions about Chinese

Conclusion: Do you take notes when learning Chinese? Why? Why not?

I think keeping a notebook is essential. It increases productivity, makes sure you don’t forget important things and just makes life easier in general. I didn’t notice how much I forgot before I started writing everything down. When it comes to Hacking Chinese, I went from having to search for good topics to write about to have a list that keeps getting longer every week, not shorter.

Using a notebook also helped me follow up on and resolve language-related issues and conundrums. I used to be frustrated by noticing the same strange language pattern for the third time and always forgetting to look it up.

As I said in the introduction, the purpose of this article was to share my experience using a notebook when I studied Chinese full-time, but I’m sure they can be used no matter how much you study. Finally, a few questions for you as a reader:

  • Are you using a notebook for learning Chinese?
  • Do you take digital or analogue notes? Maybe both?
  • What kind of notes do you take?
  • What tips and tricks do you have to share with other learners?

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  1. Sara K. says:

    Well, I don’t use a ‘notebook system’ that is anywhere as close to as organized as what you present here.

    My ‘notebook’ is … whatever book (usually a novel or comic book) I’m currently reading in Chinese. I also sometimes use travel books this way (many travel books have blank pages in the back for notes). If the notes are relevant to the reading material, they get posted on the relevant page (so they are right next to the context). If the notes are unrelated to the novel/comic, I put them on the page with the publishing information (which usually has some white space).

    Sometimes I also carry pieces of scratch paper in the books I’m carrying, which also often get filled with notes (though these notes are usually not about Chinese).

    I don’t have a tablet or smartphone, and when I’m out of home I try to keep my weight down, so I don’t want to carry around a paper notebook separate. However, since I always carry with me something to read (for train rides, for long lines, etc), it can serve the double-purpose of being my notebook.

    Whenever the notes I make are of any value, I always transfer to my computer or other place where I can refer to them later, and then I never need to see the original notes again.

    1. Libby says:

      question: i’m trying to find fiction novels to read and was wondering which ones you have read over the years 🙂

  2. Larry Lynch says:

    I bought several books in the Chinese Breeze series of graded vocabulary novels. My system was to photocopy/enlarge each page, then write vocabulary (characters, Pinyin, & English translation)in the margins as I learned new characters. Then I compiled a separate word list in columns on a folded blank sheet of paper to refer to when reading other passages in Chinese. Lately I’ve been copying these lists alphabetically into my iPad/iPhone (Notes application) using the built-in diacritics in the iOS. I activated a couple of Chinese keyboards so that I can easily insert the characters as well as the Pinyin. Now I have my own personal Chinese/English and English/Chinese glossaries.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I might be missing something here, but wouldn’t it be hugely more effective to save at least important words in any kind of space repetition program? I also have my own dictionary (basically), but I also get the reviewing feature automatically. This is in a sense a way of taking notes, although the critical part is how to get the words (and which words to get) from the book to whatever program you’re using. For instance, I find it way too distracting to stop reading to record words, I just make a minimal pencil mark in the book and go through it later.

      1. Larry Lynch says:

        Olle, I use PlecoDict for my spaced repetition and have a ton of self-selected words in there. What I have created is a personal dictionary in both directions of words I need most often. I look things up in these glossaries, which isn’t what I use spaced repetition software for. I find it actually saves time to write down the word the first time I encounter it, then I can look back the next time if I’ve forgotten it. I don’t try to enter it into my iPad/iPhone until later. The good thing is that these “dictionaries” are always with me and I can scroll through the Notes file very quickly to find the word from either English or Chinese, and it has both the pinyin and the characters. I can also enter phrases as well as single words, which is trickier in a spaced repetition program like PlecoDict, where you are essentially marking a word in it’s built-in dictionaries.

  3. Nicholas says:

    Thank you for another great article. I completely agree. I use my ipod touch to take notes which is nice because it’s small and always with me. When I used to write stuff down in notebooks, I realized that if it didn’t fit in a pocket, I would never have it with me when I needed it. Anyhow, I make quick notes on my Ipod when I hear new words that I don’t understand or hear something that I’d like to remember. Possibly more important for me, I try to keep track of the times that I’m struggling to get my point across in Japanese. I can almost always make myself understood to some degree but I find there is often a better/simpler/more natural way to say what I’d like. I make a quick note of the subject/situation. Later when I meet with my Japanese tutor, I try to explain the same thing to him and ask him to give me feedback or explain it back to me in his own way. As Olle Linge mentioned in the above comment, all of these notes get put into Anki at the end of the week, hopefully in the form of a full sentences (not just the word) with a meaningful context. I tend to add a “???” to the end of a sentence if I’m unsure about it or need to ask a native speaker about it. This makes them easy to search for in anki and also they stand out in my list when I have time to ask my tutor. Thanks again for another interesting article! Keep up the good work!!

  4. Wendy Purdie says:

    Thank you Olle I look forward to the coming weeks to the advise that you will be suggesting to remember characters. I do agree with what you are saying as I learnt by rote many years ago and for the past ten have not gone back to some of my previous learning and have now forgotten it, as you say I don’t use it often so it is forgotten. regards Wendy

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I took the liberty to move your comment to the right article and remove the others. The challenge will be published later today, stay tuned!

  5. Taricus says:

    Paper really is the best, because the act of writing is deliberate…. Also, in Chinese, it’s easy to throw pinyin out… You spoken Chinese will improve, but knowing how to text something and knowing how to WRITE are two different things. It’s not like other languages where spelling equals writing… There’s no sounding out your words in Chinese… Just use a pen and paper….

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