Language learning is a pretty idiosyncratic affair in that learners each have different and distinct routes to becoming fluent and proficient. We often study in a particular way not because it has been proven effective, but because our intuitions tell us it will be.
My intuitions have recently been telling me that my German study could benefit from more writing.
I, therefore, decided to try taking more notes, transcribing things I hear, and journalling about my thoughts and activities. I also decided to do some research to see if there was any science to back up my hunches. There is a something satisfying about physically writing things down, and I would like to discuss what the benefits of doing this might be, and how writing can be combined with other types of day to day language practice.
Writing As Language Goes In
Intuition 1 - Writing can help you remember
The sheer amount of things there are to remember when learning a language can be incredibly daunting. I, for one, have the constant feeling of being overloaded. It’s like I’m trying to carry groceries home from the supermarket without shopping bags! Something tells me that physically writing words on paper will encourage them to stay in my head much like that little guardrail stops you from falling out of a bunk bed. I have just started to note things down while watching German YouTube content, and already feel that the language I encounter is easier to remember.
There is some evidence to support this. Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer, in comparing students who took handwritten notes with those who used a laptop, discovered that traditional note taking led to better recall of facts and understanding of concepts. We might assume that similar benefits could be had by language learners, too. I plan to assume just that.
Intuition 2 - Writing can help you pay attention
If your attention span is as short as mine, you might also struggle to focus on certain types of content, especially the kind that requires careful listening and where it is easy to lose track of what is being said. To keep your mind focused on videos and podcasts (and to stop yourself from fidgeting), you can note down some of what you hear in writing. Not only will this alert you of when your attention is slipping, but also leave you with a record of what you have just watched or heard.
Intuition 3 - Writing helps you process language
As beginners, spoken language can fly through our ears at speeds we only wish we could slow down. Later in our learning we may become impatient and try to take in more than we can absorb. A quality that physical writing has is that it forces you to operate at a medium-speed: one that, I feel, is optimal for taking in the context and meaning of content, as well as any lexical and grammatical subtleties you encounter.
The key point here is to be active even when the activity is passive in nature. We must actively aim our attention at the content, or else risk not receiving the benefits we hoped to get.
Writing As Language Comes Out
Intuition 4 - Writing shows you your strengths and weaknesses
Writing is a valuable opportunity to identify what we know well and what we have yet to fully understand. Pushing ourselves to write on a regular basis, like in a journal, can push us to test our language knowledge. When doing so, we quickly realise which words and structures are close at hand, and which are not so easily recalled. This can help you see what you need to spend more time studying.
Intuition 5 - Writing is a worthy alternative to speaking practice
It is important that we not only take in language, but that we also produce it. Speaking is of course the most natural way of doing this, but it’s not the only way. Writing is a worthwhile alternative for when speaking practice is unavailable, and it also has certain qualities that speaking, usually, does not, such as the possibility to be revised and improved, and to be carried out over several separate occasions.
Neuroscientists, in observing brain activity, have noticed that there is a distinct difference in neural activity seen when someone is writing something original to when someone is simply copying a text. This suggests that pulling together the components of an original narrative is a unique cognitive process distinct from that seen during similar activities. There is reason to believe, therefore, that the only way to become better at certain activities is by actually doing those activities. Expressing oneself better means expressing oneself more. Journalling provides a great opportunity for language learners to express themselves in their new language on a daily basis.
Ways To Bring Writing in to Your Life
Pause and note down
The next time you watch a YouTube video in your target language, transcribe what you hear, pausing when you need time to write, read, highlight and look up words. This will allow you to fully absorb content that, at its normal speed, would be too difficult to follow. It is also a good way to study new language structures, and to learn and reinforce the meaning of words. You can be selective about what you write, perhaps deciding only to write down sentences that are new to you, or things that you think might be useful in your next class with your teacher.
Old fashioned note taking
Will the notes you are taking come in handy, or will taking them compromise the experience you are having? Both are possibilities that you should consider in each new learning situation. Imagine that you are a journalist interacting with an interview subject. It is your job to interact with this person in a natural way while at the same time recording all of the information you need to write the article. It’s a question of how best to direct your attention: a question all language learners asks themselves all the time.
The hard truth about language learning is that it must be active in order to be effective. Listening to Spanish soap operas while you sleep just isn’t going to do it. To make progress, your attention needs to be fully activated, which it will be if you decide to make a habit of describing your life in writing. Just as when you speak with a language partner one-to-one, writing requires that you find the right words, phrases and structures to say what you want to say. Of course, you can look up when you need to (just as you can ask a person a question while speaking).
You might find that you enjoy the process of writing, and that you are more capable than you thought you were.
A final thought. Should writing replace speaking practice?
Absolutely not. But, it is a great opportunity to become more skilled in your new language and to shine a light on what you need to do next to improve. You might want to do it periodically - perhaps when you are moving through a tough stretch of your learning journey. Will it work for you? I cannot say, but I encourage you to give it a try and see if any of these techniques help you as they have helped me. You never know: it might be the thing that pushes you that much closer toward fluency.