An Erasmus Student’s Guide to Making Notes in a Foreign Language: PArt 1 – Making Notes During your Lessons

One of the things that took the most getting used to on my study abroad has been the whole ‘studying in a foreign language’ thing. Which is kind of funny, because obviously I knew that it was something I’d have to do, I just didn’t realise how much of a change it would be.

As it turns out, studying a foreign language and studying in a foreign language are actually two very different things. And of course, because I never like to do things the easy way, I’ve taken a bunch of modules that are aimed at not only native French speakers, but native French speakers with a high-level grasp of their own language. Linguistic modules in English are brain-frying enough but I guess I like being brain-fried so much that I’ve decided to do the same thing again, this time in French.

Anyway, making notes is a key component to studying, in any language and in any topic, so I figured I’d write a little guide to note-making in a foreign language because it’s taken me some time to get to grips with it, so hopefully someone else might find this useful. Also this will be a 2-part blog post, so today I’ll be focusing on making notes in lessons, specifically, lessons taught in the language that you’re trying to learn (also known as your target language), while the second part will focus on making notes outside of lessons.

So without further ado, how do I make notes in my target language, French?

Step 1: A Few Things TO Consider Before Your Lesson

Now, since different academic disciplines can be very different, different lecturers (even those within the same faculty!) can have very different teaching methods and every person has different ways of learning, it’s difficult to write a catch-all guide that will work for every person in every lesson. So there’s a few things you might want to consider:

  • What type of content will you need to remember for your exams, if you have them?
  • Are you given handouts and resources that you will have access to after the lesson?
  • Does the lecturer use PowerPoints, if so, how detailed are they, and how much does the lecturer diverge from the slides? And will you have access to them after the lesson?
  • How quickly does your lecturer get through the content?
  • What do you usually find works best for note-taking, in any language?

These things may have an affect on what you’ll need to make notes on, for example, I’m pretty sure we know by now that if something is already on the handout then there’s no need to write it down. Or if your lecturer talks at a million miles per hour, then you’re going to have to really streamline what you’re writing so you don’t miss out on too much.

More of a general thing, I guess, but it’s pretty important to go into your lessons fully prepared. I know, I know, you’re probably not going to do this every time but honestly, it’s probably doubly important when your lessons aren’t in your native language because it will help with understanding.

If you do it just beforehand you’ll also be in the zone and hopefully switched into the correct language-mode (maybe this is a me thing, but I find I need a bit of time to switch from one language to another). I often find myself quite lost for the first ten minutes of a class if I haven’t prepped myself for it beforehand, so this just helps me be prepared for an onslaught of French in whatever topic my lesson is about.

And, yes, having it be topic specific helps a lot, because switching from informal French discussing what you got up to on your weekend to the degrees of comparison and intensity in adjectives is quite a jarring jump.

Step 3: Stationery Shopping

Maybe you’re the sort of person who walks into a lecture with one black pen that may or may not work and you’ve got no intention of changing your ways. This could never be me, but if it works for you it works so go ahead and skip this step. Or maybe you’re more into typing up your notes so you’re armed with your laptop, so again, you can skip this, I won’t judge.

Personally I prefer to work on paper and I do find for some particular modules I need highlighters and different coloured pens. For other modules the one black pen method works, but I still like having an array of stationery items just in case. If you’re like me, make sure you’ve got enough equipment ready to use.

For example, a lot of my modules involve taking sentences and annotating the hell out of them, and if I just stick to one black pen then it can get a bit crowded and illegible. So I like to have the option to highlight and also some different coloured pens. I might stick to purple for making notes about adjectives and green for nouns, it just makes that crowded piece of paper a little easier to actually read at a later date.

Also, for the love of God, if you’ve got some homework that you’ll be going through in class or a handout that might be referred back to, bring it in because there’s nothing worse than having to share or worse, ask your lecturer for a new one and experience their disappointment because you’re an adult and should’ve got the hang of bringing in these things by now.

Step 4: Get Note-Taking!

Okay, you’ve mentally prepared yourself for your lesson and you’ve got half of WHSmith at your disposal (if you’re so inclined), so the only thing left to do now is get in there and start taking notes.

This is where you start to bring it all together, and unless I know everything about you, academically speaking, I can’t really tell you exactly what to do.

Anyway, I personally consider these notes a rough draft. There’s no way in hell I have enough time to make them look neat and pretty during the lesson, so I go straight in with an ugly spider-scrawled date, module name and lesson title. This makes it easier for me to refer back to when I do want to go over my notes and make nicer ones. I also only use one notepad for all my lessons, and then later transfer everything into separate notebooks at a later date. So, I guess my point is that at this point we’re going for content not aesthetics (and I like pretty notes as much as the next person).

Leave your margins blank, or possibly make yourself a fatter margin/ space to the side. Basically I’ve gone for the Cornell Note-Taking System but adapted it to fit the bilingual method of my note-taking.

For now, get down whatever you think is relevant (unless it’s accessible through handouts or PowerPoints at a later date), and try to stick to writing it in your target language.

At some point there will be things that you don’t understand. The most important thing to remember, though, is not to get hung up on these things. Get down one or two key words if you can. This is also where your margin will come in – make a note that you missed something (preferably with a key word – write it down, even if you’re unsure on spelling or meaning). Give yourself a little symbol that means “I need to look this up!”, I usually just use question marks.

I also like to use my margins for things that remind me of something I’ve previously learnt in English, or that I would like to compare to what I’ve learnt about the English language, as this may be useful for later on in my degree and is a personal area of interest. Basically your margin will become a free-for-all area with little extra thoughts and things that you need further clarification on. It’s also a good space to pop in new vocabulary that you learnt in the lesson or need to look up. And this ought to become the only space on your page where you make notes in your native language, which you should avoid doing as I find it disrupts my understanding of the French going on around me, but it can be useful to help clarify certain pieces of information.

Step 5: Going over your notes

After the lesson, it’s a good idea to take some time to go over the notes you made. This could include looking up and clarifying everything in your margins, or notes you understood as you were writing them but now can’t remember exactly what they mean (it happens, especially when you’re not using your native language). You may also want to rewrite your notes or type them up, which is something I’ll be detailing in another blog post.

And that is pretty much it, everything I do when note-taking in a foreign language. It’s not perfect and I’m not always disciplined enough to stick to only writing in French or stick to this particular method. On further research I realised that I’ve actually taken the Cornell method without knowing what it is and adapted it a little to suit my bilingual (nearly?) needs. Which is basically evidence that the Cornell method works, I guess.

Anyway, I’d also be interested to know if anyone else has any tips for foreign language note-taking, so feel free to drop me a comment. This is just a method I fell into accidentally, as it seemed to help me, but obviously it might not work for everyone and there might be better methods out there.


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