Getting started journaling in another language — and it doesn’t have to be as difficult as you think.
When it comes to teaching yourself another language, there are only guidelines — no rules about what you have to do.
Everything that you do should be something you enjoy on some level. This is one of my favourite principles by Steve Kaufman of “The Linguist”. If you’re not enjoying your language study then it’s difficult to sustain the effort, and in the end, you might be learning something you’ll never use again.
Of course, studying is hard — but that doesn’t have to mean it’s something you can’t enjoy. Think of it like playing a game. Games are hard, especially if you’re trying to win or overcome some difficult problem. But the ultimate goal is for it to be just hard enough to keep you going, without overwhelming you and making you want to give up.
It’s hard to strike that balance in learning languages because at times everything seems hard. So we include as many fun things as we can — watching TV shows, listening to music, and journaling in another language.
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Journaling in Another Language — Getting Started
The number one thing to remember is that the only prerequisite to journaling in another language is knowing maybe ~100 words and how to make basic sentences.
You can get started journaling in another language as soon as maybe two weeks into your language journey. Just two weeks!
Your first journal entry can be: “I am writing in XYZ. This is the first time.”
To write this, you have to know a few things
- How to use the continuous tense
- A few conjunctions, like “in”, and how those work in your target language
- How to say “the first time”. I’m presuming after your first hundred words you know how to say “this”.
- The writing system of your language of choice
That’s all you need.
I personally recommend setting a reminder on your calendar to write in your journal every day. If it gets overwhelming, you can make it once a week.
As for what format to use to write a diary in another language — don’t over-think it. Stick with what you think you’re most likely to use.
Personally, I like electronic formats, like a Google Doc.
With electronic formats (particularly cross-platform ones) it’s easy to do it from anywhere, including using your phone.
Using a digital platform for journaling in another language also means you don’t have to worry too much about knowing the writing system — a common roadblock.
However, for many people, physical journals and putting pen to paper can also be immensely satisfying. There is evidence that the act of writing things by hand, can improve memory and retention.
Here are our journal suggestions if you’re just getting started.
Benefits of Journaling in Another Language
I admit that journaling sounds a bit pretentious to some. “Journaling? I don’t even do that in my native language! What am I, a pre-teen from the 1960s?”
But there are some distinct benefits to writing your everyday thoughts down in another language and I wanted to make sure they’re clear.
1. You’re forced to articulate phrases about your everyday life.
This might be as simple as things as “I ate curry last night and now my stomach hurts” or “Korean is really hard” (it is a little hard, honestly).
For this reason, I’d encourage you to write in your journal in the same voice you use for most normal conversation. Don’t go to some weird literary form (or “diary form” as it’s known in Korean) — at least, not yet.
If those phrases are unfamiliar to you, you can take your sentences from your diary in another language and copy them directly into your flashcards.
Writing down these sentences (and even saying them out loud for extra credit) acts a bit like having a conversation partner. In fact, the diary entry is usually great preparation for a later conversation, if you need to go over a few things.
2. You’ll learn new, everyday words.
When you write focus on your daily life journaling in another language, you’re forced to learn new words.
Today, for example, I had to learn the word “녹화” in Korean to say “I have to record a video”.
You might even just be practising a word you already know, which acts as a natural flashcard, forcing you to remember a word and use it in everyday life.
3. Journaling in another language is like escaping to another place!
Aside from the therapeutic mental health benefits of journaling in general, journaling in another language is a way of helping you escape.
When I’m speaking another language I momentarily depart from my immediate surroundings and go to the place of the language I’m speaking. If I don’t know that place well, then I at least leave the place I’m currently in.
Common roadblocks to getting started writing a journal in another language
There are a few reasons people take a while getting started journaling in another language. I wanted to address these issues head-on and show workarounds to make sure you get the benefits without getting stuck.
“I don’t know enough words.”
You don’t need too many words to write a diary in another language. You just need… probably 200-500. The rest of the words you can learn as you go.
When you’re writing out a sentence, try to make it so you only don’t know a maximum of one word per sentence.
“I don’t know enough grammar to express myself.”
If you’re a well-educated person then you’re used to using quite complicated phraseology, similar to that used in this sentence.
You can also say hard things with small words, like in this sentence.
So at first, keep your phrases simple. Focus on building vocabulary and learning how to say things in more complicated ways. Eventually, it’ll all seem more natural.
“I don’t know the writing system.”
Many of us — including me, for some languages — don’t properly learn a writing system of a language.
I learned Chinese hanzi a long time ago, but I’ve mostly forgotten them. These days, I just type in pinyin, recognise the characters and move on.
You don’t have to write it out on paper using a pen or a pencil. That might be what pictures of diaries look like, but they’re not the reality for most people! My journal is in electronic form in a Google Doc. Yours might be in your note-taking app or even a blog like this one (but I don’t suggest a blog — there’s too much other stuff to worry about like SEO, images, and hosting).
One workaround I have, while I’m learning the writing (or spelling system) is to use a phonetic keyboard or Google Translate’s in-built phonetic keyboard to type.
For example, if I type a sentence in Farsi in the natural way, like “man kheili khub farsi balad hastam” (and yes, Persian nerds, saying “hastam” is spoken Persian, not written Persian).
This method of journaling in another language really well and is good enough for my level for now.
“It’s too personal and feels weird.”
Nobody is asking you to reveal who your crush is or what sketchy thing you did at work yesterday when journaling in another language. That’s up to you. (It also sounds pretty hard to express…)
If you’re worried about privacy or security, just write the kinds of things you don’t mind someone else discovering. They could be about your breakfast, what furniture you have, or your personal identification, bank details, and your mother’s maiden name (just kidding, pretty much never write those down other than in a very secure place!).
“I used to keep a diary but then I stopped.”
This is an obstacle that’s entirely mental. You don’t owe anything to yesterday. The day you start journaling again is a day better than yesterday.
There is a deep personal satisfaction to continuity, but there’s also a satisfaction in re-starting things.
Of course, if you stopped writing your diary in another language because you didn’t enjoy it — don’t do it again. If you don’t have to do them, do only things you like! Life’s too short, otherwise.
Next level your “journaling in another language” learning experience
The final thing I like to do after writing my journal entry is to make sure I learn the most important words or phrases — even if it’s just a few.
My favourite method is to put them into Anki.
I make two-sided cards, with a full sentence, the meaning in English, transliteration (if necessary), and audio — usually me, saying the sentence out loud myself.
Over the past few years I’ve accumulated many thousands of cards in my Anki decks. Things I say every day, like “What day is it?”, are the things I can say most easily. It’s a really convenient and efficient language-learning technique.