How to Study a Foreign Language

studying foreign language

I love your post about taking notes from a textbook, however I’m currently taking Spanish and the book isn’t set up in paragraphs.  Any tips on how to study a foreign language?

– – –

It can be frustrating to study a class/subject that isn’t set up the “traditional” way. For example, we get used to textbooks being set up like a hierarchy with heading and subheadings. On the other hand, foreign languages are more about acquisition and proficiency of the language than they are about learning information.

Foreign Language textbooks tend to focus on grammar rules, conjugating verbs, etc. BUT they don’t always teach you HOW to speak the language.

Another thing that’s weird about  language is the vocabulary terms. For example, the vocabulary terms are usually pretty random and not necessarily what you would need in day-to-day life. I’ll never forget a Spanish class I had my freshman year when my teacher had us saying sentences from the textbook, like “Necesito  mochila” (I need a backpack). We were in tears laughing because they were so random!

Language acquisition happens for us in other languages the same way that it happens in our primary language. How did you learn the language you speak now? You listened to others speak it, you read short children’s books, you played games where you matched 3-letter words to pictures. Learning a foreign language is very similar to teaching yourself Kindergarten!

High Frequency Verbs

In Kindergarten, we teach High Frequency Words. These are words that appear most frequently in the Engligh language: words like a, to, the, are, you, is, etc. Similarly, Terry Waltz came up with the idea of teaching the seven most common verbs first, so that you can create more sentences that you might actually use. Here are the “Super 7” for Spanish:

1. está (is at a place / is feeling)

2. hay (there is / there are)

3. tiene (has)

4. es (is)

5. le gusta (likes / is pleasing to) 2

6. va (goes / is going)

7. quiere (wants)

Read: Study Tips for High School Students

Keep a Notebook

First, track what you’re learning in a notebook, and be sure to use a pencil! Color-coded notes may not work as well for foreign language like they would for science. Next, dedicate different sections of your notebook to what you learn about grammar rules and vocabulary. Finally, give yourself the challenge of writing 10 sentences for every new vocabulary word you learn.

Related: 4 Rules for Effective Studying

Give Yourself Homework

I’m sure your professor gives you homework but is it effective? In college, I always found it easier to teach myself than to try to learn from a professor (no offense, professors!). For example, ordering a simple workbook that’s designed for elementary Spanish-speaking students would be a great (and kind of fun) way to apply and practice what you’re learning!

You might also like: Crash Course in Visual Note-Taking

Use Google Translate

Throughout your day, what sentences do you find yourself saying over and over again in your primary language? Things like, “Do you want to go to…” “Would you please hand me a…” “What time do you want to…” As you start to recognize your recurring sentences, just Google the translation and practice saying that. Likewise, you can also record it on your Voice Memos app to help you remember in the future.

Read: How I Color Code My Notes


Foreign languages are all about growing your vocabulary, practicing fluency, learning to read, and practicing correct grammar rules. These are all the things you did in Kindergarten! Don’t just do something once then move on to the next chapter. Keep practicing and applying what you’ve learned! I even used to have the “Siri” voice on my navigation app turned on in Spanish so that I would have to actively listen and comprehend basic instructions (and I only got lost a few times). As a result, my listening comprehension improved and I was able to differentiate between words more easily!

Related: How to Take Better Class Notes

In short, the more you practice, the better you will be! And don’t forget to keep practicing even after you finish this class. Foreign languages are a real “adult” skill that will benefit you for the rest of your life!

Write Notes in Your Own Words

I can’t really remember when I started doing this, but I’m pretty sure it was sometime around my Junior year of undergrad. Okay. Wait a minute. Actually, I can tell you exactly when I started doing this! I remember it like it was yesterday… it was indeed the fall semester of my Junior year. Apologize by OneRepublic was on the radio every 15 seconds and Facebook was still the only social media network we needed.
I was in a World Civilizations class (which somehow made me hate my favorite subject… history!). My professor was wonderfully nice, but she literally, LITERALLY typed entire pages/paragraphs of notes onto her PowerPoint slides. At first, I joined the whole class in frantically trying to copy each slide word for word, until I figured out that I could quickly read the paragraph, then paraphrase it into one or two sentences.It was like reaching this super state of zen or something.

I was able to stay so calm during her lectures while everyone else stressed about the slides. And yes, that is the only time in my life that I have been less stressed than… oh, I don’t know, anyone else. A lot of people went on to drop or fail that class (her tests were also 100 questions long). But not me. In fact, I did so well that it ended up being my first time to be exempt from an exam! Once I started grad school, I learned why paraphrasing the notes helped me so much.
And I totally love the reason because… it’s science! It turns out that what I was doing (just to save my hand from getting a cramp) was called active listening. Instead of mindlessly copying words without thinking, I was forcing myself to comprehend the material before I could write it. That way, when I re-read my notes, I totally understood them because they were all in MY own words to begin with! 
On top of active listening, this gave me ownership over the notes… I created themThey were my wordsmy examples; not my professor’s. And we all love the things that we create, right? That’s why teachers aren’t supposed to use red ink to grade papers anymore… It’s just too traumatic for us to see our beautiful creations all covered in that mean-old red ink!
 Below, I have listed some articles on effective note taking, but the one I like the most is University of Reading because it compares Active Note-Taking and Passive Note-Taking! Passive Note-Taking includes things like underlining, highlighting, and copying from Power Point slides! All of our favorite things to do! When you look around your classroom, you are probably swimming in a sea of Passive Note-Takers!
BUT who wants to do more work and get less out of it? No one, that’s who! So check out these examples of Active Note-Taking! Go into class with a purpose and with questions about the topic! Try to connect the new information you’re learning to other information that you already know! Think of your own examples. And, of course, write notes in your own words! (unless you need to remember a direct quote, obviously).
Less writing, less study time, and better understanding of the topic?
Ummm… yes, please! 🙂
Here is a really cool article about Effective Note-Taking from University of Reading!
Do you take notes in your own words? Why or why not? 
If not, do you think you might start now?

Note-Formatting Resource

I was recently asked to share a post on how I format my notes. It’s pretty straightforward the way that I do it, but I’ll do my best to make it sound interesting!

Scribble Fast Notes in Class:

If I’m in class, I kind of just scribble my notes quickly with a mechanical pencil… making sure to include all examples and maybe draw a quick graph if I think it will help me remember the material.
These are my really quickly-written, really sloppy-looking notes. I use a lot of abbreviations, bullet points, and paraphrasing so that I can keep up with the PowerPoint/professor. It’s never fun to be that person in the class that everyone waits for as they copy the entire slide word-for-word!

Rewrite Notes When You Get Home:

Once I get home, I rewrite my scribbled notes into more logical, colorful notes that I will actually be able to read in the future. In the photo below, old notes look the ones on the left and the more-organized, rewritten notes look like the ones on the right. The ones on the right get saved and used as future study guides.
You Might Also Like: Good Habits to Form for College

List Chapter/Content in Righthand Corner:

When I rewrite my notes, I start at the top of the page (naturally) by writing the chapter/content title at the top center and the date in the top right corner. This is so that, when I’m flipping through my notes, I can quickly look for a particular chapter, date, or topic… which saves a lot of time in the future!

List Your Headings:

Then I begin writing the major headings/slide titles/topics on the left side of the notes page (by that red line that’s on notebook paper… the margin line, maybe?).
I used pink in this example because it stands out the most to me, but you can choose whichever color you like best (obviously). I used to write the title in a different color, but now I like the title, date, and major points to be the same color.

Format Your Bullet Points:

If there are numbers or bullet points for the major headers in my notes (1., 2., 3.,), I put those to the left of the red line. If there aren’t, then I just don’t put anything over there. This is just helpful for things that may have steps (like Bloom’s Taxonomy for those of you who are Education majors). It helps me remember for tests!
You Might Also Like: How to Take Better Class Notes



Add in Your Important Information:

Then I just start filling in the information under each heading/topic by rewriting my original notes. Just copying the info from my “scribbly” notes and adding missing information, removing repetitive information, or clarifying things that may not have made sense from my first round of notes.

Add Textbook Page Numbers:

If I’m following along in my textbook, I add the page number of everything we cover in my notes. This makes it easier to read the text in the future because you’ve already connected it to something learned in class!
Also, there are SO many times when a professor/teacher asks a question and the answer is literally written right there on the page. It’s not a trick- go ahead and say the answer! Then write down the page numbers because if they bring it up in class, they’ll probably bring it up on the exam!

Add Keywords to Trigger Your Memory:

Add keywords to your notes. If I’m pretty familiar with the concept, I’ll jot down a few keywords to trigger my memory. However, if I’m learning the material for the first time, I write down whole sentences to reexplain it to myself when I read the notes again.
In this example, purple and blue could really be consolidated into one color… but if there are a lot of different levels, it may be helpful to have more colors to differentiate the information! Add page numbers for quick referencing!

Draw/Write Down Examples:

I draw or write every example in my notes. Examples given by the professor or book help you picture the concept in real-life. This is what helps you remember the content the most. I love examples because they bring the material to life and actually give it a purpose!
Teachers are always adding real-life examples or stories to go along with their lectures! WRITE THESE DOWN! They make the information so much easier to remember! And the crazier the story, the more likely you are to remember it on the test! yay!

Add Vocabulary Definitions:

Add new vocabulary terms to your notes! I write them all the way to the left of the red line (in the margin) so that it stands out. I may even highlight that if it’s a super-important concept AND a new word. This means that the things to the left of the margin line are page numbers and vocabulary words, which makes it easy to find and reference both!

Add as Much as You Need:

When I get to the bottom of my notes page, I just draw an arrow pointing to the right in the bottom right corner to show if there is writing on the back. Although, lately I have really been trying to condense my notes into one page instead of two.


If I do write on the back, at the top of the page, I write the topic name follow by continued. 

Then I use the same formatting system for notes on the back of the page. (gotta save those trees!)

Click here to get your free note-formatting sheets

Print the paper double-sided, and you’ll have the note-formatting key on the front. Once outlining your notes becomes automatic, just print the second page double-sided 🙂


If I’m writing notes straight out of the assigned reading, I write them like this. And that’s pretty much all that I can think of to describe the way I format my notes.
Please let me know if this sounds confusing or if I should clarify something!

Do you have a special system for formatting your notes? How do you do it? Do you rewrite them afterward or just format them the first time.