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Can a Language Learning Diary Help You Learn a Language?

An academic experiment I did with 3 language learners

a language learning diary
Photo by Grianghraf on Unsplash
What should you write in a language learning diary? 
 

How much should you write in it?

Most importantly, can keeping a language learning diary help you learn a language?
 

As part of my Master’s Program in Language Education, I did a little experiment.

I gave 3 adult learners of English, Paolo, Marco, and Lucia (not their real names), a language learning diary and asked them to write something in it for 6 weeks.

I’ll explain in detail what the students did. I’ll also show you the results of the experiment. I hope this will help you decide whether or not you should start a language learning diary.

(The learners were students of English, but you can apply this knowledge to whatever language you’re learning.)

The “language learning diary” experiment

I teach in Italy, a country where, if you want to improve your English, you can’t just meet a teacher for 1 hour a week and then do nothing in between lessons.

You won’t make a lot of progress if you do this. You must give yourself a kick in the butt and learn autonomously too.

So, to make my learners more independent, I asked them to use a language learning diary to:

  • set weekly goals and decide what they wanted to study or practice in their own study time — not in class. 
  • decide what materials and resources they were going to use (YouTube, films, articles, language apps, books, etc.)
  • reflect on what language learning activities they found easy, hard, enjoyable, or boring, and decide if they wanted to do these activities again in the future.

It sounds like I asked them to write a lot in their diaries.

I didn’t.

The language learning diary I gave them was super simple. It was designed by another English teacher, Irina Wing, who wrote a whole Master’s dissertation on the topic of setting goals using diaries.

Wing says that keeping a good language learning diary shouldn’t require you to write a lot, and the diary you use should be user-friendly and easy to fill in (Wing, 2020).

The diary she designed looks like this:

A template of a language learning diary
Adapted from Wing (2020)

Wing thinks this is a useful diary to have.

There are 3 reasons for this:

1. It helps you define your language learning goals and make goals as specific as possible. Having a number next to your goal can indeed make it more clear, which can help you feel less intimidated by it.

2. Ticking off the activities you’ve completed using the “Complete (✓)” column can boost your motivation and give you a sense of accomplishment.

3. Even if you don’t complete what you promised yourself you would do, you would still reflect on the goals you had set. You would think, Did I over-planned? Did I not make enough effort, or choose boring activities? Reflection is essential in learning and that’s why the diary includes the “My thoughts” column.

So, here is an example of how one of my students completed the diary (don’t worry about the highlighted words):

It didn’t take them more than 5 minutes to plan their week and reflect on how it went.

But did Paolo, Marco, and Lucia think these 5 minutes were well spent? 

Did they find the diary useful?

After 6 weeks I asked them and this is what they said.

The results of the “language learning diary” experiment

I asked the students to respond in writing to some questions.

One question was, Did you find that keeping a diary motivated you to learn outside classroom time? Why/Why not?

Answers
Paolo: “Yes because it reminds me what I have to do.”

Marco: “Yes, because it helps me guide my learning.”

Lucia: “Yes, I think it motivates me because it makes me understand that I have done something over the week.”

The second question was, Do you think you will continue keeping a diary to set your own learning goals? Why/Why not?

Answers
Paolo: “Yes because it helps me improve my English.”

Marco: “I think yes.”

Lucia: “No, I don’t think so because I don’t think I’ll have time and I don’t think I’ll care a lot about the diary in the future. And also because I’m lazy.”

I then interviewed the students.

Paolo told me that keeping a diary motivated him to read books and watch videos on YouTube.

Marco mentioned that setting his own small weekly goals was motivating because he knew what he was going to focus his attention on.

Lucia told me that writing about what she had done to improve between lessons made her more aware of what and how she was learning. However, she did not think she would continue keeping a diary. She believes it requires lots of motivation and organization.

Paolo and Marco said they would continue using a diary.

So, can a language learning diary help you learn a language?

Conclusion

Photo by lilartsy on Unsplash

Orzechowska and Polok, two researchers from Poland, found that “learners who set themselves learning goals according to their personal needs and their own interests are more likely to develop positive motivation to engage in learning because they find it intrinsically rewarding.” (2019:7)

Keeping a diary is not only a way to set interesting language learning goals and hold yourself accountable, but it can also help you reflect on what you learned and take action to keep learning.

A diary is a helpful tool that can boost your motivation too.

It’s not for everybody though. 

Some learners — like Lucia — can’t be bothered and might see filling in a diary with goals and numbers as a time-consuming activity.

This is why, if you’d like to start a language learning diary, you should make it as user-friendly and simple as you can — something you can fill in a couple of minutes.

Using Wing’s template is a great way to start.

***

I hope you found this helpful. Please feel free to share your experiences and ask questions. And, of course, feel free to disagree with anything I said. Read this if you’d like to read about another academic experiment I did on using recordings.

 

References

Orzechowska, P. and Polok, K. (2019) Goal-Setting as a Motivational Factor Helping FL Learners in Gaining Their Levels of FL Proficiency. Open Access Library Journal, 6: e5307. https://doi.org/10.4236/oalib.1105307

Wing, I. (2020). Developing Learner Autonomy. ETProfessional, Issue 127, March, pp. 8–11.

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