Before I dive into the glories of sticky notes, let me give a bit of background. For a journalism project, I decided I was going to learn how to speak Russian fluently — in only 18 months. It was a necessary challenge because, where I was going in the depths of Siberia, no one would speak English, French, or the other languages I spoke. In order to win this bet I made with myself, I used all my language-learning experience by combining three methods:
- Taking Russian lessons at the Cours Municipaux d’adultes in Paris (to have a teacher and people to speak with)
- The Babbel app (to make Russian spelling, grammar and conjugation second nature)
- The sticky note technique for nailing down vocabulary: Namely, the 3,000 most frequently used words for native speakers, which allows you to understand 80% of what you hear and read in a foreign language.
So what is the sticky note technique? It’s actually one of the easiest and most effective ways to quickly memorize a large number of words. The principle is very simple: Write words on sticky notes and stick them everywhere your eyes are likely to linger, whether in the office, the restroom, next to your coffee machine, etc. So here are 21 tips for improving your language learning with sticky notes (and while I chose Russian, these tricks can be used for any language!).
The First Month
1. If you want to understand 80% of a language, you’ll need to learn 3,000 of its words. In my case, that gave me six words a day to learn. But you can be more flexible: With 10 words a day, you’ll need just 10 months to build the vocabulary you need. If you find this number intimidating, start with just 500 or 600 words. That’s the number of words used every day by most people.
2. Make a weekly learning plan for the first two months. That means determining the number of new sticky notes for each week. Keep in mind that at the beginning, one number = one word. Oдин, Два, Tри (1, 2, 3) — that’s already three words.
3. For the first week, start by placing a note on all the things you have lying around at home. Just write the new word without the translation. By pronouncing the foreign word for each thing when you see it, you’ll absorb this everyday vocabulary very quickly. (And, in the case of Russian, you’ll find yourself more and more easily deciphering Cyrillic without much effort.)
4. To learn verbs easily, put stickies on your shower door! When you stick them to the outside, write the foreign word on the inner-facing side and its translation on the other side. Say the words out loud while you’re shampooing and translate them in your head. While you’re drying off or brushing your teeth, you can do the same from the opposite side.
5. If you only have a shower curtain or a ванна (bathtub), well, you’re out of luck.
6. Put sticky notes above your bed and make yourself read them out loud a few times before turning off the lights. The things you hear just before you fall asleep are what you remember the best.
The Second Month
7. Assign every room in your home a particular vocabulary theme and fill it with those notes. For example, when I say a number or a color in Russian, I immediately visualize … my living room.
8. Sticky notes are often used for to-do lists. So, if you’re going to do it anyway, do it in the language you’re learning!
9. Write your shopping list in your new language on a sticky note, little by little throughout the week. Don’t wait until right before you have to go to the store! (Then you won’t be bothered to actually do it.) This technique is a sure-fire way to retain new vocabulary effectively: There were quite a few times where I found myself in the supermarket and had forgotten what several of the words meant, but I ended up finally remembering some particularly difficult words in their context, like the damn баклажан (eggplant)!
10. Getting back to basics, if you use a vocabulary book or if you write down the words you learn with Babbel, you can use stickies as a way to hide words. Pretty useful, right?
11. You can actually buy some ready-made sticky notes for English, French, German and Italian. They’re not cheap, but if someone is making money selling them for language learning, that means it’s a technique that works!
12. To effectively maintain your motivation for learning a foreign language, use the Kanban method. Draw three columns on a wall: to learn / learning / learned. In the first column put all your stickies for the coming week. In the middle column, put the words you’re having trouble remembering. And in the last column, put all the notes that you feel you’ve really learned. What’s more gratifying than seeing hundreds of sticky notes accumulate week after week and concretely visualizing your progress?
The Following Months
13. Did you know that walking while you’re trying to learn something helps you memorize it? This is because it utilizes both sides of your brain at the same time. So when you have a spare minute, walk from note to note to learn a few random words.
14. Put sticky notes around something on your wall, like a drawing, a photo, a painting or a postcard. Force yourself to describe the picture using the words on the notes. You’ll certainly come up with some pretty crazy sentence like: “This child makes me think about a washing machine.” But really, it’s pretty cool to know how to say something like that in another language, right?
15. The sticky note technique allows you to exercise your visual memory and associate specific words with places in your home. Memory works best by association, and your brain will find the path to a word more easily if you guide it to the right room!
16. Second language acquisition classes often use games involving stickies. Did you ever play the game where you stuck a note to your forehead, and each player has to guess the word using yes or no questions? If you’re learning a language with other people, give this a try!
17. Take all the notes that you’ve stuck around your house in the previous week. If you haven’t already, write the translation on the back, stick them together and take them with you to review on the bus or while you eat lunch. This will refresh your memory and make sure you don’t forget the words you’ve just learned.
18. When you know enough words, start writing phrases and sentences you’ve learned with the Babbel app on the sticky notes. Or you can write quotes, song lyrics or even a bit of poetry. Putting individual words in context will help you remember them for your first conversations!
19. After some practice, hide the phrases and try to repeat them out loud just by looking at where the sticky used to be. That will help you not only understand the syntax of your new language, but you’ll surely impress people if you start to quote Gogol! When you’re able to say, understand and remember a sentence like Ча́сто сквозь ви́димый ми́ру смех лью́тся неви́димые ми́ру слёзы (often through laughter visible to the world flow tears invisible to the world), you’ll know you’ve made some serious progress.
20. Use different colors of sticky notes for verbs, nouns and adjectives. Or if you’re learning a language with different noun or verb genders, assign these genders different colors, and write words on their corresponding color.