Essential Office Supplies for the Language Learner

Claire Handscombe

You can, of course, do all your language learning online or verbally. You can use the Notes function on your iPad and type out vocab in Word.

But if you’re anything like me, there is something inspiring — motivating, even — about the smell and the look of a brand new exercise book. Something about writing on the front page, the “page de garde” as we call it in Belgium: “Dutch — January 2012”. It has the feel of a new diary: blank pages, waiting to be enthusiastically filled with new things learned. The enthusiasm will fade, of course, around the time that the writing gets messier in the new diary and then you find you’ve skipped a day, no, two. But starting right, getting further ahead in your Italian textbook than you planned to because you enjoyed the feel of the fountain pen on the new Clairefontaine notebook — these are things that will stand you in good stead as you begin, or begin again, your language learning adventure in January.

1. The vocab notebook

This, without question, is the single most important item of stationery you can buy. Get a small notebook that you can slip in your pocket or your handbag so that you can whip it out and have a read of the latest page between tube stops, and so that it’s always to hand for scribbling down a new word you come across in your reading or during your lessons.

2. Post-It notes

There are so many uses for these that they really warrant a blogpost of their own. You can label items around your house to help you learn their names. You can stick one inside a book to write down vocab that comes up, expressions to remember, or the plot summary up to the point where you stopped reading. You can write down inspirational quotes about language learning or your own personal reasons for doing so and stick them inside your textbook or your diary or on your mirror.

3. Highlighter pens

These are a great tool to help you break down sentences as you read: you can highlight different tenses in different colours, or colour-code word endings to remind yourself to always make an adjective feminine if the noun is feminine. You can also highlight frequent mistakes that you make in your own writing, in an effort to move past those barriers. You can highlight new words in an article, or new uses for a word. Highlight, highlight, highlight.

4. Coloured biros

Most of us are visual learners. Having trouble remembering which words are masculine and which feminine? Why not use blue and pink pens in your vocab book to differentiate? (Or, you know, green and black if that kind of thing offends you…) Or purple and red to distinguish between an adjective and an adverb?

5. The Atoma notebook

As a stationery fiend, I have to give this one a plug, and not only because Atoma notebooks are Belgian. They are the best thing since sliced bread, and I’m not even sure that sliced bread has that much of an edge. Essentially, they have a special perforation which allows you to rip out pages and then replace them in a different part of the notebook. This makes them ideal if you’re the categorising type: your vocab book can be divided up by letter of the alphabet and you can effortlessly sort out your general language learning notebook into sections like “idioms”, “grammar”, “homework”, “things I need to take another look at”, without having to first decide how many pages to have in each section. It also means that if you have one of these on you at all times for general purposes, you can scribble down a question for your language tutor that occurs to you in the middle of that boring work meeting, and then later rip it out and put it in the “questions for my language tutor” section of your language Atoma. Plus, they come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and designs: as serious-looking or as pretty as you like. Genius.

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Claire Handscombe is a British writer who moved to Washington, DC, in 2012, ostensibly to study for an MFA in Creative Writing, but really, let’s be honest, because of an obsession with The West Wing. She is the host of the Brit Lit Podcast, a monthly show about news and views from UK books and publishing; the author of Unscripted, a novel about a young woman with a celebrity crush and a determined plan; and the editor of Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives.

Washington, DC

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