Zettelkasten Forum

Mixed Language Zettelkasten

Hello Zettlers,

I wonder how you work with different languages in your Zettelkasten.

My problem is that I think about different topics in different languages:
about my job-related topics in german (my native language), and about most of my other interests in english (corresponding to the language of the literature I read and the people I talk to).

My question: how do I best deal with this in my Zettelkasten?

So far I tried to write all of my zettels in german, but I realize more and more, that this is sub-optimal: it introduces the added problem of adequate translation and some of the thoughts and arguments loose nuance in translation, or (worse) get added meanings and associations through the translation which weren't there in the original. The mental work of tranlating also introduces additional friction into the system.

How do you deal with this? Do you have a single language Zettelkasten and translate all of your thoughts into your primary language? Or do you mix and match, having Zettels written in different languages in the same Zettelkasten?

Kind regards


  • The answer depends on how intimate you want the notes to be connected. Direct links are not affected by the difference in language. But the usability via full text search, tags and similar functionality is.

    I translate everything to German. But I don't care for nuances in the English language other than as a tool to improve my ability to think in nuances in German.

    I am a Zettler

  • I also had to decide whether it's better to write my zettels in my native language German or in English (or mixed) and I chose English as the default language. So I practice writing (and thinking!) in English as a "desirable difficulty".

    Sometimes (not often) I have to deal with topics that make more sense to handle in German, like e.g. a German law. Then I mark that zettel (below the title) with the tag #german.

    @Sascha mentioned the problem of searching. I have a zettel for that:

    # 202204061108 allow searching for various languages in my zettelkasten
    DE: Suche nach verschiedenen Sprachen in meinem Zettelkasten ermöglichen
    Sometimes I do not remember if a specific card in my zettelkasten [[202204070958]] was in English (which is the default [[202203161348]]) or in German.
    I tried to use the tag [[202204120724]] #german_translation , but I think it's better to simply note the English term on the German card below the main heading like so:
        EN: …
    or vice versa
        DE: …
  • A key question to ask yourself is "how will you find it back?" Good linking and tagging (i.e., what it the key term in your register) is important, I think, to prevent full-text searches. Full-text search is a great feature, but it doesn't scale.

    In my ZK, I have Dutch and English-language notes, but English is the "official language", meaning that every note gets English tags and the register (the list of tags) is in English. If there is a Dutch key term (e.g., "metaphor") I do not tag it but I list it in my register with the comment "see #metaphor". You could of course tag your notes both in German and English (lot of work), but you could also just do what @ralfzosel suggests.

  • I use English as a default. However I write in my native or relevant target language depending on context. Note, however, that I already think in English 90 percent of the time, even though it is technically not my native language.

    A new and specific use case I am trying out is learning german. I am trying to see if using language tags (#de, #en) can help me find translational equivalents for certain terms or concepts. Languages don't have perfect one-to-one equivalents. I'm not sure how this system will develop

    See this messy note I'm currently working on:

    Importance [[202209041931]]
    # Description
    # Pronunciation
    importance | BrE ɪmˈpɔːt(ə)ns, AmE ɪmˈpɔrtns |
    # Candidate Translations
    - be of great importance to sb/sth #en
        - für jmdn./etw. äußerst wichtig sein #de
            - be of great importance to sb/sth #en
    # See Also
    - Bedeutung, die [[202109050817]] #de
    - Wichtigkeit, die [[202209042146]] #de
    - Importance (Noun)
    noun, no pl.
    2 (significance) Bedeutung (Fem.) (of decision) Tragweite (Fem.)
    ▸ increase in importance
    an Bedeutung zunehmen
    ▸ be of/without importance
    wichtig/unwichtig sein
    ▸ a man of considerable importance
    ein sehr wichtiger Mann
    ▸ speak with an air of importance
    mit gewichtiger Miene sprechen
    ▸ full of one's own importance
    von seiner eigenen Wichtigkeit überzeugt
    - Ha. Gewicht, Bedeutung, Wert, Sinn
    - Db 18. Wertschätzung
    - want
    - need
    - prefer
    - preference
    # See Also
    - Agreement [[202209041926]]
    - German [[202103311122]]
    - Language Acquisition [[201909201051]]
    - Persuasion [[202003060940]]
    - Priority [[202106051610]]
    - Truth [[202105180914]]
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