The Jigsaw Puzzle

Learning a language (or any other skill) is task that requires you to understand how pieces fit together.

Take a jigsaw puzzle, for example. You see the final product on the box cover (that is to say, what the completed puzzle will look like) and then choose to pick a puzzle based on which picture you like (I also know that there are three-dimensional puzzles as well so I won’t come to exclude those.)

You take it home, you open the box and all of the pieces come out.

That confusion is relatable in language learning.

I’ve experienced it many times. So much confusion in coming to grips with a new language (although obviously if it is closely related to one you already know, you already have a significant amount of the puzzle done for you).

I remember feeling similarly overwhelmed with a number of “frontier” languages that weren’t similar to those that I already knew. Hungarian felt like this (and I’m still studying it during my commutes), as did Greenlandic, Burmese, Finnish, Hebrew and Yiddish during the early stages. Even some languages that were closer to my native tongue—like Danish, Tok Pisin and Krio—also qualified.

In Hungarian, I was confused with how to use the cases (and I still haven’t mastered all of them despite the fact that they function very closely to the Finnish ones) as well as when to use “nem” and when to use “nincs” (the first is more like “not” with verbs and the second is more like “there isn’t”).

Burmese had me perplexed as it was a language in which a lot of sentences left out the pronoun. To say “we have it”, you would just say “is + present tense marker”. A lot of aspects that were not touched upon too readily in my previous language-learning projects came to the fore with Burmese (like classifier words or using different pronouns for yourself in various situations).

I could give more examples, but let’s delve into what this jigsaw puzzle means for you…

For one, especially in a two-dimensional puzzle, you want to separate the edge pieces first. In so doing, you will have the basis to fill in the rest of the puzzle.

The edge pieces in language learning are having mastered:

  • Pronouns (for some languages like Japanese with a lot of pronouns I would recommend focusing on the ones you are most likely to use or hear used given your environment)
  • Being able to conjugate verbs so that you can express the past, the present and the future in a significant capacity without struggling.
  • Being able to say things like “thank you”, “where are you from?” “do you speak (name of language)?” and basic question words, not also to mention speak about yourself in a small capacity.
  • Asking for directions
  • Being able to use adjectives and adverbs
  • Prepositions
  • A case system (if there is one. In the case [no pun intended] of the Finno-Ugric languages, the case system overlaps with prepositions).
  • Sentence structure (does the verb go first like in Irish? Or at the end like in Japanese and Turkish? Can I put sentences together with the same sentence structure found in my native language or in the other languages I know? If not, what’s different?
  • Articles and noun gender patterns (if any. Entire language families lack articles entirely, such as the Finno-Ugric Languages)
  • Conjunctions (although there are some languages like Rapa Nui that, according to wikitionary, “supplant the need for conjunctions”)

Your goal is to master all of these ten elements, and in so doing you will have assembled the edge of your dream puzzle. Some of these are going to be harder than others, depending on what your dream language is (and yes, sometimes entire items on that list will be lacking altogether. Bislama and Spanish have no case systems, but Finnish has no articles or noun-gender patterns).

Now what exactly do you do when you’re done with the puzzle?

You fill in the rest, but unlike the jigsaw puzzle in real life, the language-learning process never ends. Even for your native language, you’ll always be learning new words and new expressions. I’ve been speaking Yiddish for nearly a decade now, and nearly seven-eight years as a fluent speaker, and I’m always discovering new expressions, new words and new surprises. The same is even true with English, even if I count American English by itself! (And after having studied Trinidadian Creole and Krio, I’ve realized the true extent to which African-American culture has developed this unique language and made it distinct, expressive and admired the world over! And my journeys with Irish and Yiddish and German have also made me realize how many other immigrant groups made their mark on it as well! )

The portions you fill in next will be those that you deem the most important to apply in your life. You’ll notice exactly what you’re missing from your time spent with the language, whether it be with native speakers or using the language online or with your books (whether they are books for learners or books for native-speakers).

And perhaps the most important thing about the jigsaw puzzle is that it will involve rearranging the pieces and finding out how they fit together. You’ll look at the huge collection of pieces and think, “well this one goes over there, and I think it fits with that one? No? Well maybe I’ll need to try something else…all of these eight pieces go together! Great job!”

You may indeed be able to memorize words very quickly, but understanding how they fit together is another thing that may take time. If I were learning a language like Slovak (which I’m sort of letting sleep at the moment), given its similarities to Polish (for which I have already assembled the edge of the puzzle), I wouldn’t need to really “assemble” the edge again. But for Palauan I had absolutely no prior advantages, and I had to assemble the whole thing from scratch. Fun times.

Here’s hoping to you finding all of the edge pieces and putting them together! Happy puzzling!


Yah, I know, it ain’t no jigsaw puzzle, but it’s all I got! 

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