The Puzzle of Language Learning

I’m not a jigsaw puzzler. Growing up, my grandmother, mother and twin sister would gather around a puzzle and work in silent camaraderie as they slowly built a complete picture out of what used to be a jumble of separate pieces.

Jigsaw Puzzle pieces - Puzzle of Language Learning -

I couldn’t sit still for these sessions. “One piece,” my mother would sometimes suggest. “Just look for one.” She meant to be helpful, but the idea seemed too daunting. How much time would I spend trying to fit this one piece into the puzzle when I could be doing so many other interesting things? Running and playing outside, reading a book, even playing a game seemed far more exciting.

My taste for jigsaw puzzles hasn’t changed, but I have discovered my own version of that silent art; language learning is my jigsaw puzzle.

My online Cherokee lessons began this week. Cherokee is the fourth language I’ve actively studied as an adult. It’s a challenging one with its own syllabary, where symbols represent syllables and letters can look like English, Greek and Hebrew, yet they are completely unrelated to these letters.

Osiyo - The Puzzle of Language Learning -

This week our instructor posed the question, “Gadohv uyelidi tsaligi tsidehadeloqua?”

“Why do you want to learn Cherokee?”

That’s a good question? Why do we study any language? Of course, the first answer is to communicate. But that’s not often the motivation behind language study. Just think how many people take French in high school. If you’re choosing a language based on the probability that you’ll use it to communicate, French is one of the least likely candidates these days. (However, if you do speak French, you’ll be treated far better than most tourists when you visit France. If you’ve made the effort to learn it, bon voyage!)

So language learning takes on a deeper meaning beyond communication. There is the desire to understand a culture within their own language, to converse with people on their terms, to read great literature in the original language with all of the nuances, rhythm and poetry it portrays, and finally, to connect somehow to people who might seem completely different me on the surface.

Bonjour - The Puzzle of Language Learning -

You’ve probably heard the expression language opens up new worlds. Of course it does, and not just through communication. My studies in Spanish led to trips in Mexico, Latin America and Peru but also created deep friendships and a firm sense of independence in me. In France, I experienced the gratitude and hospitality only bestowed on those attempting to speak French instead of presuming upon the locals to speak English. The challenge of learning Arabic, with its different alphabet, reading “backwards” from right to left, and layers of grammar, required a new level of commitment and focus. My latest attempt, Cherokee, is motivated more through my desire to connect with family history.

Jigsaw puzzlers work the puzzle for that sense of achievement when they fit the last piece together to create the whole. I learn languages for the accomplishment I feel when grasping and remembering the right word, when I’m able to communicate an idea in a language not my own, for the smile and light in the eyes of the speaker when they realize I’m speaking their language.

My language studies may not result in a whole understanding of a language or a people, but it does build a framework that I can return to, adding a piece here and there, until the picture looks at least a bit like the cover on the box.

Ciao - The Puzzle of Language Learning -


Puzzle Image courtesy of jannoon028 at


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