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Building Your Vocabulary Puzzle

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Learning new vocabulary, whether it’s in our native language or in a second language is a lot like putting a puzzle together.

Consider this analogy.

Learning new vocabulary, whether it’s in our native language or in a second language is a lot like putting a puzzle together. But there is a key difference.

In our native language, we already have a good understanding of the structure of the puzzle. Plus, it’s already mostly assembled. When we discover a new vocabulary word, we can quickly identify distinguishing bits of information—part of speech, root words, associated words, context—that help us locate its proper position in the puzzle. It’s like picking up a new puzzle piece, observing its color and distinguishing image features, and moving it to the appropriate location in the puzzle.

After many years of experience with our native languages, we each have detailed puzzles of tens of thousands of puzzle pieces assembled in our brains, with only a few gaps. New vocabulary words are easily classified and placed into the puzzle.

“New word? Ah ha, I know exactly where you go.”

In a second language, on the other hand, we start out with a brand new puzzle. Our first introduction to the new language’s sounds and written shapes is like opening the box and scattering its thousands of pieces all over the table. “Time to start assembling things,” we think.

white puzzle pieces on a brown surface

But as we begin turning the pieces over on the table—trying out the new language for ourselves—we notice something strange. Each and every piece is completely white! Front and back! There are no distinguishing marks whatsoever! And what’s worse, when comparing the shapes of the puzzle pieces, we notice that every piece is a nearly identical match with every other piece!

“Oh, where to begin?”

Getting New Glasses

This is exactly the dilemma we find ourselves in whenever we begin learning a new language. Yet, over time, as we grow accustomed to the new sounds and feeling of the language, we begin to notice patterns and distinguishing characteristics we hadn’t before.

The white puzzle pieces fade to subtle pastel colors. The exact cut of each piece looks slightly modified—an extra tab here, an elongated blank there. It’s almost as if we’re getting new glasses prescribed and the eye doctor is switching lenses for us, “Is it better now?”

Over time, the colors in our puzzle pieces brighten (or darken). We begin to notice marks on one piece that match up with similar marks on other pieces. We become able to categorize different puzzle pieces (vocabulary words) into different sections of the puzzle (parts of speech, related words). Finally, we can really begin building the puzzle in earnest.

But then, when we step back to take a look at our progress, we get discouraged again. Although our new glasses now help us see the puzzle pieces more accurately, we’ve only assembled a few small clumps of barely a dozen pieces. And off in the corner lies a mass of as-of-yet upside-down, uninspected pieces.

One Piece at a Time

How do you complete a jigsaw puzzle? One piece at a time. But each piece needs turned over, inspected, and pondered about. Its approximate location in the puzzle needs found, and its tabs and blanks need matched up. One piece at a time.

person holding jigsaw puzzle piece

“Wow, that’s going to take a long time,” you think. And you’re right. But there are a few principles we can put to work for us that will help us learn vocabulary faster and more efficiently.

The first principle is obvious: leave your puzzle in a well-trafficked room and come back to it every day.

This is how my family has built 2,000-piece puzzles every Christmas for years. It’s also how you can learn 2,000 new Korean vocabulary words this year (or even 3,600 words in only 4 months).

Do the math:

  1. 2,000 new words / year = 6,000 words in 3 years
  2. 3,600 new words / 4 months = 10,800 words in 1 year!

Realistically, the second scenario is unlikely. But even if you only managed to memorize half of that in a year and studied all 10,800 words, your progress in Korean in only one year would be astounding.

So, to aid you in your quest, I will recommend the same three vocabulary books that I’ve been working with over the past few years.

40-Day Beginner TOPIK Vocabulary

24 words / day * 40 days =
960 new words

*affiliate links

50-Day Intermediate TOPIK Vocabulary

30 words / day * 50 days =
1500 new words

50-Day Advanced TOPIK Vocabulary

30 words / day * 50 days =
1500 new words

Each book takes approximately 2 months to work through. Give yourself 4 months each if you really want to make things stick.

Stay tuned next week when I share my vocabulary learning techniques with you.

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