by Jesse Reyes
German, Russian, Czech, and Turkish…what do these languages have in common with one another? They all use grammatical cases. I first encountered cases when I started to study Russian. Previously the only other languages I had any experience with were Spanish and my native English. Needless to say, when I first tried to make basic sentences in Russian I was surprised and frustrated when the nouns kept changing. At the time, mastering the cases in my new language seemed a far reaching, if not impossible, goal.
But after my initial shock I realized that there was some rhyme and reason to the Russian case system. With practice and a bit of work the 6 cases that once seemed so daunting didn’t seem all that bad. This article discusses the basics of grammatical cases, what they are, which languages use them, and how to best practice them.
What are cases?
When a language uses grammatical cases it means that nouns and pronouns will change their form (case) depending on their relationship to the rest of a sentence. We can see this a little bit in the English language.
Take these three sentences:
- He is in the shop.
- That sweater is his.
- I saw him yesterday.
In each of these sentences we see a different form (case) of the pronoun for a male person (he/his/him). In these examples which pronoun we use is determined by whether the pronoun (1) is the subject of a verb (subjective), (2) shows possession (possessive case), or (3) is the direct or indirect object of a verb (objective case). It wouldn’t sound right if we said:
“His is in the store.” Or “I saw he yesterday.”
This is because we’re used to changing the pronoun to match the case and we know what each pronoun implies. Even though the English language technically uses cases, the majority of the time the nouns don’t change much at all. To see this we can substitute the pronoun in the previous sentences with the noun car:
- The car is in the shop.
- That car is his.
- I saw the car yesterday.
Notice that even though we’re using 3 different cases the noun for car doesn’t change.
There are many foreign languages with cases where the noun for car would appear in a different form in each of the above sentences.
Which languages use cases?
Languages with case systems vary and span across different language families. Some notable examples include Latin, German, Czech, Hungarian, Turkish, Russian, Ukrainian, Icelandic, among others. The number of cases used differs widely between languages.. For example German uses 4 cases, Russian is famous for its 6 cases, and Hungarian it’s known for having 18.
For native English speakers, using a case system in a foreign language can be difficult. Generally the more cases a foreign language uses the harder it will be to get used to. That being said, it is possible to become comfortable with a case based language.
Pros/cons of learning a language with grammatical cases
Word order is more flexible
Languages with case systems are usually more relaxed in their word order. In English we use word order to help determine how different words function within a sentence. For example:
“The dog bit my brother.”
“My brother bit the dog.”
We use the exact same words in both sentences but it is the word order that determines who is biting who. In a case system the words for brother and dog would be different for each sentence based on each noun’s function within the phrase. This means that it wouldn’t matter as much what order you put brother or dog in the sentence, the cases would hold the information you need.
For a new language learner this can be both a blessing and a curse. Not having to worry about word order is nice when you are first trying to speak a new language. In one sense with a case language it could be one less thing you have to think about (at least at first).
But it’s when you start speaking with native speakers that things can get dicey. Often the word order won’t change the meaning, but will emphasize certain words over others. Native speakers are likely to use a combination of different word orders and it can be hard for a new student to keep track of what is being said.
Fewer articles (sometimes)
Some (but not all) case based languages don’t use articles like “a” and “the”. On one hand, this can make things a little easier because you won’t have to worry about remembering which article agrees with the number or gender of the noun you’re using. On the other hand, if you’re used to the English language, it will probably take some time to get used to the absence of articles. For awhile you will speak and often feel like something is missing from the sentence.
The biggest drawback of learning a language with grammatical cases is that the grammar can seem especially complex and foreign in comparison to English. It often takes a new student longer to reach a basic conversational level when using cases than if they were learning a language that didn’t have any. However once you’re over the hump of remembering and understanding your language’s case system, the difficulty wears off and it begins to feel more natural.
Tips for learning grammatical cases
Unfortunately there isn’t any shortcut to language learning that can propel you quickly and painlessly through a case system. One way or another you will simply have to study and practice using cases until they become second nature. That being said, there are some effective ways to learn grammatical cases while keeping things interesting.
What to focus on:
Many people, when learning cases, like to focus on one case at a time, making sure they are comfortable with one case before moving on to the next one. Typically they start with the basic “dictionary case” (often called the nominative case), and then use that case as a reference for all others.
Other people take a less systematic approach and try to learn whole phrases in a new language. They learn specific words and sentences and aren’t so much concerned with which case is being used. They focus their efforts on speaking as much as possible, ideally with a native or teacher who can correct their mistakes. The goal here is to keep making mistakes and receiving feedback until you start to remember and intuitively pick up grammatical patterns.
How to practice cases
Rote practice with flashcards
Rote memorization can be a very effective way to remember cases. The problem is it’s often tedious and difficult to memorize things by rote. One way to curb this con is to use a spaced repetition flashcard system (SRS). At first glanced these flashcard apps appear to be a digital version of the 3×5 flashcards you used to study for your high school chemistry class, but they are a lot more powerful than that. SRS’s work so that you are shown a limited number of cards per day: some old and some new. You will be shown old cards based on how well you remembered them the last time you saw them. This makes SRS more efficient than more traditional memorization techniques because it focuses your energy on the information that you need to remember, versus having you review everything or anything.
A good way to incorporate your language’s case system into a SRS is to make cards with the regular (nominative) case and then have to decline (change) the base noun based on an example sentence. This will force you to recall which form of the noun or pronoun should be used in that case.
Practice (with native speakers)
In the midst of studying and trying to remember the grammar and vocabulary in a new language, sometimes it’s easy to forget that you actually need to use the language to get better at it. Memorization on its own will not be enough to help master your new language. At some point you will need to practice what you learn.
Talking with native speakers and receiving feedback is crucial to your language skills. Using a word during a real conversation makes it much easier to remember the next time it comes up in a flashcard. Conversation is the cement that solidifies your vocabulary and grammar skills.
As we said before when you practice with a teacher, language partner, or friend you can either focus on one case at a time or simply do your best to use the words you know and let the conversation flow naturally. It’s also not a bad idea to try a combination of these two approaches. Speaking in only one case at a time can severely limit the conversation, but if you’re not careful, not paying enough attention to cases may make your practice less effective.
Grammatical cases often get a bad rap.
While they certainly do pose unique challenges for language learners, these difficulties are not insurmountable. With practice and a little time the language you’re learning won’t seem as threatening, even if has 4-7 cases.
Ultimately the reward of knowing the language more than makes up for the time and effort.