When language learners discuss what makes a language more difficult than another, certain concepts always come to the forefront.
Some languages, like Vietnamese, Thai, and most Chinese languages, have a tone system, adding a new layer of difficulty to speaking a language correctly.
Other languages, like Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, and Cantonese, have a character-based writing system which often stymies the efforts of new learners to read and write.
Another group of languages, stretching from Western Europe all the way to the far reaches of Eastern Asia, have a third feature, which strikes fear, frustration, and indignation in the hearts of even the most diligent language learners.
This feature is known as grammatical case.
What is Grammatical Case?
Grammatical case is a linguistic feature that changes the form (morphology) of a word to denote the “role” that that word plays in a sentence.
If a language has a number of grammatical cases that denote a variety of roles, that language is said to have a case system.
Most cases indicate roles like the subject of a sentence (nominative), the direct object of a verb (accusative), and the indirect object of a verb (dative), among many others.
Case systems are relatively common globally, but vary from the extremely simple to the extremely complex.
English for example, has a case system that is so simple it is scarcely mentioned at all.
English has three cases (nominative, accusative, and genitive) which are most often reflected in a three-way distinction in pronouns (he, him, and his, for example).
The easiest to understand at a glance is the genitive case, which we use to denote possession.
If Mark owns a car, English speakers don’t need to say "the car of Mark" to refer to it, as genitive-less languages do. They simply add an [s] sound or a [z] sound (written as “‘s”) to the end of the possessor, and voilà, they get "Mark’s car". That’s the genitive case in action.
However, as I mentioned, English cases represent a quite simple version of a case system. English barely has three cases, while German has a robust set of four, and languages like Russian, Polish, and Finnish have a whopping six, seven, and fifteen respectively.
If your mother tongue is absent of cases (like mine is), then tackling languages with cases will be quite a challenge. You may be tempted to slow down, or even give up altogether.
I don’t want you to do that. I want you to succeed. And I know you can, because I’ve succeeded several times with multiple case-based languages, even after being initially intimidated myself.
If I can do it, you can too.
Let me share my story with you.
My Experience Learning Russian Cases
My first experience learning a language with a well-developed case system was Russian. People warned me that it would be a difficult proposition, and it was.
Russian has anywhere from six to eight cases, depending on how you count them. As described above, this means that many Russian words can change their endings, roots, or stresses six completely different ways to indicate what role that word plays in the sentence. These changes can apply to both nouns and adjectives.
To learn Russian, I started as most would: I bought a beginner course (from Assimil). Then, knowing that I’d want to master the cases as fast as possible, I bought a comprehensive Russian grammar book. This book, a massive tome, contained declension tables (tables of words with the appropriate cases), exercises, grammar explanations, and the like, for pages and pages and pages.
You might think that being armed with such a thorough resource would have boosted my Russian learning confidence. In reality, however, it had the opposite effect.
The book (at least in my eyes) was a mess. There was so much information on what seemed like all the cases for all the words that instead of motivating me, the book sent shivers down my spine.
So, I put the book aside. This was too complicated, too technical, and too artificial.
What I needed was a natural, efficient approach.
So, to find it, I looked to the most natural approach to learning languages possible—first language acquisition.
I asked myself, “How do Russian children learn Russian cases?”
The Natural Approach to Learning Russian Cases
Unlike learners who tackle Russian as a foreign language, Russian children do not rely at all on complicated declension tables or monolithic grammar tomes.
In fact, children don’t learn language from grammar at all. Instead, they learn grammar from language. Growing up, they are exposed to hundreds of thousands of sentence patterns, and through both exposure and practice, they quickly develop mental models of how case systems are properly applied.
Russian children don’t think about things like nominative, genitive, or instrumental cases. Instead, they just familiarize themselves with the patterns they’ve been exposed to, and work with those to produce their own correct patterns when the time comes.
And the thing is, children don’t even get these patterns right 100% of the time, at least in the beginning. There is a natural stage in first language acquisition where children will overgeneralize and eliminate irregular structures, as a young English-speaking child would say “I goed there” instead of “I went there”. Russian children do this too, at least until they internalize any irregular structures themselves.
How You Should Learn Languages With Cases
Through studying how child speakers of Russian actually learn and master the Russian case system, I was able to come up with an effective, more natural approach to learning cases, even as a foreign language learner.
If you wish to master cases in this way, I recommend that you:
Rely less on grammar books and more on language in context - If you like perusing grammar books, I’m not going to stop you. However, I believe that you should place more importance on observing grammar—the cases—in natural dialogues and live conversation. This means that you’re either going to have to find a learning resource with transcripts of actual conversations, or get out there and try speaking to a native speaker on your own. Then, you’re going to have to observe and dissect how natives speak, and do your best to mimic their speech patterns. Through repeatedly observing how cases are used naturally by natives, you’ll be able to develop a greater intuition for how and when to use them yourself.
When learning a word, look for how it appears in different contexts and situations - Grammatical case is all about the role a word plays in a sentence. This means that from sentence to sentence, the same word can be used in a number of different ways, with a number of different case endings. So, when adding a word to your mental vocabulary, never settle on a single example of the word as proof of how that word works in all contexts. Instead, look for other places the word is used. Focus on how it changes from one situation to the next. If possible, try to build a repertoire of example sentences and write them down, so that you better understand how the word works on a holistic level.
Produce language, and get feedback - Part of learning how to use cases is making mistakes. Just as children initially overgeneralize when using cases and irregular patterns, it's okay for you to do that too. Speak and write as much as possible, and try to get all the feedback you can. With that experience and that feedback, you should have everything you need to correct your initial mistakes, and begin the slow march to case system mastery.
If you don’t already have experience with cases, either in your native tongue or a previously learned foreign languages, you’ll find that they can be one of the most intimidating challenges in all of language learning.
Most would assume that this is because cases are inherently complicated, or difficult to learn. This, however, is not true.
As you know now, any difficulty you have with cases is simply due to the fact that they are unfamiliar, and difficult to learn with a mature, grammar-based approach. Children with a lot less life experience than you have can master cases just fine.
If you want to master cases as a child does, then you must modify your approach so that you learn like they do.
This means that you must focus on learning grammar from language (and not the other way around), derive patterns from multiple contexts, and speak early and often, using feedback to minimize your errors.
Use this natural approach, and your use of cases, too, will become natural, as you will rely less on artificial and contrived declension tables and rules, and become more aware of how it feels to use cases correctly and organically in conversation.