How to Learn Languages with Cases

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.

Conclusion

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.

Written by Luca Lampariello and Kevin Morehouse

  • Thomas says:

    Grazie Luca.
    I tuoi articoli rispecchiano molto i problemi che incontro studiando lingue differenti come ad esempio il giapponese oppure l ungaro…
    E apprezzo quando leggo che le tue conclusioni/soluzioni non sono tanto differenti da quelle che io nel mio piccolo mi sono trovato. Il fatto che persone differenti condividano nello studio delle lingue problemi simili é qualchecosa che apprezzo molto, mi fa capire di non essere l unico ad avere questo tipo di problemi…
    Grazie ancora!
    Thomas

    • Luca Lampariello says:

      Ciao Thomas, mi fa piacere che ti piacciano i miei articoli e soprattutto, che ti risultino utili. Li scrivo proprio per questo motivo =) Un saluto! Luca

  • Jack Fandler says:

    In fact, Russian has up to 16 cases. The author of the article relies merely on the official version of Russian grammar, which is overly simplified.

    • Romy says:

      The point of the article is how to go about learning cases for any language, with Russian just being used as an example. How many cases Russian has is completely irrelevant, since the author is not trying to give us some in-depth lecture on Russian grammar or linguistics…

      • Jack Fandler says:

        He didn’t need to give us an in-depth lecture, yet he didn’t have to lie either. Saying “Russian has anywhere from six to eight cases, depending on how you count them” is a lie. It’s 16 cases, at the very least.

        • Irina says:

          I’m a navite Russian, and as far as I know we only have 6 cases! Not 8, maybe they count 8 for foreigners, because some cases are used with prepositions, but native Russians only know and learn 6 cases. And definitely not 16, we would go mad!!!! So please stop confusing people with wrong information and scaring them off from learning Russian

  • Douglas Lusby says:

    Nice article!

    Cases in German were certainly a ‘thing’ for me in university. In more recent years, I worked on improving my German a little for the first time in a very long time and with regards to the old challenge of the cases, I tried to just focus more on noticing patterns in how they appeared in listening and reading. At first, I still began by memorizing short lists of the accusative, dative, and genitive prepositions—thinking this might help me notice as I saw these prepositions pop up—but I’m not sure if that really helped. After a while, for example, for definite articles it just began to ‘feel right’ to see a dem, der, or den after the preposition ‘mit’.

  • isenriver says:

    Excellent article as always Luca. I’m learning Cantonese, a non-case language, but much of the advice you write about here I feel I can equally apply to it. You never really “know” any word, be it with a case ending or not until you’ve seen it and tried using it yourself in a number of different contexts. It is as if there is a gradient of familiarity and focusing on real life contexts and use of language is what brings progress and demystifies difficult grammar/language problems. I’d just like to thank you Luca for the advice you write on language learning because I think you’re one of the few out there that is able to clarify and give clear solutions to the problems of learning a new language. I had spent most of my life as English monoglot:) and was absolutely perplexed in how to really communicate and use another language (despite seeking advice all over the place) until I started paying attention to what you talk about. Keep up the good work mate, I never get tired of reading it 🙂

    • Luca Lampariello says:

      Thanks for the lovely words Isenriver! I fundamentally believe in 2 things: 1) I think that language learning is indeed a complex and long process, but can be broken down into simple steps 2) Human beings are hardwired to learn languages 3) As adults, we often learn the wrong way.

      To make a long story short, anyone who learns how to learn a language and learns every day, will definitely learn how to speak ANY language fluently, whether it has tones, cases or lateral clicks =)

      Once again, thanks for swinging by and for the lovely and useful comment!

      Luca

  • Elaine Maala says:

    Ciao Luca! Come stai? You are such an inspiration! I am currently in the process of learning Polish and the cases are definitely the most challenging for me as a native English speaker. I follow your Youtube channel and watched your impressive Polish videos 🙂 I’m curious what types of resources (books, apps, sites) did you use to learn Polish (other than human contact). My boyfriend is Polish and his parents always speak Polish. I would like to reach near fluency to be able to have a conversation with babcia when we go to Poland!

  • […] Before beginning this module, I had very little experience with writing or even reading blog posts. Since doing a bit of research I’ve come to see that there are thousands of blog posts about learning languages that could have helped me with my studies the past few years. You can find blog posts based on language learning in general and also ones tailored towards individual languages. I found one Blogger who goes by the name “The Polyglot Dream”. He writes general blogs about language learning. One of the articles he had written was about learning the cases of a language. This interested me as German cases are something that I have great difficulty with in my classes. His blog post was very helpful. It simplified what I had believed to be a monstrous grammatical problem  and even went on to describe the best methods for learning what case to use and when to use it. http://www.thepolyglotdream.com/how-to-learn-cases/ […]

  • Kenny Turkle says:

    Russian is definitely one of the hardest languages to learn. Though it’s not an impossible one. You just need to set yourself in the situation where you have to communicate in Russian. The language schools in the target language countries are the best option. From my experience I can recommend this Russian language school Moscow. I can’t compare with other because it’s the only one I’ve been in though it was the best language-learning experience I’ve ever had

  • Misti says:

    I’ve known folks who studied Greek for seminary, and they groaned so much about the declensions. Perhaps it’s that I’m highly adept with English grammar, but the concept of cases actually piques my interest—the word form itself assists with clarity and intended part of speech! Cool!

    I’m focusing on language in context at first, using tools like Clozemaster. What I do is pluck patterns from context, then look them up for the technical specifics after I’m comfortable with the foundation and curious about them.

    I’m having some trouble remembering the jargon, though. I can recognize dative a lot easier than I can remember what part of the sentence diagram it fills. But I think that concept of word forms helping you communicate precisely what you intended can help as incentive.

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