If you have ever tried to learn a language like German, Russian, Turkish, or Hungarian you’ve undoubtedly come across grammatical cases. While the number and function of cases vary between the languages that use them, one thing these languages all have in common is a reputation for being especially difficult for native English speakers to learn.
Case-based languages are generally further from English than your typical Romance languages and as a result, they seem even more foreign to native English speakers. Tell someone you’re learning Spanish or French and they’ll likely smile and say, “Oh how nice!”. Tell them you’re learning Russian and just wait for the puzzled look on their face.
The truth is these languages aren’t as bad as their reputation would seem. Yes, they pose some unique challenges to language learners, but with some practice and a bit of know how they can not only be learned but mastered.
In this article, we’ll look at some practical tips for learning languages that use grammatical cases.
The basics of grammatical cases
When a language has a grammatical case system it means that each noun in that language will have a different form based on its function in the sentence. Let’s take a look at the example sentences below:
Apples are delicious.
I really like apples.
I like ice cream with apples.
In each of these sentences, the word “apples“ is used differently. In the first sentences “apples“ is the subject. In the second it is the direct object. In the third sentence, the word is used in an adverbial phrase. In a case system, each of these sentences would use a different form of the word “apples“.
In which languages do we find cases?
Oddly enough Old English used a case system but there is little to no evidence of it in Modern English. Other ancient languages like Ancient Greek and Latin both used cases. Today you can find grammatical cases in most languages in the Slavic family such as Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, and Czech. They also appear is some Germanic languages like German and Icelandic. Other notable languages include Modern Greek, Hungarian, and Turkish.
- Break things down
Different languages use a different number of cases. For example German uses four cases, Russian is well known for its six, and Hungarian is infamous (at least in the language learning field) for having a whopping 18 cases. However many cases your language has it’s a good idea to break down the system and study one case at a time. Once you’re reasonably comfortable with one case then move on to the next one.
Depending on your learning style it might also be a good idea to do a cursory study of the entire case system before you start learning individual cases. This way you get a working knowledge of the system and will be able to recognize when a particular case is used and what it sounds like.
- Start with the basics
Start with the most common case. Case languages will usually have a case that appears in the dictionary form of the words (often called the nominative case) this will be the most common case and can serve as a reference for all other cases. Once you become familiar with the “dictionary” case move on to the case you think is the next most common. If you’re not sure a little research should be able to point you in the right direction.
Language textbooks are a good reference here as they usually present cases in order of utility or in order of easiness to learn.
- Practice, practice, practice
Learning what each case is and how it functions is important, but none of it will stick until you actually start using the language. As with any language, the best way to practice is with native speakers. The most important element of your language practice will be producing the language and then receiving feedback.
At first, it may be frustrating trying to say your first few phrases in a case heavy language. Because the nouns change so much it will be a struggle to form even basic sentences. Still, it’s important that you speak and write in the language as much as possible. You will make a lot of mistakes but when learning a language this is unavoidable. Try to relax and enjoy the process. Think of each mistake you make as another step toward fluency.
- Review constantly
Review before and after your practice sessions to maximize your progress. Spaced repetition flashcards, or even regular paper flashcards, are ideal for this. Write the dictionary form on one side and another case form on the other. Just spending 15 minutes a day with flashcards will help etch the case system into your brain.
Learning a language with cases will most certainly be a challenge, but it will be an enjoyable and worthwhile one. With some time and effort, you will begin to become more comfortable with your new language and feel it “unlock” as you continue to practice it. Then a language that once seemed so foreign will feel more natural.
Article by Live Fluent