How to Learn Cases

Many experienced language learners know about them and are scared of them. But surprisingly as an experienced language learner there are significantly few things that scare me and cases is not one of them.

Cases are a sure way to scare all but the most hardened of languages learners on this planet. They’re not unique to the Indo-European Languages (Uyghur, Finnish and Greenlandic, Turkic, Finno-Ugric and Eskimo-Aleut respectively both have them.) For those of who you don’t know what they are, cases occur in inflected languages in which nouns will change depending on what function they form in the sentence.

In Germanic and in Slavic Languages, cases will usually serve the following roles:

  • Direct object of a verb (e.g. I ate the apple, the apple is the thing I am eating and thereby it will go in an accusative case).
  • Indirect object of a verb (e.g. I gave YOU the apple, the YOU is the thing I’m giving it TO and therefore it is in a dative case)
  • Indicate that the noun owns something (the flight of Jared, Jared is the one who owns the flight and so Jared will go in the GENITIVE case).

In other languages with more cases, their roles can be expanded. Usually translating to straight-up prepositions.

  • Illoqarfimmut (Greenlandic for “to the city”) -> the “-mut” at the end indicates “to”
  • Talossa (Finnish for “in a house”) -> the “-ssa” at the end indicates “in”.

Let me describe my difficulties I’ve had with cases and how I’ve overcome them:

  • In Russian class as a Junior / Senior in high school, I was introduced by some of Russian’s six cases one-by-one, enabling that I could “digest” each of them accordingly without feeling overwhelmed.
  • In Greenlandic, well…let me put it this well, the amount of suffixes in Greenlandic are STAGGERING. Hundreds of them for all occasions! But cases indicating ownership and prepositions I distinctly remember learning through song names that featured them.
  • In Finnish, it was extremely hard for me to understand the spoken language because, while I could recognize some of the cases that served as straight-up prepositions, my brain had trouble putting all of it together. My brain often felt that I was watching a table-tennis game at hyperspeed but ultimately, after putting together the system, that game slowed down to normal speed.

 

What happened in each of these “cases”? (HA!)

For one, like many other aspects in language-learning ,it became an issue of putting together a puzzle. It’s not enough to recognize the pieces by themselves, you have to put them together with other pieces so as to be able to create something coherent in all directions.

The stages of learning a case:

  • Passive Recognition: you recognize that your target language has a case that does something (e.g. Finnish has a case that indicates “from” or “about”). You may not be able to form anything from it yet.
  • Active recognition: you recognize that that case has a form that can be regularly identified (that case is noted with “-sta” at the end, I’m not getting into Finnish vowel harmony right now because I’m keeping it simplified)
  • Usage: you know how to put that case on a basic noun in order to convey meaning: (I can say “Suomi” meaning “Finland” but now I can say “Suomesta” meaning “from Finland”, all because of the case!)
  • Advanced usage: you learn if there are any special exceptions involving that case or any general rules for prepositional usage. Some languages will use prepositions and then have it followed by a noun in a certain case (Slavic languages are infamous for this, as is Ancient Greek). Other languages will use the case to indicate the preposition (as is the case with the word “Suomesta” so you can skip this if that’s the case.)

 

The first thing you can do is to ensure that the “plant blooms” is to realize step 1 as soon as you can.

 

Afterwards everything else will be on its way to locking into place as long as you have regular exposure.

 

One way you can genuinely ensure that you can get usage correct is by using a mixture of (1) minimal book learning and (2) sentences, preferably those that are memorable (a lot of inflected languages on Clozemaster, mind you!)

 

Book learning and “real-world usage” complement each other, even for your native language. And with learning a language with cases, it is ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL that you keep this balance in place.

 

Also, don’t expect to wolf down absolutely everything at once. Relish not knowing for a while and then you’ll grow into your role as a master of the language, bit by bit.

 

Traps to avoid:

 

  • Staring a grammar tables and hoping that you’ll master cases that way.
  • Spending too much time on irregularities when you don’t have a solid grounding in the case to begin with.
  • Believing that it is too hard and that “you can’t do it”
  • Any other variety of self-defeating belief.

 

I’ll leave you with this, having phrases and sentences that use your case are essential. I learned a lot of cases through song lyrics or even, as mentioned above, song titles. In Hungarian right now I’m also learning the cases through exposure through sentences (and not just through Duolingo, mind you. I’m going on record saying that the Hungarian course is the hardest Duolingo course out there, given that it uses arcane sentence structure that threatens repetitive-strain-injury at any moment!)

6

Siddur Helsinki, a.k.a. a Jewish Prayer book with Finnish Translation! 

You know what you should be doing right now? Learning your cases, that’s what! Have fun with that!

Rhythm, Vocabulary, Music, and a Song in Estonian

Yesterday evening and this morning I was browsing through my musical collection in order to ease telltale signs of slight infirmity (thankfully I’m a lot better now…)
A certain gem of my collection was the following song (although possibly not everyone will call it a song):

The song, which is in Estonian—although I can’t possibly classify it as either sung, chanted, screamed, or spoken—almost represented Estonia at the Eurovision Song Contest in 2013, “Meiecundimees üks Korsakov läks eile Lätti”, translates to “One Man of Ours from Korsakov went to Latvia Yesterday”

The lyrics are probably about as deranged and eccentric as the costumes you may see, and deals with the man in question having his bones broken one after another. I was reminded by Daniil Kharms’ stories which I first savored as a sophomore in college.

My family members didn’t particularly like the song and I imagine that many of you won’t be enthused by it either. BUT this post isn’t about this song, it is about a revelation I had about vocabulary learning, which is partially indebted to this demented but possibly brilliant…yes, I will say it…masterpiece.

The rhythm of the lyrics managed to induce a certain catchiness, despite the fact that the lyrics weren’t particularly sung nor was the melody anything of particular note. Perhaps it was some variety of modernistic ritual chant…

It was very easy for me to memorize the long title of the song, largely as a result of the fact that it was repeated in the song very often but also as a result of the primal rhythm which somewhat resembles a very excited heartbeat.

Later on that day I found myself looking at my Greenlandic phrasebook before going to bed. Awfully long words, I thought, how am I going to memorize everything in this book…
…and then it came to me…

…what if I used that rhythm from “Meiecundimees”, or a similar-sounding one, in order to commit these words to memory?

“Naalagaaffeqatigiit”…the Greenlandic word for the “United States of America”, a very important word for me to remember…so how did I memorize it?

Upon chanting it several times, I’ve noticed that it stuck, very much like the longer song title did.

Afterwards, I tried it with a number of other words as well, but I didn’t want to “stuff” my memory too badly before the night was up.

With most Indo-European Languages, I could manage to make out cognates and remember them that way. This was even true when I found myself committing Northern Sami vocabulary to memory (I could just search for cognates between the Scandinavian Languages or Finnish).

The only way I could do that with Greenlandic is with the modern words that came from Danish. “Beta Versioni” doesn’t strike me as too hard to remember. But for most of the words with Inuit origins? No way…

…and that is how music became necessary.

I imagine that many of you would seek to study more commonly studied European languages, and in that case you may already have methods of memory that involve tying them to languages you already know.

Chinese and Japanese with their systems of characters call for another set of memory methods altogether, but the fact is that with Greenlandic I found myself alone, without too many colorful resources or speaking partners.

So when all else fails when you need to remember something, or are just seeking to learn new words…remember my lesson…

…and face the music…