German Cases: Why They Exist and How to Learn Them
German grammar is often said to be maddeningly complex. There’s some interesting stuff with word order, the modal verbs are a little tricky – but the main complaint is far and away the German cases.
They’re the ever-changing endings on articles and adjectives that just have to be memorized – something that doesn’t exist in English, Spanish, Chinese, or many other common languages. And it’s not optional, either. If you use the cases wrong, you’ll stick out as a non-native no matter how natural your speech is otherwise.
German was actually the first language that I learned that had cases, so I have first-hand experience regarding learning them from scratch. In this post, I’ll try to shine a little light on what the cases do, why they’re there, and how best to learn them. There’s plenty of reference materials for which German cases go where, so I’ll leave that out for the sake of time.
What is a Case?
Simply put, a case is a sort of marker that provides extra grammatical information along with the lexical information. It tells you how the components of a sentence relate to each other instead of just what they are and what they do. Let’s take an example from English, which still preserves a tiny bit of what used to be a complex case system.
I saw him.
He saw me.
That’s the whole example! It barely even seems like an example because it’s such a simple concept. But that’s how cases seem to native speakers. What’s going on here?
Just by looking at these six words, we know that there was a person telling the story and another male person, and we know the order of who saw whom first. You probably didn’t notice at first that even though there are only two people present. there are four different words used to refer to them:
I, me, he, him.
That’s cases. We’ve changed the words I and he to me and him because I is the subject and him is the object. This is exactly what German does, and for exactly the same reason.
Der Hund sah den Vogel.
Den Hund sah der Vogel.
We’ve got two players here again, and again one is the subject and one is the object. The word der changes to den to mark the object. And I can even change the word order around without changing the meaning. Because of the cases, we know that first the dog sees the bird, then the bird sees the dog, no matter the word order. This is something that German poets use to great effect, and I’ve always had a soft spot for German poetry.
Fortunately for you, the learner, spoken German doesn’t play mind games like this very much. I’ve just constructed this example to show you what’s possible. As I’ve mentioned, though, if you don’t get the German cases right in speech, your conversation partner is going to notice.
So you’ve accepted the bitter truth that you’ve got to get the cases right. How should you do it?
How to Learn the German Cases
I’ve got a couple of great techniques that are easy to fit in to any learning routine. Either one of them on its own is great practice, but combine them in order to truly master this challenging aspect of German grammar. In combination, this is sort of a bottom-up approach that ensures you know the theory as well as the practice.
Every textbook and every website presents the German article and adjective declensions in about the same way. These charts are easy to find in all kinds of orientations, but your task is to make your own. Pick one that you like and copy it down. Take your time and make it pretty – but don’t spend all your time on it because you’re not done yet. Making it by hand is best.
A few days later, try to create one by hand in a different order than the one you originally copied down. You don’t want to simply memorize der, den, dem, des in that order, you want to be able to think masculine-accusative and immediately come up with den. Besides, there’s no real reason to have the order be the same each time – it’s rules of grammar, not an alphabet.
The third or fourth time you test yourself, you should have the ability to produce all the charts from memory without relying on mnemonics or a sequence. That means you know the theory well. Read on to put it into practice.
2. Cloze Tests
A cloze test is when you take an existing piece of target-language text and block out some of the words as a memory test. Here’s an example sentence taken from Wikipedia:
Viel(…) in (…) DDR gezeigt(…) Filme verschwanden ebenfalls aus (…) Archiven oder erreichten nach (…) Wiedervereinigung (…) beid(…) deutsch(…) Staaten ein(…) Zustand, in (…) sie nicht mehr gezeigt werden können.
Viele in der DDR gezeigte Filme verschwanden ebenfalls aus den Archiven oder erreichten nach der Wiedervereinigung der beiden deutschen Staaten einen Zustand, in dem sie nicht mehr gezeigt werden können.
Take any block of text at your level – an article, an interview, a TV transcript – and make two copies on paper. Go through with a marker and black out every single article and adjective ending. Then write out the page again, filling in the case declensions based on your knowledge from making the charts. For a truly intense mental workout, copy the whole thing out again and again until you make zero mistakes with the declensions.
Sounds like a lot of work! I won’t deny it’s an involved process, but this is the sort of exercise that really pays off in the long run. Super-demanding study methods like this can really make a world of difference in just a few days. Keep it up for a week or so, using different types of texts each time, and watch your knowledge of German cases become a force to be reckoned with.
If you want more tips on learning German, check out LingQ cofounder and polyglot Steve Kaufmann’s video Learning German: Difficulties and Tips.
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Alex Thomas started learning German five years ago and has never been the same since. He currently lives in Indonesia, where he uses four languages every day.