My system for learning the Russian cases (with examples)
Today's post is from Lauren, updating you on her plans for her Russian project, and discussing how she's planning to start learning the Russian cases. This is the last update in her project, since I surprised her with a proposal in Paris. It's why a goal of reaching around A2 by the two-month point was
It's why a goal of reaching around A2 by the two-month point was such an important milestone to aim for – it was the real main one! I'm so proud of how she did, and you can see it in her last video update below.
Over to you, Lauren!
Here's the video from my month 2 point (recorded in New Zealand in April, and uploaded now because Benny and I have been “otherwise occupied” 🙂 ):
It's been well over 3 months since I started the Russian project, so it’s time for me to regroup and reflect.
In the end, I was able to make 2 months worth of video updates before I got tied up attending the amazing polyglot gathering and then getting a really big surprise – both wonderful things! – And both cutting into my plans to regularly speak Russian on Skype, so the project ultimately ended up being a 2 month one.
With my 2 months of earnest work, I reached a solid A2 level, which you can see in action in my 2-month video from April below. I'm extremely proud of it. Especially since I started out such a nervous mess…
But now, I can keep a conversation flowing, I can conjugate my verbs, I can use the past and future tenses, and I can even talk about a range of topics (travel, work, even the Russian language itself) in Tarzan Russian!
But I haven't reached level B1. And it's mainly for two reasons (other than not having truly begun month three yet).
1) I still can't comfortably cover a wide range of conversations (with a patient speaker) due to lack of vocabulary, and, 2) I still haven't learned how to use the six Russian cases.
So the next time I get back into Russian, I'll have a new goal 🙂
I've realized that I love learning Russian. It's so much more than a project for the blog for me now. It's a passion. And I want to stick with Russian for the long haul: In my next intensive project, I'll be aiming for fluency.
And from my experience over the past few months, I'm now absolutely 100% sure that I can reach that goal.
What’s next: Here's the new mini-mission I'll be tackling next on my journey from A2 Russian to B2 Russian. And it's a big one.
Learning the Russian Cases (And Why It Feels Like Such a Pain in the Ass)
The very first time I told someone I wanted to learn Russian, they grimaced and said “you know it has six cases, right?”
And I said yes, but that was a lie, and in fact I didn’t even know what cases were.
This has been the problem with learning Russian cases for me. I don't speak “grammar-ese”. Learning cases is such a different beast from learning other Russian vocab and phrases, partly because you have to learn a whole subset of English terms first!
I cringe at overly technical wording, and learning cases means dealing with lots of it. Who can get excited about terms like Accusative, Nominative, or Indirect Object? The idea of sitting down to learn them seems so boring. It feels intimidating, confusing, and painful.
BUT, I finally bit the bullet and started to learn one of the Russian cases. And after feeling totally despondent for a few hours, I had an “aha” moment, and found a system that works for me and makes me feel excited and confident about getting through the “hardest part of learning Russian.”
So here’s the technique I'm using to learn the Russian cases.
In this post I’ll avoid thinking about it too technically, and I'll lay it out for you in plain language the best I can, because that's what works best for me.
As my example, I'm using the Prepositional Case (the one you use to talk about where you are), since that's the case I've learned so far. But I plan to use this technique to learn all the other cases as well.
(By the way, if you haven't already learned Cyrillic, make sure you tick off that box before you start learning the Russian cases.)
Don't Memorize the Grammar Rules. First Learn Off Phrases So You Can See the Cases in Action
I've read articles that scared me away from cases by explaining it something like this:
“To form the accusative case, simply learn this long list of word endings. If a words ends in X, Y, or Z, change the ending to W. If a words ends in X, Y, or Z, change the ending to W. Now remember this long list of exceptions. Repeat this process five more times for the other cases, with a totally different set of rules, and exceptions for word endings for each. Now you know the Russian cases!”
Um, no! No I don't know them! And now I'm questioning all my life choices!
But luckily, words don't exist and shouldn't exist in a vacuum. You can learn all of the many word-ending changes required for cases… but please don't start by trying to memorize lists that will have little to no concrete meaning for you.
Try this instead:
Think about what each of the cases does – what it allows you to talk about in Russian. Then list some example words or phrases for each of those talking points that you know you'll want to use when you're speaking Russian. After you've looked at a few phrases that use the case in action, you'll get a feel for how the words change without having to memorize. Once that happens, then take a closer look at the rules, after you already have a good understanding of feel of each case.
Here's an example of what that looks like.
Step 1: Create a few phrases in English that use the words you're looking for
The case I’m looking at here is the “Location Case” (formally known as the Prepositional) case, and it is used to talk about location: where you are, where something is, etc. So you’ll need to use words like “in” (в) and “at/on” (на). It's also used to describe what you're talking or thinking “about”, (о/об/обо).
To get started, you can find sample phrases with a quick Google search, but I recommend you create your own list. That way, you're likely to use them in conversation and you can practice them often to build muscle memory! Then, to translate the phrases to English, I use Google Translate or ask my Russian teacher.
Here's my list of phrases:
On the website – на сайте
In the blog – в блоге
In the room – в комнате
On the street (outside) – на улице
At university – в университете
In class – в классе
At the store – в магазине
In the city – в городе
In a group – в группе
In Australia – в Австралии
In America – в Америке
About my family – о своей семье
About travels – о путешествиях
About grammar – о грамматике
About Russia – о России
So this is what the Prepositional Case looks like in action… but to really understand it, you need to look at how exactly using the case has changed the words inside the phrase.
Step 2: Look up the regular or “dictionary form” of all your nouns and compare them to how they look in your phrases
Russian cases are all about changing the endings of the words, but memorizing a list of the rules for when to change what won't do you any good if you don't already know what the basic form of the words look like!
So take a look at my list now:
Blog – блог In the blog – в блоге
Website – сайт On the website – на сайте
Room – комната In the room – в комнате
Street – улица On the street (outside) – на улице
University- университет At university – в университете
Class – класс In class – в классе
Store – магазин At the store – в магазине
City – город In the city – В городе
Group – группа In a group – в группе
America – Америка In America – в Америке
Australia – Австралия In Australia – в Австралии
Family – семья About my family – о своей семье
Travels – путешествия About travels – о путешествиях
Grammar – грамматика About grammar – о грамматике
Russia – Россиия About Russia – о России
This Russian case involves changing the ending of thing you're talking about. This means we're looking at the nouns in this list and how they change.
From a quick glance, you'll notice that most of the nouns end in -e, (but not all of them). This is pretty much the gist of the Prepositional Case!
But to really understand it, take a look at Step 3 to figure out when you should end the noun in e, and when you should end it in something else.
Step 3: Now is the time to take a look at those rules.
When the first thing you do to learn the Russian cases is look at a long list of “when a word ends in X, change the ending to Y,” it creates a lot of questions in your mind, and it's super overwhelming.
But now that we're working with a concrete list of words we want to use, we can ask more concrete questions like “Why does “блог” change to an е ending, whereas “Россиия” changes to an ии ending?”
Taking a look at the rules governing the case will answer your question.
So now, review the rules for the Prepositional Case, and then look back up at the list above to see them in action.
To form this case…
For most masculine nouns (ending in a consonant, й, or а), change the ending to е.
For masculine nouns ending in ий, change the ending to и.
For most neuter nouns (ending in о or е), change the ending to е.
For neuter nouns ending in ие, change the ending to и.
For most feminine nouns (ending in а or я), change the ending to е.
For feminine nouns ending in ь or ие, change the ending to и.
For feminine nouns ending in -ия, change the ending to ии.
Plural nouns take the endings ах or ях (see more here.)
So that’s why most of the words end in е, because most of the rules require the word endings to change to this form. And this also answers the question of why words like Russia, Australia, and travels don’t conform to the others.
Makes sense, yes?
Step 4: Create a list of verbs (action words) that correspond to the case
Do you feel like you fully know how to use the Prepositional Case now? Of course not! Because understanding the rules is one thing, but being confident in being able to use them requires practice.
So now we’ll get you using that new case so that you’ve really learned how to use it, not just “learned the rules.”
Certain cases lend themselves to using particular verbs over and over again.
- Live in
- Sit on
- Talk about
- Think about
So I like to start my practice by making a list of verbs I'm likely to use with this case. Then I combine them with the nouns I also know I'll want to use.
I've found this is a great way to get my brain and my mouth used to forming the cases in full sentences when I'm speaking.
Here's my list of verbs for the Prepositional Case:
To live (in) – жить
To stand (on/in) – стоять
To sit (on/in) – сидеть
To study (at/in) – учиться
To buy (at) – покупать
To lay (on/in) – лежать
To write (on/in) – писать
To hang (on/in) – висеть
To talk (about) – говорить
To think (about) – думать
And now that you have your list of verbs….
Step 4: Practice using your verbs and new-found knowledge of the case to form and practice your own sentences!
I love this method because it really gives me the opportunity to apply my knowledge of the way the case is formed rather than just memorizing rules. And this technique also gives you practice in conjugating those Russian verbs. A double whammy!
Here’s an example of some sentences I built using my list of verbs to form the Prepositional Case.
I live in New York – Я живу в Нью-Йорке
The book is (sits) on the shelf – Книга стоит на полке
I write about travel – Я пишу о путешествиях.
I want to talk about my family. – Я хочу поговорить о своей семье.
Tell me about Russia. – Расскажи мне о России.
I’m reading about Russian culture. – Я читаю о русской культуре.
And that’s it!
There’s a lot you can do with this system. You can take your first list of phrases and add them to your Anki decks, or you can create Anki decks using the full sentences you created. The possibilities are endless!
I realize this sounds like a lot of work. And that's because learning the Russian cases is a lot of work. But I think it helps a lot to have a process, a place to start and an idea of where you'll want to go from there.
So here's the process I've conjured up. I hope it serves you well!