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The case for case, or why bother about cases?

Cases. These little endings on nouns in languages like Russian, Inuktitut, and …lots of others, in fact. Children don’t always get them right, even if they are monolingual. Some cases are trickier than others. But when a child spends only part of his/her day learning a language with cases, it gets even trickier. Let’s take Russian in Canada. Parents often hear case errors in their children’s Russian. Some parents take their children to Russian schools or hire a teacher. Some go through workbooks with exercises on cases. Some keep correcting case errors in children’s speech. And some say: Why bother?

Here is a real story that I witnessed. Two Russian-Canadian girls (let’s call them Tanya and Lena), aged 4 and 5, are playing outside, speaking Russian. Suddenly Lena runs to their mothers, crying.

Lena: Tanya govorit plohie slova pro menya! (“Tanya is saying bad words about me!”)

Lena’s mother: Chto ona govorit? (“What is she saying?”)

Lena: Ona govorit mne “kysh” (“She tells me “go away”)

Tanya’s mother: Tanya, chto ty skazala Lene? (“Tanya, what did you say to Lena?”)

Tanya: Ya ne ey. Ya skazala komarikam “Kysh ot Leny”. (“Not to her. I said to mosquitoes “Go away from Lena””).

It takes a while to comfort Lena and to explain to her the difference between “Kysh, Lena” (“Go away, Lena”, with the Nominative case ending -a) and “Kysh ot Leny” (“Go away from Lena”, with the preposition ot “from” and the Genitive ending -y). The grammatical difference translates into the difference between seeing another child as someone who doesn’t want to be with you and someone who cares for you and wants to protect you.