Form and meaning in the interlanguage development of Russian case

Jennifer S. Sanders, Indiana University


            In the foreign language Russian classroom we tend to view case as a set of discrete morphological endings to be memorized. This “chart” view of case is a very limiting one from the perspective of interlanguage development and acquisition of case. Under this traditional view we miss the mapping of form to meaning, where in the L2 learner either form or meaning may be present in a given noun phrase without the other. Typically when we evaluate learners’ case errors we have in mind meaning without form. For example, if a student produces Ja čitaju kniga we assume he/she understands at some level that kniga is the direct object of the verb, despite its incorrect form. However, the following examples (simplified from actual learner data) show that non-target-like utterances often result from interlanguage problems with case meaning, or function, rather than forgetting the correct case form.


(1) * On izbegal oknom.

(2) * U Viktora 20 let.

(3) * U nego bolel golova.


In (1) the learner has intentionally produced an Instrumental form to express a meaning that requires the prepositional phrase čerez okno. The source of the error is not form, but meaning. In (2) a student who otherwise shows a high accuracy level in Dative would be marked down here in a traditional morphological accuracy score, although the problem is not with Dative form but with a particular Dative function. In (3), perhaps the most interesting type of example, nominal morphology is 100% accurate…but the verb indicates that something is clearly missing, namely, acquisition of case meaning.

            This paper will expand upon the seminal L2 Russian case acquisition studies of Thompson (1980) and later Rubenstein (1995), which employ a traditional “chart” view method of Error Analysis. These earlier studies labeled all nominal forms correct or incorrect to arrive at an accuracy score for each case as a monolithic whole. As a result of this methodology, insights into interlanguage development of case are missed, and the issue of Nominative acquisition, as in (3), is entirely ignored. In other words, these studies address accuracy of morphological form and ignore case meaning. In the present study, based on data collected as part of a two-year longitudinal study of students in first- and second-year Russian, the impact of the form-meaning connection in L2 Russian case acquisition is analyzed and stages in the mapping of form to meaning are determined. This paper will also suggest classroom activities to help students make connections between case form and case meaning.




Rubenstein, G. (1995).  “On case errors made in oral speech by American learners of Russian.”  Slavic and East European Journal, 39, 408-429.

Thompson, I. (1980). “Acquisition of cases by students of Russian: A preliminary investigation.” Russian Language Journal, 34 (117), 43-52.