Ways of learning a case marking system

Ingela Valfridsson

Department of Modern Languages/German

UmeŚ universitet

SE-901 97 UmeŚ


Tel: 090-786 62 39

Fax: 090-786 60 23

German is, unlike English or Swedish, a morphologically rich language. One of the fundamental features of German is the case marking of noun phrases, which then serves as the means of distinguishing between agent and object in a sentence, whereas English and Swedish use a stricter word order (c.f. MacWhinney, Bates & Kliegl 1984). For Swedish learners of German this means having to restructure their perception of sentences and to learn to focus on other elements, i.e. they have to aquire a new set of principles for sentence interpretation and production.

The subjects of the study to be presented in this paper are students of German in a teacher training programme. Being a teacher of a foreign language entails not only being able to interpret and produce utterances correctly but also reaching a deeper understanding of grammar than the ordinary learner. This is necessary in order to be able to verbalise and explain grammatical features of the foreign language and this in turn requires a metalanguage (c.f. Edge 1988). Although some of our students have learnt German for six years in school they have not always discovered the functions of the case marking system in German when commencing their university training.

The paper will present a portrait of some of these learners and their ways of learning the foreign language system together with a discussion of possible approaches -- such as input focused exercises (c.f. VanPatten & Cadierno 1993; see also Kempe & MacWhinney 1998) and contrasting L1 and L2 -- to make students aware of the functions of the case marking.


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Kempe, Vera & MacWhinney, Brian 1998: The acquisition of case marking by adult learners of Russian and German. In: Studies in Second Language Acquisition 20, 543­587.

MacWhinney, Brian, Elizabeth Bates & Reinhold Kliegl 1984: Cue validity and sentence interpretation in English, German, and Italian. In: Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 23, 127­150.

VanPatten, Bill & Cadierno, Teresa 1993: Explicit instruction and input processing. In: Studies in Second Language Acquisition 15, 225­243.