In my opinion, the key to learning any new skill is finding a good teacher, and learning Finnish is no exception. The teacher-student relationship doesn't always have to be a formal one, but it's important to have someone to support you in your efforts to answer your questions.
So when people ask me for advice, my first reaction is always to tell them to go find a teacher: someone teaching a Finnish course or giving private Finnish lessons, face to face or online. Every now and then, people tell me that they've tried this already, found it to be no use at all and decided to go on on their own. Of course, that may very well be the best option for them. People are all different, and sometimes, studying all on your own is indeed the best thing you can do for yourself and your learning process. However, for the vast majority of people, the problem isn't that they don't benefit from having a teacher. The problem is that they haven't yet found the right teacher.
When I'm teaching a course (I currently teach at Helsingin työväenopisto in addition to my private lessons), I of course teach anyone who wants to attend. But when it comes to private lessons, I never take on a student if I'm not fully convinced that I have something valuable to offer them, and that I'm able to offer it. This is because I know that my success as a teacher is not just a matter of my skills as a professional, but also really depends on a variety of factors that are completely out of my control. The most important thing is just what you might call personal chemistry - people either click or they don't, and if they don't that doesn't mean that there's anything wrong with the teacher or the student.
We don't always get to choose our teachers, and in many cases you just have to stick with the teacher that you've been assigned and make the best of it. In Finland, the vast majority of teachers are highly qualified and passionate about their work, so even when you don't get to choose your teacher you have a very good chance of landing a great one. Yes, even the ones who look like they'd rather be anywhere else than in class usually turn out to be dedicated pros when you give them a chance.
If you do get to choose, I encourage you to really make an active choice. If your course or private teacher isn't working out for you, try a different one. Ask your friends for recommendations. Also ask the teachers who it didn't work out with - chances are they feel the same way and have a vision of what you need. Obviously, be diplomatic when doing this, but don't be too shy either - a good professional teacher knows that sometimes they're just not the right teacher for a given student. The bottom line is, take some time to look around and see who your options are.
That brings us to the question of the day:
How do you know that you've landed the right teacher?
It's of course a plus if you like your teacher as a person, but don't make the mistake of equating a charming personality with skill as a teacher. Yes, in the ideal situation your teacher is a fun person to work with. However, I know from my own experience as a language learner that some of my best teachers have been boring as anything. The question to ask is, are you learning from them? If the answer is no, why is that? If it's because you get irritated at the very thought of attending yet another incomprehensible class, it's time to move on. If it's because you're not putting in the work, figure out why and try your best to fix any problems that are stopping you from learning. Remember, when it comes down to it it's you who has to take the lead of your learning process and do the work - the teacher is there to help you do it, not to spoon feed you at every step of the way. It's your process, so take charge of it.
It's good to know what you want from a teacher and to keep looking until you find someone whose methods work for you. Not all teaching methods work for everyone, and as education professionals trained for a minimum of five years at university level your teachers know that very well. That's why most of us opt for lots of different types of ways of teaching in our courses, so that there's a better chance of there being something useful there for each and every one of our students. That means that there'll always be some part of the class that won't be optimal for you. If you're in my class, for example, you might be sick and tired of getting up to do yet another five minutes of moving around to Finnish punk music from the 80s, or me asking you to repeat the phrase of the day after me yet another time. If that's the case, please be patient: we'll usually be moving on to something else soon enough!
Whenever I get the luxury of focusing on just one student at a time (which is more and more often these days), I try to find what works for the individual student. In my opinion that's what every pro should be aiming at doing - to find what works for their clients and then doing that. So if you have a private teacher, don't be afraid to ask them for what you need! This of course goes for any courses as well - I love getting feedback, even when it's negative, because that's the best way of learning about the needs of my students and becoming better at what I do.
It's also possible to have many teachers at once. Find ones that complement one another. I love co-teaching courses for precisely this reason.
Have you found the right Finnish teacher or teachers? How did you find them? How did you know that you had come to the right place? I'd love to hear from you in the comments!
What are your top ten tips for the YKI-test?
YKI (from Yleinen kielitutkinto) is the language test that you have to pass at an intermediate level if you wish to apply for Finnish citizenship. The advanced YKI-test is a popular way for advanced speakers to show their proficiency to prospective employers and, for instance, when applying to universities.
For the first half of my career so far, I was constantly teaching preparatory YKI-courses and also deeply involved in language testing and assessment through Testipiste, where I had the privilege of working for the first few years of its existence. However, the last time I taught a whole YKI course was in 2013, so I might not be completely up to date on the latest developments in the world of YKI. Those courses were great fun to teach, and I hope to get to teach one again in the near future.
As requested, here are my top ten tips for those planning to take the YKI test. I'll be focusing on the intermediate one (levels 3 and 4), because it's the one that most people take, but most of these apply to the advanced test (levels 5 and 6) as well.
1. Start by assessing your current level in Finnish. If you have access to a Finnish language professional to help you figure out what your current level is, great (you could even hire me to help you with this if you like). If you don't (and actually, even if you do), check out the criteria for the YKI levels and maybe also the self assessment grid for the CEFR, which is available in many languages here.
2. Set a realistic goal. If you've only just begun to study Finnish, it'll take a year at the very least to get to level 3, and this is if you can study and practice daily. It might take much longer, because things like life and stress and insomnia and falling in love and spending all your time playing the guitar have a tendency of getting in the way of language learning. But if you're a gifted learner and have all the right resources to study hard and learn quickly, it's possible to get there in a year.
3. Read all of Hanna Männikkölahti's YKI tips on her excellent blog Random Finnish Lesson. Consider signing up for one of Hanna's online YKI courses, she's a real expert when it comes to YKI.
4. Make some kind of plan. When will you take the test? Will you attend a course or hire a private teacher beforehand to help you prepare? There are many excellent teachers and YKI courses out there.
5. Check out the book Hyvin menee 2. This book is meant for students on CEFR level A2 (YKI level 2) who want to reach level B1 (YKI level 3), and if there's a better book out there to prepare you for the YKI intermediate test I haven't heard of it yet. Which of course is always possible, as I do have a tendency of missing things sometimes.*
6. Do all the exercises in Yle's YKItreenit. If you plan to attend a course, you might also do these during the course, but some repetition never hurts.
7. Get as much information about the test as you can. Get acquainted with the structure of the test, and if at all possible, do some kind of practice test. Most longer YKI preparative courses will include a practice test or even several.
8. Study in the months and weeks before the test, but relax the day, night and morning before. Panicky last minute revision may work for some people doing some tests some of the time, but the YKI test is a test with the goal of assessing all of your knowledge of the Finnish language. The day before, if you're not ready then it's too late anyway, so you might as well spend your time doing something fun to take your mind off it and to balance out the hard day of testing ahead.
9. Put it into perspective. Tests are never perfect, and they unfortunately never capture the whole truth about anyone's language skills. So if happen to fail or get a worse level than you hoped for, don't despair - maybe you had a bad day or some bad luck with the topics assigned in the test. Take some time to figure out where the problem was and make plans to try again.
10. Believe in yourself. You can do this, I know you can!
* EDIT (28.10.2018): Reader Harry pointed out that Hyvin menee 2 doesn't include answers to the excercises, which makes it a bit tricky for self study. Thank you so much Harry, I hadn't thought of this pretty crucial aspect of self study! The answers and lots of extra material are available in a separate teacher's guide (Opettajan opas). Also, the audio has to be obtained separately as well, and listening comprehension is a pretty important part of YKI prep, so you need to get your hands on that as well. If you're in Finland, all of this is available for free via your local library, but if you want to buy it new, it'll cost something in the neighborhood of 150 euros altogether.
Another, much cheaper textbook option is Suomea paremmin by Susanna Hart, which includes the answers to the exercises and the audio for about 40 euros. I don't think that Suomea paremmin is nearly as good as Hyvin menee 2 for YKI prep (for one, the audio includes Finnish actors pretending to be learning Finnish as a second language, which... cringe!), but it has many advantages for self study. It's much more concise so it can be a lot less overwhelming to study with, but that can be a mixed blessing - a less overwhelming textbook may mean a much more overwhelming test experience, so it's super important that you supplement it with more demanding online materials.
Reader Karen made a great suggestion in the comments of How to practice speaking when studying on your own.
My speaking is at a basic level and most finnish people are not accustomed to adjusting thier speach to someone learning the language so english is just easier :( Actually it may be very helpful if you can write a blog aimed at friends and partners of thoes learning finnish and how they can help us!
English speaking Finns love to practice their English, which I suppose is a good thing in many ways. However, it's not such a great thing when you're trying to learn Finnish - how do you learn a language if you never get to practice? Many Finns think that speaking English is always the considerate thing to do, but never stop to think that it's actually massively impolite to speak English to someone who's doing their best to speak Finnish. How would they feel if they tried speaking Spanish in Madrid after studying for a year (or a week, or even an hour) only to get an answer in English?
It sometimes amazes me that we're still grappling with this problem in 2018, but here we are. Finns are still very intolerant of non-native variations of their language, and lots of my students who actually speak better Finnish than English find themselves having to constantly resort to English in everyday situations to make themselves understood. Of course, not everyone speaks any English at all, so this "helpful" tendency to speak English can become very confusing very quickly. It of course gets worse if you don't look or behave in a stereotypically Finnish, so much so that many native Finnish speakers have trouble with people constantly speaking English to them.
This of course something that needs to change, but it's also something that a language learner doesn't necessarily have a lot of power over. So what can you do to help your Finnish friends and family help you learn Finnish?
Lots of people have written excellent texts on this subject in Finnish, so point your near and dear Finns in the right direction. I recommend this text from Maisa Martin. It was written 10 years ago but things unfortunately haven't changed that much from 2008. For practical suggestions that any native speaker can use to help learners learn, have them check out Suomen kieli sanoo tervetuloa. It is geared towards native Finnish speakers who want to volunteer as Finnish teachers, but the method and suggestions are very practical and I think very useful for starting to speak more Finnish with family members as well.
Speaking your native language with a non-native speaker is a skill like any other skill. It's quickly learned but it does take a bit of practice and lots of patience from everyone involved. I know all too well that it can a lot feel easier to just speak English, but the benefits of practicing with a native speaker are very much worth the effort.
There's also no need to switch to speaking Finnish 100 % of the time. Like with any new thing, it's a good idea to start small - for instance, you could suggest to your Finnish speaking loved ones that you spend just 5 minutes a day speaking only Finnish together. You could try that for a week and see how that feels, then see if you want to keep doing that, or maybe even up the challenge to 10 minutes a day. Or to a half a hour twice a week, or whatever suits your schedules and needs best.
My parents live in Oslo, so I've been speaking Swedish peppered Norwegian words in Norway for many years now. In my experience Norwegians really excel at speaking Norwegian to foreigners - they all seem to automatically repeat everything several times to make sure I understood, and if I need to ask something in English they'll go right back to speaking Norwegian afterwards. I'm often thinking of my Norwegian friends when I'm speaking to my students and try to do what they do. Maybe we Finns need a Norwegian or two to teach us how?
As a native Finnish speaker, I obviously don't have much first hand experience with getting Finns to speak Finnish with me. If you do, please share your experiences in the comments, I'd love to hear about them!
How to practice speaking and spoken Finnish when you're studying Finnish on your own?
This is a timely question for me, as I've only recently started spending more time in online groups for people who are studying Finnish. I've been amazed and touched by how many people all around the world are studying Finnish all on their own, often completely dependent on the free material available online. Studying any language on your own is difficult, and Finnish is definitely a challenging language in many ways. So my first piece of advice would be to find a course or private teacher if at all possible for you. There's a growing number of people teaching Finnish online (me included!), which can be helpful if there are no Finnish classes in your area.
So, on to the question! If you're studying on your own, how can you practice speaking and spoken language?
Listen as much as possible. Listening and speaking are inextricably connected. The more you listen to Finnish, the easier you'll find it to speak Finnish yourself. There are listening comprehension exercises for every level that are freely available online, but I think it's important to listen to all kinds of things in Finnish from the very beginning. Watch a movie or tv series in Finnish with or without subtitles. Listen to Finnish music. Listen to a radio program in Finnish. Even if you don't understand a thing, just getting a good feel for what the language sounds like helps so much.
Find a tandem partner. This is one of my favourite ways to study a language. Find a Finnish speaker who wants to learn a language that you speak well. Then meet up with them regularly either face to face or online. Spend half of your meetings speaking Finnish and the other half speaking your language. Free, effective and so much fun!
Talk to yourself. Stand in front of a mirror and say things in Finnish. If there's a new word or phrase that you want to learn, say it out loud, on your own, many many times. Make up a melody to go with the words or phrases. Get it stuck in your head.
Record yourself. Have some recorded Finnish at hand and repeat after it, mimicing the original version as closely as possible. Record yourself and compare your speech to the original version. Also, check out Dublearn. Dublearn is a free app that you can use to dub videos in different languages. Then you can compare your version with the original version and get feedback on your version from other dublearners. Amazingly effective silly fun!
Try to think in Finnish. Once in a while, try to switch your brain to Finnish. Even if it's just for a few minutes at a time. Focus on trying to think in Finnish, and when you inevitably find yourself thinking in another language, gently direct yourself back to Finnish. You could even use a meditation timer to keep yourself focused.
Make up your own dialogues. Think up conversations in Finnish, maybe even write them down like a script for a play. Get a friend or family member to practice them with you.
Sing in Finnish. There's a growing body of research that tells us that singing and music in general are really effective ways of learning a language. So go find a Finnish song that you like and learn it. If you can't sing, sing anyway - the point is learning Finnish, not wowing an audience.
What are your favourite ways of learning to speak?
Finnish classes have a tendency of being very grammar heavy. This is in part because of how the language itself works, but it's also just plain tradition. Grammar rules have played a central part in language learning at least for hundreds, maybe even thousands of years, going at least back to how Greek and Latin have been studied throughout the centuries.
Grammar can mean many things, from a set of rules to follow to theories about language to being synonymous with the structure of language itself, encompassing every aspect of language use: phonetics, vocabulary, genres, contexts and so on. For the purposes of this post, I'll be using the word grammar to mean the set of rules that you learn and practice when you're first learning a language - in linguistic terms, phonology, morphology and syntax. For instance, the word type rules in my previous post and exercises to practice them would be an example of what I mean by grammar.
One of the reasons why Finnish is difficult is that there's often a lot of emphasis placed on getting the forms right right away, by us teachers but also by students. I help moderate a language learning group on Facebook (Learn Finnish Language - Opiskelemme suomea, you're very welcome to join us), and a lot of the discussion centers around people asking if the sentences they have written are correct. This is of course a good thing - it's fine to want to get your grammar right from the beginning, but a lot of the time it can become an obstacle on the way to actually learning to understand, speak and write Finnish. The problem is that with a language like Finnish, where there's a lot of morphology (word forms, cases, tenses...) to learn, there's nearly always a little something wrong with even the most meticulously crafted sentences. That, in turn, makes you lose confidence in yourself and your ability to learn, and learning Finnish starts to feel like an impossible task.
The truth is, usually you can get the message through without getting everything right. I if writes like zis, you understandings I, yes? The same of course goes for Finnish.
When I'm studying a new language, I find myself terrified that if learn the forms wrong in the first place, I'll never ever get them right. However, that is not at all what I've seen as a teacher, or what the research tells me. It's absolutely possible to learn the language wrong and to then have a hard time unlearning the errors and relearning the correct forms, but in my experience this is actually quite rare. I've never seen it be a problem for the students who keep an open mind and try their best keep learning even after the initial stage. What is true for 99,99 % of my students is that as they get more experience with the language, the correct forms also emerge, bit by bit. Then there's the 0,01 % who can read a grammar from cover to cover, then read a dictionary from cover to cover and start speaking more or less perfectly. Yes, those people exist (though the numbers are off the top of my head). As a talented language learner I have them to thank for knowing what it's like to be the slowest learner in class, which I think has made me a much better teacher.
As a teacher, I'm often torn on whether to correct my students' mistakes or not. On one hand, speaking and writing the language and making yourself understood with it is what counts. On the other, I feel it's my job to help my students eventually get the forms right. What do you think, how much correction is the right amount?
Here's what Helsinki looked like this morning. Stadi <3
Photo: Lena Salmen arkisto
I got my first reader question! Not via the question form yet, but in the comments of Is Finnish Difficult. I'll take it!
How do I know which Finnish i-word is "new" and which "old"? kieli: kielen vs tiimi: tiimin?
From your question, I can tell that you know a lot of Finnish already, hyvä sinä! I'm going to start from the beginning for the readers who don't, so please bear with me.
Finnish has fifteen cases, which are little bits of sound that we stick at the end of words to express things like where something is situated. English, for example, expresses these same ideas with prepositions (which, by the way, there are also a lot of and it can be really hard to know which one to use).
So in English, you'd say for instance that someone is
in the garden.
In Finnish, that would be
puutarha + ssa
garden + in
Not too hard, right? As a bonus, no pesky article to decide on. For a lot of Finns, it's mind bogglingly hard to know if they should say that they're in a garden or in the garden this time. I don't know where English gets it's reputation for being easy to learn.
However, here comes the hard part: a lot of Finnish words change when you stick a case marker on them. For instance, all words ending in nen do this:
suomalaise + ssa puutarha + ssa
Finnish + in puutarha + in
in a/the Finnish garden
Whenever a word ends in nen , the nen becomes se:
suomalainen 'Finnish' suomalaisessa 'in the Finnish'
iloinen 'happy' iloisessa 'in the happy'
Nikonen 'the teacher's last name' Nikosessa 'in the Nikonen' (what is in me?)
The really hard part is, you can't always tell which word group a word belongs to just by looking at it, and this is where we get to you the question of the day, new and old words ending in i.
When a word ends in i, there are four word groups it might belong to:
These are the new words that Feik is referring to. In this word group, the endings are just stuck on and nothing strange happens. These words are relatively new loan words, and if you speak English or Spanish for example, you'll recognize a lot of them straight away.
Maybe you can guess what those words mean.
In these words, the i at the end transforms into an e before the endings.
suuri 'big' i -> e suure + ssa 'big + in' suuressa 'in the big'
kieli 'language' i -> e kiele + ssä 'language + in' kielessä 'in the language'
You might have noticed ssä for in. Yeah, we have two versions of in, ssa and ssä.
Also, SUURI-words are irregular in the partitive case (which literally means a part of something):
suuri 'big' suurta 'a part of a big'
kieli 'language' kieltä 'a part of a language'
As with SUURI-words, the i becomes an e before the ending. Also, there may be a kpt-change, but that deserves it's own post or three.
lehti 'newspaper' t -> d, i -> e lehde + ssä 'newspaper + in' lehdessä ' in the newspaper'
LEHTI-words are only different from SUURI-words because the partitive is regular.
lehti ' newspaper' lehti + ä 'newspaper + a part of a' lehteä 'a part of a newspaper
This word group is a group of very old words, from the time where all we had out here was water, our hands, some wolves and years and years of time.
vede+ssä 'water + in' = vedessä 'in the water
vettä ' some water' (the partitive, so more literally, 'a part of water')
When you come across a new Finnish word ending in i, look it up and see which group it belongs to. A good tool for this is the free online Finnish dictionary Kielitoimiston sanakirja , which is a great quality dictionary carefully refined by language professionals for decades and updated regularly.
There are some clues, of course. If it sounds familiar from English, French, Latin, German, Russian, Swedish etc, it's probably a HOTELLI-word. If it's something that's always been around in Finland, it's probably one of the other three. If it ends in si, it's probably a VESI-word.* But there's really no other option than just memorizing, I'm afraid.
*I edited this part a bit after some comments from a kind colleague, it originally read:
If it ends in si and is something that has always been around in Finland, like susi 'wolf' or käsi 'hand', it's probably a VESI-word.
One of the questions that I get asked most often is this one. Sure, Finnish is difficult to learn. Learning any language from scratch is difficult, and Finnish grammar is notoriously complex, with 15 cases that may or may not look totally different in their singular and plural forms. So yeah, it's difficult.
The level of difficulty you're likely to face depends on a couple of factors.
1. What you're comparing it to. There are approximately 7000 languages spoken in the world today (it depends on how you count), and I can guarantee you that Finnish is not the most difficult one.
2. What languages you already speak. If you're already fluent in Estonian, you'll learn Finnish pretty quickly. The big Indo-European languages like English, French, German and Russian are all related, and so they share a lot of grammar and vocabulary. Finnish and Estonian are from an entirely different family of languages, the Finno-Ugric languages. However, Finnish has a lot of loan words from its Indo-European neighbors, so it helps if you know one or more of them.
3. How many languages you already speak. People tend to think that there's only so much room in our brains for languages, as if our brains are bookshelves, and small ones at that. Or memory sticks with exactly one gigabit of storage space, and when it's full it's full, so you must choose carefully. That's not how learning works. The more languages you know - any languages, no matter how much or little you know - the easier it gets to learn a new language. If you're an adult who only speaks one language, English, for example, you'll have to work a lot harder than someone who's bilingual from childhood and has already studied several foreign languages. But if you only speak one language, fear not! I've seen many, many people in your position learn Finnish and you can, too. But you have to want it.
4. How motivated you are. Learning any new language well is a huge goal and takes a lot of time to reach, and you need to really commit to get there. It helps a lot if you have a concrete reason to want to learn - maybe you live in Finland, or have a Finnish family member. Or maybe you want to spend a holiday in Finland and be able to order your korvapuusti in Finnish.
5. How much of a perfectionist you are. To learn any new language from the very beginning you have to be willing to make a lot of mistakes and continuously make a fool of yourself for a very long time. Perfectionism is the enemy of learning anything, but it becomes a huge problem with a language that inspires memes like this:
I teach Finnish to adults in Helsinki. For the most part, I speak to my students in Finnish. Even the beginners.
In my day to day life, I get asked so many questions that I don't really get to answer, and I'm sure that there are many questions that simply don't get asked.
I've created this blog to make it easier to ask, and to make it easier to answer. I've decided to write this blog in English, but you can write to me in French, Spanish, Swedish, Estonian and of course in Finnish.