How to Learn Finnish and Prepare for YKI
Finnish is a notoriously difficult language to learn. Ask any expat and they will not tell you otherwise. As an expat myself who’s been living in Finland for several years I’ve gotten by just fine with English (I don’t have to use Finnish at work), and it took me quite a while to finally muster enough willpower to prioritize and tackle this seemingly colossal task. After a year of focused self-study while working a full-time job, and with lots of sweat and blood, I managed to pass the Finnish National Certificates of Language Proficiency test (YKI).
Since then, a lot of friends and colleagues in my social circle have been asking me what kind of dark sorcery I used to decipher this cryptic tongue. I am still far from being fluent in Finnish, but I do believe I have some tips and experiences I can share that might help some English-speaking people in their journey to learn Finnish and eventually brave the YKI test. In fact, some of these tips might prove useful for learning any language.
It’s important to note that I self-studied for the most part, thus I will mostly share self-learning tips. Having said that, I’m sure you might find some of these practices helpful even if you are in favor of conventional classroom courses.
Learning is Subjective
The first thing you should figure out is what works for you and what doesn’t when it comes to learning a language. Re-learn how to learn a language. It might sound simple, but it took me a while to understand that conventional courses are just not for me. I find the process cumbersome and unproductive, and find learning at one’s own pace much more effective. You might feel the opposite, and that’s OK. There is no one right way, and it’s essential to figure out your own style of learning.
Here are some of the most common methods of learning you can consider to practice and my brief opinions about them:
- Conventional, long-term classroom courses: Good for absolute beginners since it gives you some structure, but can get sluggish for the rest. It’s the worst option when it comes to colloquial language.
- Intensive, short courses: Good for busy people, but can be intimidating for beginners. Can be a great boost right before taking the YKI. Book them in advance, they are popular!
- Private teacher: I don’t have much experience with this, but I believe hiring one would be a better value for your money if you already have the basics (so you tailor the learning according to your specific needs).
- Self-learning with a grammar book: Great for people who learn better when they have access to the full scope of the subject, and who are good at self-structuring learning topics. Might be a difficult method if you struggle with self-discipline or can easily get unmotivated without supervision.
- Self-learning with an app: Can’t replace any of the above methods by itself, but can be used as an auxiliary tool. Beware of relying too much on one app, as it might narrow down your focus.
- Auxiliary learning methods: Reading a book, watching a movie, listening to a podcast, writing emails, etc. These ones might look deceptively inefficient, but in fact, they make the difference between knowing about a language and actually grasping it.
- Conversing: Whatever you do, you won’t truly learn a language without engaging in conversations with it. If you have to pick only one method, this should be it. Practice it as much as you can.
Course of Action
Personally, I think the best approach is to use a variety of methods in different phases of your studies, and even better, use them simultaneously. What worked for me was a mixture of different things:
The basic level course at the very beginning
I took Finnish A1 and A2 in university years ago before I took Finnish seriously, and dropped out of B1. It gave me an alright basis, but it was not without issues. More than A2 level really felt like an ineffective chore, plus it scarred me with some deeply rooted misunderstandings (because of the fact that they over-simplify some rules at the beginning phases). It’s a bit of a hit and miss as well since you really need a good teacher for this to work. Also, I feel easily discouraged by the know-it-all type of student stereotype that seems to have figured it all out so much faster than anyone else. Yikes!
Exposure to language and active listening
Being in Finland for years, even if you don’t actively study the language, you can really tune your ears and eyes to the way the language works. Part of our understanding of human communication is based on mannerisms, body language, and vocal articulation. Use this to your advantage, keep your language radar on at all times, and be mindful of how people speak and interact.
The key to learning any skill well is frequency, and the best way to achieve consistency is by implementing learning practices in your existing routines. Swap your past time activities with something that involves Finnish. Watch movies in Finnish or with Finnish subtitles. Listen to podcasts or watch Youtube videos in Finnish and in topics you are interested in. Try to read small articles or easy-Finnish (selkosuomi) books. Try to converse in topics that you enjoy with Finns or your fellow learners. Immerse yourself in the language and culture. Read the news in Finnish every morning (YLE uutiset selkosuomeksi). Combine this method with focused study periods for the best results.
Get a grammar book
Do it, it will be worth your money (unless you can get it from the library). It’s better if it’s in English or in any language you speak. You can have language immersion through other means, but when you are learning grammar, it’s important that you actually understand what you read. So ditch Suomen Mestari, and get yourself a copy of “A Grammar Book of Finnish” by Leila White. If you prefer an e-book, try “Complete Finnish” by Terttu Leney (but it’s not as good).
Use online resources
I can’t tell how much I’ve learned from online resources. In fact, they made the bulk of my studies. There is a bunch of great online grammar, vocabulary, and exercise resources. I mention some of the best ones I found at the end of this article. Uusi Kielemme even has a free Discord channel that you can ask questions to a very helpful community. Some of these content creators also give private lessons.
I wish I knew this method when I was learning English. It’s a game-changer! Basically, the idea is that you create cards in an app (or using actual paper cards) with two sides. One side has a word, phrase, or grammar rule, and the other side has a description, picture, and/or examples. You keep adding everything you learn to your card library, and then you practice a number of them every day. The app decides when to show you the card next based on your performance. More on this in a bit. I use Anki (it’s free and open-source).
Join language cafe sessions (Kielikahvila)
Most libraries in Finland (at least in pre-Corona Helsinki) organize free “language cafe” sessions. These are great places to break the shyness barrier and putting all those study hours into practice. If this sounds intimidating to you, meet a friend or two for coffee or a meal where you chat only in Finnish for an hour or so. Do this on a weekly basis.
Write something every day
I’m just regretting I didn’t start doing this earlier. It was revealing to me to see how much carryover writing had on other areas such as speaking and reading. Write a paragraph or a page every day. It can be as simple as what you did that day or a statement about a random topic. Try writing in different forms (essay, email, formal letter, informal text, complaint, etc.). Try to focus on using and getting comfortable with one grammar rule per writing. Also make sure to ask for feedback so you know what you need to improve.
Get help from friends
Our brains tend to discard useless information, and new words we learn have the tendency to go to the easily-discardable category unless we teach our brains otherwise. The best way to do that I found is by using flashcards on a consistent basis. Let’s dive into them a bit more now.
Flashcards are essentially two-sided cards that can contain words or other language concepts. They are supposed to be practiced on the basis of something called spaced repetition. What spaced repetition does is displaying available cards in a deck in varying intervals based on how recently they were created and how good you are doing with them. Example: “Koira” (a dog) is a new word you add to your card deck. It will be shown to you next time you study because it’s just been created. If you do well at figuring out what this word means, it will show up in, let’s say, four days later. If you couldn’t figure out what it meant the first time, it will show you again the next day. This way, you train your brain to remember “Koira” before it has the chance to mark it as discardable information, but not too soon so you don’t have to do redundant work.
As you can imagine, this kind of system is a lot of work to create and maintain. Luckily, there are apps out there that do the work for you. I recommend Anki, which is an open-source software that has a web app and mobile apps. A commercial app called Memrise also does a similar job, but it has pre-created word decks for you, as opposed to you creating your own decks, and I find this a less effective way of learning (more on this in a second). Last but not least, you can go old-school and prepare your own paper cards (they even have flashcard kits sold in some paper shops). This might be potentially an even stronger way of learning words, but obviously it requires lots of manual work.
Pick whichever method suits you better. If nothing else, just make a habit of writing the new words you learn in a notebook and practice them daily.
Here are a few examples and tips for creating flashcards:
- Simplest form:
- Including an example sentence. This creates a stronger association. Be careful not to use too complex sentences with difficult words in them:
Front: koira. “Ruskea koira oli tosi söpö.”
Back: dog. “The brown dog was very cute.”
- Answer with a picture. A picture acts as a mnemonic, establishing a strong association. Great for tangible objects, but not so much for abstract concepts.
Back: -A picture of a dog-
- Use example sentences that you have a personal connection with for achieving stronger associations. Example: Write a sentence about a dog you know personally.
- Use pictures that you took yourself for stronger associations, instead of stock images.
- Mix and match different card forms that suit the best for a given context.
- Create cards yourself instead of using other people’s pre-created decks (which can be found online). Card creation itself is a valuable process that promotes learning. Don’t miss out on it.
- Add tags such as noun, adjective or verb to make it easier to understand what you are looking at, as Finnish suffixes can be tricky. You can use shorthands, such as n. for noun.
- You can have multiple common forms of a word on the same card. Example: Lisätä (verb, to add), lisäys (noun, addition), lisää (adverb, more).
- You can have the most common or challenging inflections of a word in the same card. Example: Omena (nominative, an apple), omenoita (partitive plural, some apples).
- Practice both sides of the cards. You’ll find that some cards are easier or harder when you are shown the front or the back side.
- Don’t just create vocabulary cards. Also, create grammar cards where on one face is the name of a grammar rule, and on the other is a brief description of it. This is a great way to practice grammar. Be sure to include example sentences too.
- Remember that you don’t have to create all cards in one deck. You can create multiple decks for different purposes. Example: One deck for words, another for phrases, and yet another for grammar.
- Keep the app (or your paper cards) with you all the time, so that you can spontaneously add new words whenever you encounter them.
- Find lists like “1000 most used words in Finnish” and learn those by heart. Then, search by categories like health, technology, greetings, weather, etc. and learn essentials from each category.
I’ve always hated the classic form of grammar book exercises at the end of a chapter, where you answer twenty different versions of the same question. Apart from being absolutely boring, you forget what you learned after a couple of weeks. A better way of doing it is to just practice a handful of example cases of a grammar topic, then add them to your library as flashcards, so that you can actually repeat and learn them.
When it comes to preparing for YKI, it’s essential that you practice some specific exercises. I will share a few online resources for that at the end.
Pronunciation and Listening
Pronunciation may come to most as the last thing that you need to master when learning a language, but I beg to differ. When you have better pronunciation, not only that you are more easily understood, but also you understand what you hear better.
The way we hear vowels and consonants is very subjective. We may think that we hear it right, but what two people from different cultures hear is not always the same. For example, we Turkish folks are terrible at differentiating between W and V. To us, they both sound like V, so we tend to pronounce W like V. When you learn to pronounce correctly, you learn to hear more accurately at the same time (actually, this might be a chicken or egg situation).
Since listening can be very subjective, to have a more objective pronunciation, it’s a good trick to closely watch what a person’s mouth is doing and try to mimic it. Teach your mouth, tongue, and throat how to mimic and adapt to these new types of gestures, movements, and positions. Then, try to mimic the articulation of native speakers. Articulation is how fast or slow people speak across words and sentences, what kind of breaks and connections they use between words, and how they accentuate different parts of phrases. Pay attention to the musical flow of the language, and it’ll help you speak and hear more fluently.
A great way to soak in pronunciation is to watch TV shows and listen to music. My favorites are cartoons on Netflix. They are the ones that most likely come with Finnish dubs and subtitles. I pick the ones that have both Finnish and English voice and subtitles so that I can swap or mix languages to understand it better. Also, they usually use more of a book Finnish, so that’s easier to understand for beginners. Later, upgrade to native Finnish shows with English subtitles, such as Bordertown or Karppi. These will be hard at first, but they will train you well on colloquial (street language) Finnish. Try alternating between English and Finnish subs.
Here’s a random tip for figuring out how to pronounce a tough word: Break it down to its syllables, and then vocalize it from the last syllable to the first. Example: Read kärsivällinen (patient) like so: -nen, -linen, -vällinen, -sivällinen, -kärsivällinen. This approach somehow makes it easier to grasp a long word.
Another tip: Read out loud sometimes. Read an article a day out loud, and each day, focus on improving one pronunciation aspect you are struggling with. Even better, record yourself to objectively assess your pronunciation, and ask for suggestions from a Finnish friend.
To sum up, how accurately you hear a language and how intelligible you speak it is influenced by your pronunciation. A better pronunciation will give you a better command of the language, even if your grammar and vocabulary are not on par.
All those hours of hard work, and you finally feel that your body is ready for YKI. Fear not, for fear is the mind-killer. Thy shall find solace in these tips and resources I gathered for you.
- Plan in advance. YKI happens just a few times a year, and the application closes way in advance. Make sure you have enough time to study and apply for the next exam.
- Register quickly once the application is open because exam spots fill very quickly. You don’t want to travel to the other side of the country for the exam.
- If your goal is to apply for citizenship, book an appointment at Migri right after you register for the exam. I waited for the YKI results to come (it takes two months or so) before booking a Migri appointment, and thus wasted four months waiting for the first available slot. If you don’t want to waste time, don’t make the same mistake. You can always cancel your Migri appointment if you fail the test.
- Take as little as you need for the exam since your bag will be taken from you during the exam. Bring only the essentials: Water, some small snacks, a pencil, and an eraser. If you have sensitive ears like me, take earplugs. This will provide a quieter exam experience, and you don’t have to suffer loud dialogue bursting from the headphones.
- If you are distracted or intimidated in typical classroom environments, be prepared for it. Practice every now and then in loud and crowded environments and sharpen your zenning out skills.
- Get accustomed to the exam jargon. Learn words like fill-in-the-blanks, answer sheet, tape and multiple choice in Finnish. Make a separate flashcard deck just for this stuff.
- Get accustomed to the exam structure. Practice one or two sections of a sample exam per day on the last phase of your studies before the exam.
- Write a paragraph or a page (and ask for feedback from someone).
- Have some conversation in Finnish.
- Watch or listen to something in Finnish.
- Learn new words or phrases and go over the ones you already know.
- Learn or review a grammar rule.
- Practice some online exercises.
- Role-play: This is a common and very stressful section of the exam. You are given a random scenario and asked to talk about it for 30 seconds or so. Example: You are in a department store and looking to buy a dishwasher. Tell the shop assistant what you need. Or, you find an injured person lying on the ground in your neighborhood. Call the emergency and ask them to help. As you can imagine, this can be insanely stressful if you are not prepared. Ask someone to throw you into random situations like this and try to role-play in 30-second intervals.
- Get good at using a smaller set of widely-used words instead of trying to learn a very broad scope of vocabulary that you are not so comfortable with.
Here’s a copy of my fresh observations I shared right after I completed the YKI test (and not before ordering a pint):
“It was five hours long in total. It was in a school in Kamppi (German School). First, we had to wait for an hour before going to the classrooms, which I used for gathering up my Zen, breathing, and trying to calm down, also reassuring myself that I can do this. There were all kinds of people, from middle-eastern folks to the whitest people who might easily pass as Fins. Mostly 20-30 years old looking.
It first started with listening/speaking for our group, and while other groups started with listening-reading (there was only one classroom equipped with headsets). Listening was absolutely the most BRUTAL part of this exam. I’m not sure if I will pass it, especially the parts where you have to write down answers, because the vocabulary was super obscure to me. You can imagine how stressed I was with this brutal start, but luckily one of the guides was very talkative and friendly, and she helped us feel a little relaxed. I can imagine how hard it would be if the guide was a wall-faced automaton.
Speaking was quite difficult too, but with enough practice, this was relatively easier for me. However, other people speaking around you makes this a super weird experience, so make sure to replicate this environment while practicing. Luckily, the headphones provided some isolation, and I also had my 10dB earplugs on, which helped too. Topics included stuff like asking help in a shop, calling the place and asking for some schedule changes, etc.
There was not enough time for eating a proper meal during the break, so I stuffed my mouth with some baby carrots and nuts. It was a good call anyway to eat light, cause the next session would otherwise be a “sleeping” session.
Reading was more difficult in some tasks, but easier on the others. Topics included essays, advertisements, and blog posts.
Writing was the easiest for me since I had the most time to think and also could choose vocabulary and structures that I’m most comfortable with. There was one message to a friend, an email to your kid’s teacher, and a free essay on either retirement or overpopulation.
Overall, it’s been an exhausting experience which I’m not looking forward to going through again. Well, at least I was expecting it to be hard (don’t believe people who keep saying it’s a piece of cake). However, I know that evaluating is much more forgiving than the exam itself ( or so I heard) so I’m hopeful that I will pass 🙂 At least I know I did my best! Good luck to anyone who plans to take this test!”
Reading these note months later, I want to stress these points out:
- The exam is hard, but don’t let this scare you, because the evaluation is much more forgiving. I think this is the way YKI works: They throw the hardest at you instead of dumbing it down to your level and then see how you can handle it. So, don’t be discouraged, but do take it seriously. Do your best, and you’ll make it!
- If you are not entirely sure if you are ready to register for the next exam session, do it anyway. It will give you a hard deadline and force you to practice harder.
- If you don’t understand something, try to write or speak as much as you can anyway, because any answer is better than no answer or silence.
- Speak naturally and casually, instead of trying to sound too bookish.
- YLE Finnish: https://yle.fi/aihe/artikkeli/2015/12/15/suomi-finnish
- Uusi Kielemme: https://uusikielemme.fi/ It is THE best resource out there!
- Random Finnish Lessons: https://randomfinnishlesson.blogspot.com/ Great tips on random but useful topics.
- The Finnish Teacher: https://thefinnishteacher.weebly.com Another great grammar resource.
- Finnish Grammar Bits: https://people.uta.fi/~km56049/finnish/ Good for beginners.
- A Taste of Finnish. http://tasteoffinnish.fi/ For beginners.
- Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Finnish_grammar No joke, read this if you remotely consider yourself a language nerd.
- Wiktionary: https://www.wiktionary.org/ Best for learning a word in a holistic way, with its etymology, related words, and examples.
- SuomenEnglantiSanakirja: https://www.suomienglantisanakirja.fi/ A useful dictionary.
- IlmainenSanakirja: https://ilmainensanakirja.fi/suomi-englanti/ Another useful dictionary.
- Sanakirja: https://www.sanakirja.org/ Another dictionary.
- Conjugate words: https://www.verbix.com/languages/finnish.html
- Finnish slang: http://www.slangi.net/slanginet/Sivu.htm
- Uusi Kielemme vocabulary: https://uusikielemme.fi/finnish-vocabulary/ A priceless source for bulk words in various categories.
- YLE. All sorts of exercises. https://yle.fi/aihe/artikkeli/2015/02/04/suomi-english
- Aalto Open Learning: https://openlearning.aalto.fi/course/view.php?id=96
- Assess your level for YKI (you can use this more then once, because (I suppose) it’s randomized each time you use it): http://www.menossaykiin.fi/
- Sample YKI tests (don’t use them all at once!): http://ykitesti.solki.jyu.fi/tutustu-testiin/testifin/
- YKI exercises: https://yle.fi/aihe/artikkeli/2015/12/15/ykitreenit-tavoitteena-yleinen-kielitutkinto-suomen-kielessa (Click on “Näytä Navigaatio”)
- Moped: All sorts of online exercises. Especially useful for listening and reading. http://www.moped.fi/materiaali/materiaalit-www1.html
- YLE Selkouutiset, easy finnish news: https://yle.fi/uutiset/osasto/selkouutiset/
- Selkosanomat. Easy news: https://selkosanomat.fi/
- Selkouutisten vieras, an easy Finnish podcast: https://areena.yle.fi/audio/1-1308483
- Finnished, a super helpful Youtube channel for learning Finnish using casual listening: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCPdUhp3L-Rxp_wigblquLtA/videos
- Finnish with Anna. Another helpful YouTube channel.
- Random Finnish Lessons podcast: https://soundcloud.com/randomfinnishlesson
- Auta Antti! A clearly spoken and entertaining podcast: https://radioplay.fi/podcast/auta-antti/listen/13184/
- Jenni Vartiainen, a Finnish singer who sings in a clear and understandable voice without using hypster language (My Finnish friends with good music taste, I’m sorry but your recommendations suck when it comes to learning Finnish): https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC7ZC02McK6b9B_Lc3bq9rFA
- “A Grammar Book of Finnish” by Leila White.
- “Complete Finnish” by Terttu Leney.
- Look for selkokirja or selkosuomeksi in the library, https://www.helmet.fi. These are simplified Finnish books.
- “Tulin Suomeen : maahanmuuttajien tarinoita uudesta kodistaan” by Satu Leisko. This one is a compilation of immigrant stories in easy Finnish.
- Anki web: https://apps.ankiweb.net/
- Anki for Android: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.ichi2.anki&hl=it&gl=US
- Anki for Apple: https://apps.apple.com/us/app/ankimobile-flashcards/id373493387
- WordDive. Not perfect but better than Duolingo: https://www.worddive.com/fi/kirjaudu
- Yle Kielikoulu. Watch Yle’s programs with language assistance: https://yle.fi/aihe/kielikoulu-sprakskolan
- General info: https://helao.fi/fi/kurssi-info/yki-2/yki-ohjeita-ja-harjoituksia-3/
- FAQs: https://www.oph.fi/en/education-and-qualifications/national-certificates-language-proficiency-yki-frequently-asked
- Detailed info: https://www.oph.fi/sites/default/files/documents/edufi.-the-framework-of-the-finnish-national-certificates-of-language-proficiency-2011.-2011.pdf
- Exam dates and locations, and other useful info: https://www.jyu.fi/hytk/fi/laitokset/solki/yki/en/exam-dates-and-locations
- Exam listing: http://www03.oph.fi/kielitutkinnot/listaus1.asp?kieli=suomi&taso=keskitaso&Submit=Find+a+place+to+study
- Exam registration: http://www03.oph.fi/kielitutkinnot/
- Finnish related citizenship info: https://migri.fi/en/national-certificate-of-language-proficiency-yki–
- Intensive YKI preparation course (Thanks Danielle Pichlis for this) https://www.omnia.fi/uutiset/yki-tutkintoon-valmentautuminen
There you have it, my exhaustive tips for practicing Finnish and taking the YKI test! Pick and apply what works for you, and remember, the best way to learn is to be consistent. So pick the methods you can practice consistently, and discards the ones that feel like a chore. And if all else fails, remember this: You must gather your flashcards before venturing forth.
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