Finnish for busy people

When do you KNOW Finnish?

When do you know Finnish? When are you “done” learning Finnish? What does it mean to be fluent? These are some questions that learners of Finnish sometimes ask themselves, usually when they’re living in Finland and considering going to YKI-testi.

The goal of this article is to go over the things you should be paying attention to when you’re trying to figure out for yourself when you know Finnish.

1. It’s impossible to know a whole language

First off, you’ll never be “done” learning Finnish. There’s always more to learn. You can become fluent, but you’ll never be perfect. However, that shouldn’t matter at all.

Native Finns are still learning more Finnish on a regular basis as well. Try putting a fairly old Finnish text in front of a Finn. Give them a thesis on a subject they’re not familiar with. It would also be interesting to ask them what the Finnish grammar terms prolatiivi and jussiivi mean. Most won’t have a clue!

2. Language is meant for communication

Language is a tool. It’s meant to be used to convey messages to other people. As such, we can base “knowing” a language on that aspect. Are you able to express your thoughts, can you get your point across, and do you understand what others try to tell you? That’s when you know Finnish.

3. Criteria for speaking and writing Finnish

Below, you can find some of the criteria that your teacher will be paying attention to when assessing your language skills. I’m mixing both spoken and written language in the section below.

3.1. Pronunciation and spelling

On your journey towards fluency, your spelling and pronounciation will improve. When assessing your language skills at earlier levels, we will ignore the mistakes you make in pronunciation and spelling.

Early on, the main thing we pay attention to is understandability. Can we understand the words you say, despite your pronunciation or spelling? Maybe you have a strong Thai accent. Perhaps you keep pronouncing p‘s as b‘s. Maybe you keep mixing i‘s and e‘s when writing. None of this will matter early on, as long as we can understand you.

The further your Finnish develops, the more we’ll be expecting your accuracy to improve.

3.2. Conjugation and inflection

Another thing we pay some attention to is whether you can conjugate your verbs, and put words in the difference cases. This requires knowledge of, for example, the past tense, conditional, partitive case and location cases.

However, your mastery of these things is often much less important than learners of Finnish think. Sure, it’s great if you master your grammar. Still, in the early stages our focus is on understandability. A sentence with the past tense missing, which does have the word “eilen“, will be understandable and therefore “good enough”.

Something that works in your advantage is that you will usually be tested by a Finnish teacher. As such, you will get some extra lenience. After all, Finnish teachers are familiar with the types of mistakes students make and, thus, know how to understand your broken Finnish better than your regular Finn.

As your language skills develop, the important of accuracy in your conjugations and inflections will grow.

3.3. Vocabulary range

Knowing your grammar rules is nice and all, but if you don’t have any vocabulary to work with, you can’t bring your point across. Vocabulary matters greatly when assessing your language skills. Which topics can you talk about? How wide is the range of vocabulary you have? Do you master more abstract vocabulary?

The further you progress, the more we also pay attention to your ability to produce different ways to say the same thing. Sure, your fridge, your sink, your zipper and your chair can all be “broken” (rikki). Expressing it that way is great at early levels. However, maybe your fridge doesn’t cool anymore, your sink leaks, your zipper is stuck and your chair wobbles. Can you express these different things?

One thing related to your range of vocabulary is also how you handle situations where you don’t know the right term. This will happen at any level, either because you’ve never learned the word, or because you’ve temporarily forgotten it. Can you explain the thing you don’t know the word of in Finnish? Can you use other expressions instead? The ability to use language creatively to express things you miss the words for is important.

3.4. Sentence Types

In the beginning of your studies, you will be mostly stringing words together without much knowledge about sentence types. That’s fine! The vocabulary you know matters more than whether you can produce perfect sentences. Early on, for example, sentences can be more like lists. You should be able to list the things you have in your fridge, or what kind of clothes you have.

As you progress, you have to be able to string together words in a way that works in Finnish. You have to be able to connect sentences to each other and express the relation between things. The language you produce should be more varied. Simple lists of your hobbies will no longer suffice. One thing that becomes especially important is your use of conjunctions, such as mutta, koska, vaikka and jos.

3.5. Phrases, idioms and sayings

From the very beginning, phrases are something to pay attention to. It starts with “mitä kuuluu – hyvää kiitos“, evolves past “harrastan uimista” towards “lapsi söi pitkin hampain“.

It’s especially the phrases we pay attention to; not so much sayings. Actual sayings like “Omena ei putoa kauas puusta” are rare even in the speech and writing of Finns, so we don’t expect your language to be full of sayings either. What matters more are phrases like “olen menossa“, “riittää kiitos“, “jäisin tässä“, “otan osaa“, and “ystävällisin terveisin“.

3.6. Collocations and rections

Related to the previous point, we have collocations and rections. Words have the tendency to be used in certain contexts. Finnish is also known for its rections, eg. pidän sinusta, rakastan sinua, ihastuin sinuun, tapaan sinut. The most basic ones of these will be learned pretty early on, but there are always more of them.

At the beginning of your studies, using the wrong rections (or none at all) will not be an issue at all. If we can understand your sentences despite the lack of rections, then that is definitely good enough. The further you advance, the more accuracy we expect in your usage of rections.

3.7. Situational Awareness

When you’re just getting started, any way you can get your point across is good enough. However, the further you get, the more attention is paid to your understanding of what language is suitable for which situations. Are you able to adjust your language based on the context?

Can you increase your level of politeness depending on the recipient of your message? Can you be more tactful or discreet with sensitive topics? A message to your best friend will be different from a message to the president, to give an extreme example. Knowing when to use colloquial and official language starts being more important when you advance further in your studies.

3.8. Fluency

In spoken language, the amount of interruptions and the length of your silences will also contribute strongly to your level. Breaks are not forbidden; Finns will also sometimes end up silent while trying to find the right word for what they’re explaining. The length of your silences and how often they occur will still give us an idea of how far you’ve advanced in your studies.

Related to fluency is your ability to keep up a conversation. Very early on, monologues will simply not be a thing yet. You will just be able to answer questions with one or two sentences, and that’s the end of it. As you advance further, you’ll be able to keep talking for longer periods of time. The amount of help you need in a conversation to keep going is a clear indicator of how well-developed your language is.

We can also measure this in written language by putting a time limit on your written exam. Students often complain that they didn’t have enough time to write their texts. However, this is often done on purpose. If your language skills are more advanced, you’ll be able to write more fluently and, thus, be able to produce more text in a time span. We can assess your fluency by the length and the quality of text you write.

4. Criteria for listening and reading Finnish

The whole page up to this point has about the assessment of the Finnish you produce. In addition, it’s also important to look at the assessment of what you understand. This is equally important when coming to an answer to the question “when do you know Finnish”.

The assessment of a learner’s receptive skills is tricky. Some people are naturally skilled at jumping to the right conclusions without actually understanding something. In addition, it’s possible to hide the fact that you don’t understand. There are, however, some indicators that are used to assess understanding.

4.1. The main message and details

Firstly, I would like to stress that you don’t have to understand everything right from the start. On your journey towards fluency, you will progress from understanding simple words to simple sentences. For a time, it will be enough if you can pick up on the main message. As you advance, you will also be required to be understand smaller details.

For spoken language, we will also look at how much repetition and rephrasing of the same content you need in order to pick up on the main message. While you advance, you’ll have to be able to pick up on things that only get mentioned as a side note.

4.2. The topic

When you’re a beginner, you will only be required to understand some areas of Finnish. A beginner will not be required to understand everything about Finnish politics right away, to give an extreme example.

Early on, the consensus is that you should be able to understand things that relate directly to your own life and interests. You start with understanding questions about yourself personally. Then, you will be expected to understand short and easy topics that relate to your everyday life. The further you get, the more abstract and further removed the topics will be from your day to day life.

4.3. Speed of the message

Regular Finnish can be quite fast. When you’re just getting started with Finnish, it’s not necessary to understand fast-paced spoken Finnish. If you can understand slowed-down, simplified Finnish, you will be fine. As you learn more, you will have to get better at picking up the meaning of the news and such.

When testing your understanding on written Finnish, we can assess your speed by limiting the time you have to answer questions about what you’re reading. That’s why there never seems to be quite enough time to answer the questions in a test. Your time is being stripped away in order to assess how quickly you’re able to understand written Finnish.

4.4. Clarity of the message

Another thing that might be added to assess more advanced levels is background noise. Sure, you can understand fairly fast Finnish, but how do you fare when we add music or other people talking to the background? And how do you do with dialects? Can you understand someone who slurs their speech? The further you get, the more unclear the spoken Finnish we can you to test your understanding.

In addition, clarity can also refer to how clearly something is said in the message. In early levels, the question and answer will have the exact same words, so it’s just a matter of picking up on those words. Further along your studies, the question might use one word while the answer uses a synonym. Advanced students will be required to catch a meaning that isn’t said explicitly.

Do you have any questions?

While this question doesn’t exactly answer the question “when do you know Finnish”, I hope it gave you some idea of which things are important when your Finnish is being tested. The different areas all contribute to when you could be said to “know” Finnish.

I plan on having an article up on what the level of proficiency should be if you’re going to participate in the YKI-testi in Finland.

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