In this post, we’ll set out the speaking, listening, reading and writing skills that you need to succeed at “upper beginner” or “A2” level in Russian. We’ll look at how much Russian vocabulary you need for A2 and how much Russian grammar you should know.
This is the first in a series looking at the different “staging posts” on the journey to fluent Russian. But why look at progress in Russian in this way?
First, to remind you that tackle learning Russian step by step, stage by stage. Learning a language is like climbing a mountain. Too many people look at the peak of Mount Russian, fancy the view from the top and then get discouraged and give up the ascent when they realise that you can’t get there in a hop, skip and a jump.
You know the score, really! You need to break the task down and set yourself interim staging posts.
If you’ve already set out with Russian and completed an introductory course (lower beginner or A1), this post’s for you because it sets out the next stage. It’ll also help you if you’ve already done a bit more Russian and are wondering whether you’re ready to move “into intermediate”.
Second, you might want to take an upper beginner/A2 Russian language exam. This could be to fulfil some external requirement (for example in education or employment) or as a way of motivating yourself. This post will make clear in general terms what you’ll be expected to do to pass an A2 Russian test. (Of course, you should always check the detailed syllabus requirements yourself before you start preparing for an exam). The next post in the series, I’ll look in detail at exam formats.
To get a handle on what upper beginners Russian – A2 Russian – might be, we’ll refer first to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFRL).
The Common European Framework of Reference for language is a scale that sets out the skills you should aim for in six “levels” (from A1 beginner to C2 mastery). It’s used by students, teachers, course creators and examiners across a range of European languages, not just Russian. The scale isn’t perfect but it’s nonetheless useful.
The solid base on which you’ll build A2 Russian
In the first stage of the climb, A1, you’ve already notched up a lot of wins. You should be well on top of what we might call the basic “core” of the language.
You’ll know the sound system of Russian, even though you’ll still have to keep working on key differences between the Russian and English sound systems, such as the tricky Russian “ы” or difference between hard and soft consonants.
You’ll also have learned the Russian alphabet.
You’ll also have a good stock of basic vocabulary (maybe 700 or 800 hundred words).
This will include not just the most frequent words and expressions but also less common vocabulary that’s specifically relevant to your unique situation. I’d also encourage you to arm yourself at this stage with a stock of what I call “toolkit phrases” to help you get further in the language through the language (“How do I say x in Russian?”, “Could you please speak more slowly/repeat that/write that down”) and so on.
You’ll be familiar with a lot of the most common basic structural patterns of the language, it’s grammar.
Defining upper beginner’s Russian
The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, which – encouragingly – very much puts the focus on DOING not KNOWING and on what you CAN ALREADY DO as opposed to what you CAN’T. They call the upper beginner of A2 the “elementary” or “wayfarer” level on the CERFL “global scale”.
As an A2 basic user of Russian should be able to:
- Understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment);
- Communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters; and
- Describe in simple terms aspects of his/her background, immediate environment and matters in areas of immediate need.
These aims are echoed in the criteria of the official language standards set by the Russian government to pass the requirements to pass the official “Foundation Level” (Базавый уровень) A2 exam. This is part of the Test of Russian as a Foreign Language (ToRFL or, in Russian, TRKI) “official” Russian government Russian as a foreign language exam system, which runs from elementary (A1) to upper advanced (C2). ToRFL/TRKI is administered by several Russian universities and offered, under their auspices at various centres outside Russia.
Another body that offers Russian exams is TELC. They have published useful information about what you need to pass the TELC A2 Russian exam. The detail is of wider use for us as we seek to get a sense of what A2 Russian is all about.
The speaking skills you need for A2 Russian
The TRKI A2/foundation description says that the “foreigner” should be able to communicate essentials with a native speaker in a limited range of familiar situations connected with daily routine in social, cultural and educational life. It is emphasised that the linguistic range of the student will be pretty limited at this level.
TELC A2 Russian handbook also follows the CEFRL: “Level A2 is a transition from an exclusively functional level to the more complex….and discursive elements and the conversational situations of Level B1……at Level A2 short conversations are possible….”
To pass the ToRFL/TRKI A2 exam you’re expected to have the ability to perform basic tasks in a range of situations such dealing with officials, transactions in shops or ticket offices, at the post office or bank, in a restaurant or library, asking for directions or going on an excursion, visiting the doctor or a clinic and telephone calls.
You’re also expected to be able to talk about your own life and background, your studies or work, experience studying Russian, how you’ve spent your day, your hobbies and interests, you home town, health, the weather….
TELC sets out similar expected speaking “outcomes”. TELC mentions the ability to understand of the key points and additional information of simple announcements and the key points of a dialogue, even if you don’t understand everything.
Upper Beginner or A2 Russian listening and reading skills
Any conversation is not just about speaking. Half of it’s understanding the people you’re talking with. Then you need to understand things that are said “at” you (the dialogue of a film, the radio, announcements).
TELC helpfully describes some of the audio and written texts you’re expected to understand:
Audio: announcements over a public address system; recorded telephone messages; radio announcements (weather forecasts, traffic updates etc), communications in personal life and in meetings.
Reading: brief newspaper reports, short notices, simple (illustrated) information brochures, adverts, catalogues and posters, signs, written instructions, short letters, postcards, emails, tables of information (e.g. train timetables, shop opening times and menus).
At this level, the emphasis is getting the overall message of the “text” (audio or written) and extracting key information (even when you don’t understand everything).
Writing for upper beginner’s/A2 Russian
When it comes to writing, once again the emphasis is on producing simple texts in short sentences on the essentials of familiar topics.
This (as TELC explains) might be writing about daily life, where you live, descriptions of people, work or study. It could also be simple descriptions of events, activities or your personal experiences.
This may sound a limited goal but, in a language as grammatically complex as Russian, it’s still quite an achievement.
As to the forms of text you should be able to have a go at producing, TELC mentions filling in forms (for example a registration form), postcards or short personal letters, a short email, taking short notes or a short message.
How many words do I need to know for A2 Russian?
TRKI says that the “minimum” for A2 is an active command of a vocabulary of about 1,300 words. Of course, these will mainly be words connected with the sort of fundamental, everyday situations and topics we’ve mentioned above.
There is an official published list of the TRKI A2 “lexical minimum” (the key words you need).
If you’re up for it, you can download the list (or buy something similar) and learn the words by heart. I quite like a systematic approach to vocab, myself, though I know it’s not for everyone. Most people will meet the vocabulary bit by bit in the context of (we hope) engaging course material or informal contact with the language (the more, the better).
Things will move faster if you take a proactive approach to vocabulary acquisition. Just repeating, straining, writing out is not the most effective way to go, though.
How to learn basic Russian vocabulary
To increase your efficiency, there are several tricks that you should know.
The published word list unfortunately just contains individual words without example phrases to show ways that they can be correctly used.
It’s a good idea, though, not just to learn individual words, but also to try learning “chunks” of language.
Chunks could be “collocations”: two or more words that habitually go together in a set combination.
Beyond collocations, a chunk could even be a shortish phrase.
In effect a chunk could be any shortish combination of words that native speaker effortlessly deploy as a unit, as if one word.
Why learn chunks of Russian?
There are three reasons for giving chunking a major role in your Russian journey.
First, when you learn a word in context, you’ll find that word easier to remember.
Second, you’ll be sure you’ve chosen the right word to convey what you mean. More than that, learn a phrase rather than an individual word and you’ll be seeing the pronouns, adjectives or noun with the correct case endings and verbs will be conjugated correctly.
That feels a lot better than struggling to build phrase after phrase from the ground up. If you play that game, you run the risk of a word-for-word from English when Russian may expresses things differently. You may be understood, but you won’t sound like a native.
Third, it appears that one of the reasons we are able to speak and understand our native language so quickly is that natives process language as chunks. By focussing on chunks, you really are going with nature.
Learn in chunks and you’ll be able to speak not only more naturally and accurately, but also more rapidly.
Of course, in a language like Russian with its complex system of case declensions and verb conjugations, there are limits to the magic of “chunks”.
If you want to say something very close but a little different (e.g. a different number of people involved, an action repeated habitually or in the past of future), that will throw some of the “grammar” out.
Still, your “chunks” will help you develop a real feel for how the language behaves. If you also consciously practise the grammar on top, you should be able to adapt the phrase with more confidence than if you were trying to build a phrase “from the ground up”.
Used spaced recall to learn Russian vocabulary
“Spaced recall” means you’ll no longer be trying hard to commit something to memory once and hoping it sticks for ever. It means coming back to the word, phrase or point of grammar again and again at ever increasing intervals. You might learn it on day one, look again the next day, a few days down the line, one, three, six weeks and six months on, for example.
By repeating in this way, you help ensure that vocabulary ends up in your long term memory.
I’m stressing “spaced recall” not “spaced repetition”.
Don’t just come back to lists of Russian words or phrases side by side with the English translation. That’s exposure that’s too passive. Put a bit of grit in the oyster by testing yourself.
Look at the Russian and try and recall the English. Go the other way as much as you can, too (into the target language is more difficult).
One way to do spaced recall is with flashcards with the English on one side, Russian on the other. You could also have a Russian phrase on one side with a gap or two in it and the full phrase (in Russian) on the other side.
If you find flashcards boring another approach you might try is the gold list method.
Neither flashcarding nor goldlisting are for everybody and, even if you like such methods, they should take the place of lots of input in the language.
Get as much comprehensible input in Russian as you can
Listen and read….listen and read….and then…listen and read some more.
It’s not efficient to launch into native level material at this level, though.
The fact is, you won’t know enough vocab yet (you don’t have all the grammar either, but it’s vocab that’s the main problem).
Faced with material they can’t be expected to understand, most people will feel overwhelmed and discouraged (as well as quickly getting bored).
Instead, get the repetition and reinforcement by listening to and reading “graded” material. That’s audio/video and written texts aimed specially at you as an A2 Russian learner.
It’s useful to look at stuff you can easily understand – just below top A2 (to ensure more of that repetition and reenforcement (“overlearning” is the name of the game).
It’s also good to try material that stretches you a little bit – edging up into lower B1. If you understand nearly all the words and structures, you’ll have fighting chance of “acquiring” new words and patterns from the context.
Grammar for A2 Russian
Talking of patterns, what’s the range of grammar that you should know as an A2 Russian student? We can’t cover everything here, but here are some of the main things to aim for.
By the end of A2 you should have met all six Russian cases.
You aren’t expected to know all their uses but you’ll be practising the most common uses a lot.
This should include using the most common prepositions that require the various cases (for example when you’re talking about where something is – in, on, into, out of, behind….).
You’ll have learned how the cases and prepositions are used in the context of basic usage of the numbers, including telling the time and more general expressions of time such as on which day, in which month, years, dates.
You’ll know the noun declension patterns for all three genders and the plural. You’ll also be able to decline the long-form adjectives and will be able to recognise short-form adjectives. The declension of the personal pronouns (я/меня/мне/мной/мне; она/её/ей/ней etcю) should also be under your belt. You’ll also know the declension the most common questions words: “who” (кто) and “what” (что), of demonstrative pronouns “this” (этот) and “that” (тот), “determiners” such as “each” (каждый), “all” (весь). You’ll be able to decline “nobody” (никто) and “nothing” (ничего)…..
It’s an exciting milestone to have covered (still more to be able to deploy, if haltingly) all this and more.
You’ll also have learned a lot about the Russian verb system. That includes how the two “groups” conjugate in the past and present/future and how you can form the compound future with быть + imperfective. It also includes the common verb stem patterns.
Verbal “aspects” are, of course, an important feature in Russian and you’ll have learned how some of the most common “pairs” over verbs (imperfective/perfective) are formed. You’ll also have the essentials of when the imperfective or perfective are used in simple positive and negative expressions, in the “imperative” (making polite requests or giving commands).
You’ll have met the most common “paired” verbs of motion and learned how each one has two imperfectives (multi-directional and uni-directional) and how these and the perfective forms conjugate and are used. You’ll also have started to see how the use of prefixes can expand what we can do with the verbs of motion.
Grammar yes….but grammar in context
Sure, it’s useful to learn “about” the language but abstract “rules” with lists of exceptions will only take you so far. If you’re reading or writing you will have time to stop and think. If you’re listening and speaking, you won’t have time to try and recall a declension table.
For that, we’re back to mastering patterns. We’re back, really, to context and chunks and getting lots and lots of appropriate input to build up a “feel” for the language.
A2 Russian is an achievement to celebrate
I come across a lot of newbie language learners who set themselves ambitious targets in Russian. They never make them. No, you won’t be C2 by Christmas. You can, though, get off to a solid start in the basics of Russian by focussing initially on the beginner’s core that I mentioned at the start of this post. Then you can pause for breath and begin the next let to staging post A2.
Never underestimate what an achievement A2 is in Russian. Thirteen hundred words, six cases, the essentials of the verb system. If you make it to here, you’ve broken the back of the Russian language. The view from this far up is already very satisfying. Mmmm…I’m mixing my metaphors…probably time to finish for today.
I’ll be back soon, though for the next post in this series, when we’ll look at A2 Russian exams. Then I’ll continue the series with explorations of the other “levels” of Russian. If you sign up to the email list in the sign-up box below, you’ll hear when subsequent posts appear. Plus, you’ll get my free video training on “How to learn any language like a pro”, at any level. Don’t miss out!