Here’s the latest a series of interviews with successful candidates for the most advanced Russian exam, the TRKI 4th Certificate. The Тест по русскому языку как иностранному Четвертый сертификационный уровень (ТРКИ-4), as it’s known in Russian, is the top exam for Russian as a foreign language. The exam guidelines are set by the Russian Ministry of Education. The level is C2 (“Mastery or proficiency”) on the scale of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.
Here on the site, we’ve already talked to Daria, Barbara and Aga about how they prepared for this “ultimate” Russian exam . Their stories showed me that there were at least three talented women out there who have passed this mysterious test. I’m glad to say that Ivan from Moscow Night Guide now provides proof that there are guys out there, too, who are up to the task. Well, one of them, at least 🙂
Let’s find out more!
Dr P: When did you start learning Russian and why?
Ivan: I grew up bilingual, we spoke Croatian at home and I spoke German in school. That’s why I’ve always had a knack for languages. I can’t put my finger on it but Russian fascinated me for some reason. Maybe it was the similarity to Croatian. Anyhow, I started learning it for a semester at university but had to stop because I went abroad. A year later, I enrolled in a double degree that sent me to Moscow, so I studied it for one and a half more years at both unis. By that time, I was fluent. But I wanted to become proficient and I studied Russian for one more year in a start-stop fashion. All in all, it took me three years to reach C2.
Dr P: How did learning Russian to this level compare with your experience learning other languages?
I had studied English, French and Italian in school so I was sort of a polyglot already. My French and Italian are pretty passive these days. However, that was the first time that I learned a language because I wanted to and not because school forced me to. To be fair, I don’t think the basic approach differs significantly from other European languages. Russian has cases, which is alien to native English speakers. But so does German. Of course, the lexis is harder to learn. But it’s not like, say, Chinese, which is completely alien in lexis, pronunciation, and writing. I have a C2 certificate in English too and the biggest difference for me is the following: the more difficult grammar and the “richer” lexis makes it harder to feel like you have ever mastered Russian. I wouldn’t say I have mastered English but my level is still higher than my level in Russian.
Dr P: Did being a native speaker of Croatian give you any advantage in learning Russian?
Ivan: Yes, it helps A LOT. I’ve never formally learned Croatian. But I could instantly make sense of Russian because of the similar grammar and lexis. I’d imagine it’s like learning Swedish for an English person. Had I had a formal education in Croatian, it would have been even easier. Until a B1 level, you get a big head start with speaking a similar language.
Dr P: Why did you decide to do the TRKI 4th certificate exam?
Ivan: After I decided to stay in Moscow, I wanted to become proficient. Passing the exam itself was more of an ego thing. I went back and forth on this for years, self-studying, stopping and starting again. Mastering that last bit is the hardest, also because it doesn’t make a big difference in your daily life. In the end, I just wanted to be able to say that I passed it, no matter how little use I had for the certificate.
Dr P: It seems to me that a certain mystery and mythology surrounds the TRKI 4 exam. I’ve personally found it difficult to get information about it. Did you experience the same?
Ivan: Yes, I fully agree. How to get fluent was probably the most helpful because I found Daria’s brilliant site about the C2 exam. There also aren’t any books in Russian for that level. The newest advanced books I saw were for C1. I had to scrape together information from old Soviet books.
Dr P: Where did you take the TRKI 4th certificate exam? Was the administrative side straight-forward?
Ivan: I took the exam at the Pushkin Institute in Moscow. Here, I can add some new information. The exam is computer-based nowadays, I didn’t know this beforehand. Also, it’s poorly organised (as is often the way of things in Russia). You turn up and they first read you the rules and let you pay.
Our examiner mixed up the different parts. This led to confusion as we started with reading and everyone else with writing. While the examiner was explaining the rules to the beginners, we could go through our essay questions and think of some good answers. The computer crashed twice during the exam as well.
The funniest thing was probably that no one supervised us so cheating would have been no problem. Don’t expect things to be as professional as when you take “Cambridge” or “Goethe” language exams, because it’s not like that at all. No one cares.
Dr P: Before you started preparing for the advanced Russian exam, did you feel that you were at roughly the same level in speaking/reading/writing/listening. Or, was there one (or more) particular sub-test(s) you felt needed more attention that the others?
Ivan: I practised writing a lot because of the time constraints and because, for me, that’s skill I use the least. I felt comfortable with my reading even though I am not one for classical literature. I figured from the few practice materials that I had that I’d be fine there. Since I live in Russia, I barely practised speaking because I get plenty of real-life practice. Grammar and writing were the parts that I spent the most time on.
Dr P: What materials did you use to prepare? (Please include references to any textbooks/reference works/online resources etc etc).
Ivan: The B2-C1 test books from the St Petersburg publisher Zlatoust are good for prep. Even if it says C1, they prepare you for C2 as well. I had another book about verbs with prefixes and one about Russian particles, both from Zlatoust as well. They aren’t so much direct test prep as just general language practice.
I also bought one book with “required lexis for the C1 test.” I learned all of the collocations and phraseologies from that book.
Online I like the Russian vlogger Yuri Dud. His interviews are great for learning what bothers young Russians.
Dr P: Did you work with a teacher?
Ivan: I haven’t worked with a teacher since I left uni. I’m pretty self-sufficient and living in Russia, I didn’t find it necessary. But I let my girlfriend correct all my essays. She has a degree in journalism so that probably counts as well.
Dr P: How much work did you put into preparation?
Ivan: As I was saying, I prepared for months and years but not that regularly. I only did a month or so focussed prep, about 5 hours per week, I’d guess. From experience, I know that your gut feeling is a good indicator of your skills. If you feel like you need a lot of prep, you probably do.
Dr P: So far as I know, there’s only one published model paper available online, published on behalf of the Russian Ministry of Education in the year 2000. Did the actual format of the exam correspond with what would be expected from that model exam?
Apart from the test being computer-based, the structure was the same. The sources were different, though. We got more contemporary sources for listening, excerpts from Russian talk shows. Some of the essay questions were also not Russia-centred. There was a question about the environment, for example. But, overall, it was similar.
Dr P: There are five separate parts or “sub tests” to the exam: grammar/vocab; reading; listening; speaking; writing. Do you have any particular advice for any of them.
Ivan: Don’t stress out over the exam. They don’t take the time constraints too seriously. In the speaking part, you see the question and can think of a good answer. Only then the timer starts. At least when I too the exam, you could take breaks between the different parts and walk out of the room. To prepare, write plenty of essays and watch Russian talk shows or vloggers; Speak a lot! You won’t pass the C2 without immersion.
Dr P: Did you find the exam as difficult as it is rumoured to be?
Ivan: I found the exam itself significantly easier than the practice test. The listening part was far easier because the source was contemporary and played twice (whether by accident or on purpose, who knows?).
I was lucky that I had time to think of answers to the essay questions. I started answering those on paper but then another set of questions appeared on the computer (and those were harder). But our examiner didn’t care either way. The organisation on the day was far more relaxed than the regulations make it seem. At least my exam was.
Dr P: Is there anything you’d do differently if you were going through the preparation and exam process again?
Ivan: Not really. I barely passed the grammar part. Maybe I should have practised more there. It would have been nice to know about the computer dimension as well. I had never done a computer-based test before.
Dr P: Would you encourage others to do the TRKI 4 and – if so – what’s the one main piece of advice would you give them?
Ivan: Unless you’re a language geek, my honest answer is “no”. There are very few contexts in which this qualification is required. If you prepare for it, you will spend a lot of time studying minor, irrelevant details. If you’re a linguist or pride yourself on passing the exam then do it. For normal folks, the C1 is more than sufficient.
But if you want to disregard my advice and take it anyway: do topical learning. I engage in public speaking and after I started doing so in Russian, I was able to make that final step. You have to step out of your comfort zone and tackle something you don’t understand at all. If you like physics, go buy a few physics books in Russian and find some lectures. Your level will improve drastically.
Dr P: What next for your Russian and your language learning in general?
Ivan: I’m done with “learning” Russian. No more books or flashcards for me. I’m revisiting Spanish now, I was already at a B2-ish level there so I want to reach C1. Italian and French are low-hanging fruit for me too. After that, who knows? My sister learned Chinese but I am not sure I want to go there… (Published March 2020)
The interview with Barbara: The TRKI 4th certificate advanced Russian exam: successful candidate interview (2)
The interview with Aga: The TRKI 4th certificate advanced Russian exam: successful candidate interview (3)
Interview (5) in the TRKI 4 series, with successful candidate Raffi is available here.
Dr P’s TRKI 3rd certificate Russian experience: How to pass an advanced foreign language writing exam or “writing Russian right” for the Test of Russian as a Foreign Language Third Certificate