This post is about improving your intermediate to advanced writing skills, about how you might use language exams as a constructive learning tool and about being a committed language learner, in for the long haul, through thick and thin. Oh, and I get to launch my next language learning project.
Ding, ding, back in the ring! In the middle, brandishing gloves and totally unscathed: the Russian language. staggering back off the ropes, bruised and dazed: your doughty correspondent.
I aim to be a long-term learner of every language that I begin and, as regular readers will know, Russian was one of the first I started, back in my post-graduate days.
A couple of years ago I started working actively on the language again. I hadn’t been using it much since I moved back to the UK in 2009. After four years working in Moscow, I was still stuck on a “wonky”, upper-intermediate plateau, with my writing skills far behind reading, listening and speaking. Last summer I took an advanced Russian exam and passed all the sections except for writing.
The exam was the Third Certificate of the Test of Russian as a Foreign Language (ToRFL) or Тест по русскому языку как иностранному (ТРКИ i.e. TRKI).
The TRKI is the standard set of exams for intermediate and advanced learners of Russian (the framework is set by the Ministry of Education). The Third Certificate is at the lower advanced level or C1 on the Common European Framework of Reference. The other levels are the First Certificate (lower intermediate or B1), Second (upper intermediate/B2) and Fourth (upper advanced/C2).
For a view from the very top, see my interview with Daria, who recently passed the fabled 4th Certificate.
Now (drumroll) I’m revving up to go all out for another assault on the target. That’ll be “Operation Write Russian Right” 🙂
Exhibit A: my written Russian
The reason for my weak written Russian was really no mystery.
Sure, I’d been using Russian a lot informally in the Moscow law firm I was working at with fellow lawyers and support staff, though all my drafting and client work was in English.
Sure, my social life was 80% through Russian, so I was getting lots of conversational practice.
I was listening to the radio a lot, too (I never watch much TV, in any language).
But I was often very late home during the week, exhausted from a demanding job. At the weekends I was typically out and about, making the most of being in Moscow. As a result, I wasn’t doing much reading in Russian.
Beyond the odd postcard or text message, I was hardly doing any writing at all.
I always stress on these pages that to get better at something, the most important thing is actually to do it, this may mean making a lot of mistakes, sucking up a lot of failure and feeling inadequate on the way but, as I always say to trainee lawyers at work: you can’t get better and look good at the same time.
You need to build practising the skill into your routine, too. Make it a habit. That simply wasn’t a priority in my Moscow days.
My TRKI history and exams in your language learner’s toolbox
To give myself a short-term goal and test the waters, I took the TRKI Second certificate (B2/upper intermediate) in London in June 2015. I passed quite comfortably. In July and August of that year I did weekly advanced night classes (two hours a week for ten weeks, mainly conversational).
In the second half of 2015, Russian was back on hold as Project Revive My German went into full swing. Then, from early 2016, it was full steam ahead for the TRKI third certificate.
I worked hard, clocking up a total (recorded conservatively) of 177 hours of study in the first half of 2016 (mainly in April, May and June – the exam was right at the end of June).
For those months, writing practice was very much part of my routine. I did twenty-four full pieces over about 12 weeks from mid April to late June. On average I was completing two pieces of writing a week.
Overall, the effort for the exam produced some great improvements – see the jumps up a level from the year before in the table bel0w). Even for the writing, it seems like I was doing the right things. I simply wasn’t doing anywhere near enough of them.
In detail, my results were:
|TRKI 3 (June 2016)||TRKI 2 (June 2015)|
The pass mark is 67%. The hitch with my 77% 3rd Certificate result was that you must also get at least 67% in each of the five parts. The hitch was my Russian writing.
I’d have liked to have passed. If the wind had been blowing in a different direction on exam day and I hadn’t flunked how I divided up the time on the three questions, I might, just possibly, have scraped through with the writing. Either way, my actual writing ability would still have been very shaky.
In my heart of hearts I thought that the exam process was fair. That’s one reason I was not devastated by the result.
The other is because exams for me are not (just) an end in themselves.
Now I do like the validation provided by a nice certificates (it’s sad, I know).
But exams are also a tool to help us with something we want to be doing anyway both before and after the date with destiny. Unless you’re under pressure because need a qualification for citizenship or a job (or you’re studying in formal education), that’s that way to approach them.
In the half a year after my first attempt at TRKI 3, my focus has been to other language projects: Basque Intensive! and “Minimmersion” Indonesian, plus some work behind the scenes on maintaining my German and getting back to French.
Now, it’s time for advanced Russian to take centre stage in my learning once again.
The good news for me is that if you fail one part of the TRKI 3rd Certificate, you can retake it within two years and receive the full qualification without having to retake the other four parts.
That gap on the wall above the fireplace in the Old Drawing Room at Howtogetfluent Towers could be but a few months away from being filled with a gold-framed TRKI 3 certificate after all.
Only joking, I’m not that sad. Come to think of it, it’s time that elk’s head I picked up on my foray to Berlin for my (rather more successful) Goethe C1 exam came up from the wine cellar!
Back to the point: keep exams in their place. Don’t get hung up on certificates. For me, once again the exam will really be a practical lever to help me straighten out that plateau and move the whole thing up that bit higher.
Exams can be the same for you and they can also give you the brutal honesty of an objective yardstick to measure how good you really are across the board.
The plan of battle
To meet any goal, don’t rely on chance. You need to think carefully about what activities will give you most bang for your buck and set aside the time (preferably a regular slot several times a week) to make it happen.
Here’s what I’ll be doing:
From the start of the year, I aim to be reading more than ever before in Russian. This is a good thing to do anyway, but reading and writing skills are inextricably linked. Reading is great for widening vocabulary and for written style.
One of my New Year’s resolutions was to delete twitter from my phone. It was a good one because I could tick it off as done on 1 January 🙂 Instead of using my twenty minutes commute on the underground to catch up with politics and chat on the addictive little app, I’m reading Russian books.
Another New Year’s resolution was a ban on the internet between going to bed and getting up. I’m not always a good sleeper. After an hour or more tossing and turning at 1 or 2 in the morning (or, for that matter, 3 or 4), I’d got into the bad habit of going slinking down to my private study here at the Towers to go online for 40 mins to an hour till I was exhausted enough to have another go between the sheets. That usually did the trick. So much for the theory that blue light from the screen keeps you awake!
On the antique cabinet beside my four-poster bed, there’s a dust-covered pile of Russian books. They were standing accusing me twice over, for not reading enough Russian and for not making sure that the staff keep on top of the housework 😉 When I can’t sleep I’m now – since 1st January – actually reading one.
Reading a foreign language in bed makes a lot of sense if, that is:
1) you can’t sleep;
2) you don’t have anything else more exciting to be doing there; and,
3) you’re at a good enough level to be able to read relatively effortlessly for pleasure. If you’re at a lower level, you may find the activity just too mentally taxing and end up even less able to sleep than before.
I’m following my usual practice when I read in a target language. I try to guess the meaning of words I don’t know, rather than stopping the flow to look them up. If the word is important to the sense, it’s meaning usually falls into place a few pages further on (and important words will often recur frequently in the text, which helps).
What I do always do is underline unknown words with a 2B pencil (as always, this site is nothing if not low tech). The intention is to go back and make a list of them to learn. It has never happened much in practice, but I will now be deploying a new secret weapon (revealed below).
On the grammar front, I’ll continue to pull my game apart, both getting back to basics and exploring the outer reaches. At this level, this is obviously central to the task. As a fluent speaker of several decades standing, the fact is, I just speak. I’ve forgotten a lot of the rules. It more or less works on the wing in conversation. It doesn’t work when fixed for eternity (or at least, for the examiner’s eye) down on the page in black and white.
Listening comprehension will be taking a back seat. Remember, I only have to retake the writing paper. Last year when preparing for the exam I was listening to a lot of Russian radio. At the moment it’s mainly broadcasts in Basque and Portuguese that reverberate down the wood-panelled corridors here at the Towers.
First and foremost, I’ll be doing lots more writing. It’ll be the same routine as last year. It’ll be more translations into Russian (not required for the exam but a very useful exercise) and freehand composition (including a lot of practice at the tasks required for the exam, within the set time limits).
I’m also started again with Skype lessons, booked with my regular teachers through my recommended platform, italki. This will keep my speaking going but the main point is to have my teachers go through my written work with me (we do this live in the lessons with google docs).
I’m also thinking of using my account on “V Kontakte” (the Russian “Facebook”) for informal writing practice. I set it up a few months ago, but have never touched it since.
It would be great to have a trip to Moscow either in May or June. Not sure how realistic this is yet. I’ve lent the private jet to a friend for a while, for starters. Still, it’s been eight years now since I was last in the Russian capital and it’s high time to catch up with old friends. I could maybe have some additional daily tuition for a week or two. If the timing was right, I could even do the exam there at the end of the trip. Otherwise, I’ll book to do it during the first week of July (the only opportunity here in London this year).
Trying something new: “Goldlisting”
While we shouldn’t be too easily distracted by the latest fads in learning, neither you nor I should be too set in our ways to try out new methods which seem promising.
In this spirit, for Operation Write Russian Right I’ll be making my first foray into “Goldlisting”.
This intriguing method involves making multiple lists of vocabulary (or any other information you want to learn) and then, after a pause of at least two weeks, “distilling” each list down into shorter list by discarding the items you think you’ve remembered the best. You then distill the least further after at least another two-week break and so on, until you feel confident about all the words.
The aim of the process is to get the information into your longterm memory without rote memorisation.
Goldlisting was invented by the Mr David James and Professor Viktor Huliganov. The two, who look so similar that you can barely tell them apart 😉 , run periodic ten weeks Goldlisting challenges in the Goldlisting Facebook Group.
The next one and begins this week, which is great timing for me.
I’ll be having a go with those Russian words and phrases I’m underling when I’m reading. I don’t actually need more Russian vocabulary for the exam (though I always want to up my Russian word power).
What I do need is practice in the CORRECT spelling the words I’ve long known and writing chunks of perfect Russian.
Let’s see whether Goldlisting really will be my secret weapon (and maybe yours too)! I’ll write more on the method soon here on the site.
From now till summer, how to improve intermediate and advanced foreign language writing skills (not just in Russian) will be one of the main strands on Howtogetfluent. I’ll also have more for you on exams and exam technique for all languages and look out for pieces on materials for intermediate and advanced Russian.
As always, I’d love to hear about your own intermediate to advanced language successes and problems in the comments section or by email (address under the “About” tab).
Let me know too if you would like me to cover particular aspects of these upper stages of our climb up the magic language mountain.
One last thing: do you the title of this latest project? I’m not sure Operation Write Russian Right is optimised for search engines but I do like a spot of alliteration. I was going to push it further with some play on the 3 Rs – “reading, (w)riting and (a)rithmatic” (supposedly the core of a solid, old-fashioned education in England).
I also confess to a fleeting temptation to mess around with one of those ultra irritating backwards Rs (Я) beloved of second-rate graphic designers looking for a hackneyed signifier of “Russianness”.
But were I to inflict that sort of thing on you, o reader of impeccable taste and refined sensibilities, you’d never return to my site, still less sign up for updates in the box below (hint, hint).
We both have both just had a narrow escape 🙂
Now…..where did I put my pencil?….