And then a great darkness fell across the land. And mighty earthquakes did shake the World. And pestilence and a plague of locusts descended. And there was great wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Or, in other words, despite no small amount of sweat and toil, I’ve failed my Russian exam.
But don’t worry, this post isn’t all about me wailing and wallowing. It’s intended to build on what I’ve already written about my advanced German and Russian to help you if you’re planning on doing an intermediate or advanced language exam or are trying to make progress generally at these levels.
You see, while I’m understandably disappointed, it wasn’t all bad news. Let’s look at what happened and pull back the curtain on the preparations that enabled me to get very solid pass results in four papers and exposed all to clearly what I need to keep doing to pass the fifth. Along the way, we’ll pull out some more tips for how you could go about your preparation. You can also check out my post on “How to pass a foreign language exam” which is packed with exam advice, whatever your language or level.
The exam and result in overview
As I flagged in my earlier post on Project Advance Russian, the exam is the TRKI (Test of Russian as a Foreign Language) 3rd Certificate. The format and standard of the exam is set by the Russian Ministry of Education. There are five parts which take place over two consecutive mornings. I took them in London, with the examiner sent over from Moscow State University.
The level below, the TRKI 2nd Certificate, is said to be the level you reach on majoring in Russian as a foreign language from university, so the 3rd Certificate is certainly advanced (though there’s a 4th Certificate too, of which more in a later post). The 2nd Certificate is described as B2 on the “Common European Frame of Reference” (2/2+ on the US “Interagency Language Roundtable Scale”). The 3rd Certificate is C1 (ILR 3/3+).
To pass the TRKI-3 you need to score at least 66% in all five parts. My overall result was 77%, helped by fairly strong performance in the listening test (80%) and the speaking test (82%). For the grammar and vocab I got 77% and for reading 72%. However, my writing result was a “solid fail” at 57.
My preparation plans: cranking up the Russian
My original plan for the first half of 2016 was to do the Goethe C2 exam in the end of May and the Russian C1 exam at the end of June. I was running study for both in parallel from January through to about early April as well as keeping my Basque going.
Yet I am under no external pressure to get these qualifications and I want to enjoy the journey too. By April, I realised that by attempting both these advanced exams so close together I risked spoiling the preparations for both.
I decided to switch down several gears with German and just keep it ticking over with a two or three conversational lessons a week on italki (which I continue to do).
I only stopped my German and Basque classes entirely for a week or so before the Russian exam. Still, for the three months or so up to the exam at the end of June, Russian was indisputably my main focus. It was right to keep the classes going but, in retrospect, other German study would have been best wound down more fully after my December Goethe C1 success until I have a clear run at the C2. That way I could have racked up more writing practice in particular in the six to three month period before my Russian exam.
I didn’t want to stop the Basque lessons and at least some minimal additional study, because I’m not at a B2. It’s not a good idea to turn off the engine of your space rocket until you’re in orbit.
> Exams at the advanced level require consistent focus over a long period. It’s easy to underestimate the task at the beginning. So far as you can, you need to clear the decks. If you’re doing other languages, consider putting them in “maintenance mode” or on pause altogether. Likewise, learning basket-weaving, climbing Everest or writing that Great American Novel will have to wait!
The time factor: hard facts
Regular readers will know I’m an advocate of logging your language efforts. Because I’ve been keeping tabs on Project Advanced Russian, it’s clear just how much work I did. I can’t try to slough off the result by saying I breezed into this exam just to see what would happen.
For the last three months before the exam I again took part in the on-line learning group the Add1Challenge, which I’ve to provide a framework, public commitment and community support in my Basque and German studies too. In the Challenge you have to make a commitment to your chosen amount of regular study. This time was 30 mins a day, five days a week. But that was very much the minimum. It would have given me a total of 30 hours over three months. During that period I actually did 147 hours.
Altogether, my Russian studies for the exam came to 177 hours 10 mins.
This grand total is the equivalent of about an hour a day in the six months up to the exam. In reality, most of my work was in the last three or four months:
January: 3 hours 30 mins
February: 5 hours
March: 20 hours 45 mins
April: 42 hours 40 mins
May: 40 hours 15 mins
June: 65 hours
I recorded my time “contra proferentem” as we say in the legal trade, that is, I erred on the side of stinginess towards myself. Only time when I really was engaged counted. No clock ticking while booting up the computer or making a quick cup of coffee!
The Russian Ministry of Education guidelines (at the front of the model paper) say that 280 additional study hours (after reaching 2nd Certificate level) are required to reach the 3rd Certificate level, or a grand total of approximately 1300 hours of study from zero knowledge of Russian.
These guideline figures need to be treated with care. They assume that a student is studying in Russia (and therefore in the most favourable environment to make progress) and the effectiveness of study methods and abilities/enthusiasm of each student obviously play a role.
I’ve been studying Russian for so long that I have no idea how many hours in total I’ve studied the language and if you’re at an upper intermediate or advanced level with your language, you probably don’t know either.
Between taking the Second Certificate in June last year and the end of last year, though, I did not study any more Russian. So, the new figures from January to June do enable me to say that this is the amount I’ve done since the last exam.
Time investment in lessons
I began online lessons in Russian for the first time in March. I was lucky to find two excellent teachers on italki without any difficulty.
In a new departure in my recent language learning, I also had face to face lessons. When I got back from the Polyglot Gathering at the beginning of May, I found myself heading straight from the airport. My destination: the Russian Language Centre in Bloomsbury (London) where I had an initial assessment with Dmitrii, one of their most experienced teachers who is very familiar with the TRKI exams.
Although my plan was for one lesson a week with Dmitrii in the six weeks between the Polyglot Gathering and the exam, public holidays got in the way and we only managed four. In retrospect, I should have started lessons earlier.
Total one-to-one tuition: 48 hours 30 mins (this is included in the total 177 hours 10 mins for the whole project). The breakdown looks like this:
March: 6 hours (4 x 1 hr sessions with Andrei; 4 x 30 min sessions with Mikhail).
April: 12 hours (9 x 1 hr sessions with Andrei; 6 x 30 min sessions with Mikhail).
May: 11.5 hours (6 x 1 hr sessions with Andrei; 8 x 30 min sessions with Mikhail; 1 x 90 min session with Dmitri).
June: 19 hours (8 x 1 hr sessions with Andrei; 10 x 30 min sessions with Mikhail; 3 x 2 hr sessions with Dmitri).
Teacher breakdown – Andrei: 27 lessons, 27 hours. Mikhail: 28 lessons, 14 hours; Dmitri 4 lessons, 7 hours 30 mins.
What I did with the time: the detail
My study approach was the one I used for my C1 German exam: as much practice as possible across all four skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing.
As I’ve stressed before, you can’t pick and choose which skills you want at this level. You’re tested across the board and, in any case, all the skills are all interlinked.
For me, that time with the teachers comes in to put me through my paces in sophisticated conversation and debate and in correcting my written work. Good teachers can also flag up persistent mistakes that I’m making and note whether I’m overcoming them.
On our own we can all read and listen to audio/video. We can check grammar/revise structures (using study materials with exercises with answers which we can check ourselves). We can work our my vocab.
From the beginning of the year to the middle of May, I did exercises from my grammar self-test books, with an eye to the grammar/lexicon multiple choice paper and the writing paper.
I did a lot of “passive” listening, on average I’d guess at least twenty minutes of quality talk radio on in the background as I get ready for work in the morning or did chores around the house. I watched a handful of feature films and TV programmes.
> Passive listening to material completely or almost completely understand has great value to reinforce structures, vocab, rhetorical style. If you find interesting material, it’s an enjoyable backdrop to the real work, too. But the real work it ain’t. Don’t kid yourself. It wasn’t counted in my time recording.
I was also reading some creative Russian literature and studied some poems, though less than I would have liked. I do already have substantial experience reading Russian, though more academic, journalistic and legal prose than creative literature (though I’ve read a share of the greats of Russian literature). I had some time in the early months to work on understanding some poetry, which I always find a challenge.
> Extensive reading is a bedrock of language mastery. It’s crucial even if your main need or desire is to speak well. Read as many different types of material as you can, as much as you can.
I strongly recommend making the two passive skills of listening and reading as active as possible, by taking notes and retelling what I’ve read and heard to my teachers. It’s fair to say I wasn’t really practising what I preach though.
Altogether, in an ideal world I would have watched more films and video and read more and done both more actively.
But it was a matter of prioritising within the time I was able to set aside. I was devoting so much time to the active skills of speaking and writing directly.
One Russian friend from Moscow was in town one evening and we met up for a drink and a met up a couple of times with a Russian speaking friend who lives here in London. Apart from that, speaking practice was just the 48 and a half hours of lessons mentioned above which were constant verbal interaction.
Before the face-to-face sessions, Dmitri had me preparing topics at home and giving him presentations and played Devil’s advocate in questioning me.
> Don’t neglect stretching your speaking abilities. As you go into the speaking test, you want to feel fully tuned. If you don’t use the language regularly in real life, you need to compensate for that. Even if you do live among Russian speakers, you need to make sure to stretch your usage out of your routine comfort zone.
As I mentioned in my first post, I was aware that writing was likely to be my weakness (as for German) and I really did try to make this the focus of much of my preparation.
In mid April I started doing translations from English into Russian from a prose composition book. These were short pieces of 150 words or so. I did eight or nine of these and sent them to my teachers and we corrected them together using Google Docs.
Then about a six weeks before the exam I switched the formats tested in the exam (informal letter on given topic to friend, formal fax, formal essay). I wrote five formal letters, three informal letters and six essays. Again, we corrected them together during lessons.
The five weeks or so before the exam we focussed almost entirely on exam preparation tasks rather than a more general cultivation of the four skills. I abandoned such luxuries as a leisurely revision of Russian grammar, reading poetry, prose compositions from English.
Full test practice portents and results breakdown
For the TRKI 3rd Certificate there are far fewer model papers available than for German or other major Western European languages. I had three: one book with two full papers (including a CD for the listening test) and a pdf of the “official” model test (with no audio, though it does include the listening questions). You can access .pdfs of the model exam (for this and the other levels) around the web, for example on the Saint Petersburg University website.
Given the shortage, I had to “ration the reality”. The practice scores provide some context for my actual results, as do the results I got exactly a year before in the TRKI 2nd Certificate.
> You can be great at your language and still mess up due to poor exam technique including timing. It’s vitally important to be familiar with the format of the papers and questions and the time limits.
Grammar and vocab multiple choice result 77%: I am ok with this result (from base of 79% in 2nd Certificate). In some ways, I should be grateful as I both practice tests from my book were rather worrying 64% for test 1 on 14 June and 57% for test 2 on 8 June. However, some targeted remedial work with the grammar books paid off and I got 81% in the official model paper when I tried it on 25 June.
Listening result 80%: I was happy with this result. I got 80% last year in the 2nd Certificate. I had two goes before the 3rd Certificate exam with the mock test in my book, getting 60% for test 1 on 14 June and 64% on 18 June for test 2. There is no audio with the official model paper. I practised some exam-standard audio exercises with Dmitrii too. I had some element of luck with one of the video clips, which was about the serfs’ theatre at the historic Kuskova estate in Moscow, which I have visited. Much of the vocabulary concerned the pre-revolutionary social structure, something I specialised in when I was a professional historian.
> Lots of practice is crucial for the listening test and it’s the area where a wide knowledge of the country and culture can really help. You can’t predict what’s going to come up, so keep broadening and deepening yours. It’s not just the technical side of the language that counts at this level.
Speaking result 82%: This was better than expected. I was working from a solid base of 85% in 2nd Certificate but before I started preparing for the exam, I was already fully aware that I make a lot of accuracy mistakes. In during my lessons before the 3rd Certificate, my teachers corrected my spoken Russian a lot and this didn’t help my self-confidence in advance.
A speaking exam is a live event and I think I was helped by the quick establishment of a good rapport. That happened in my German C1 as well.
> This is a time to be open and communicative and really give it a go. Make it two-way, too. Ask questions and engage in exchanges when the task format allows.
In these three sections, getting the same, or almost the same marks at C1 as I got at B2 exactly one year ago. A clean jump up.
Things were rather different with reading and writing, though.
Reading result 72%: this was poorer than hoped (or to what I feel entitled), though not really out of line with the practice results. Test 1 14 June 76%. Test 2 18 June 84%. Mock 26 June 72%. From base of 88% in 2nd Cert.
While you may not understand the odd word, at this level you’re going to understand almost all the text. All the examiners can really do is first, pile on the time pressure by providing long texts and more questions and second, ask pedantic and slippery questions. In both my German and Russian C1 exams, the main challenge has not been timing. The challenge is that when you have a choice of answers, more than one may at first, and second glance look right.
> The test is not so much about understanding the texts (which you will) but applying rigorous logic to the interplay between the text and the questions.
Writing result 57%: this was from base of 83% in 2nd Certificate. Before the exam I did the two 3rd Certificate-level two practice tests and the model paper. I had my teachers correct them but not grade them (figuring only a trained examiner could really do this).
The marks in the writing paper are apportioned for a range of abilities including processing, presenting, analysing, evaluating and classifying information, expressing your opinion, mastering the required form (e.g. an essay) of the answer and structuring it well both in paragraphs and making good use of connecting phrases, all in standard Russian. Only the last of those concerns linguistic accuracy in the narrow sense but a few careless mistakes could quickly drag your marks for these aspect right down. Two of the questions are based on quite long texts which you have to process before you even start…..with the clock ticking.
In addition to all these demands, my other big challenge was timing. I did the three practice runs under timed conditions but I was only approaching target on the third attempt. In the exam itself, things fell apart a little and the third question (the essay) was very rushed. I didn’t have time to do more than scan over the three answers for any obvious slips.
I think many aspects of the pure exam technique were right: I was very familiar with the format and I had rehearsed some set openings and closings, connecting phrases and other useful “chunks” typical of the types of text you have to produce. Without that, result could have been even worse!
After that experience, the result was not surprising, although I remembered that my 2nd Certificate paper felt awful at the time but that I actually did quite well and wondered whether I might scrape through this time.
Yet my teacher feedback from the writing practice – including the two full practice tests and the model paper – was indicating the weaknesses. In my case, these were all on the linguistic side rather than the other range abilities which are graded. At least I now have a very clear awareness of these weaknesses in detail. I think a lot of my problems are of general relevance to Russian learners and I’ll post about them separately.
> A writing exam at this level requires you to interact quickly with the “prompt” material (texts, pictures, graphs), string together a coherent argument or sustain a discussion and to evaluate ideas and opinions. This is hard enough in your mother tongue, especially under severe time pressure. No time to stress over your target language. That just needs to flow accurately and appropriately from the tip of your pen, which, I can vouch, is easier said than done! Keep practising!
Post exam Russian video
You mark successful completion of the Add1Challenge by submitting a video of a fifteen-minute conversation with a native speaker. A few days after the exam, I recorded mine with my teacher Andrei. We spend the first half discussing the papers and results. I correctly identified the reading as harder than expected and, all too presciently, flagged up the writing as my area of concern. The second half is a more of a general catch up with Andrei. Very unusually for me, the discussion turns to football. We were talking a few days after the Wales/Belgium and France/Iceland quarter finals. Andrei put his head on the block and predicted a Wales/Germany final. That’ll be next time, if the Germans can hack it 🙂
Wither or whither my Russian?
My commitment and delight in Russian is undiminished. You don’t get to this level without a certain love for your target language and a certain doggedness. Perhaps they’re the same thing. In any case, as I’ve said before, for me the exams are a means not an end.
For this exam, for me, it’s not “game over”. You can hold the passes for two years and retake a missing paper (as I understand it, you can only retake one of the five).
For me it all comes back to writing skills.
Totting up the written work I’ve mentioned above, it did twenty-four full pieces over about 12 weeks from mid April to late June. On average about two a week. With hindsight, twenty-four full pieces of written work looks hopelessly inadequate apprenticeship.
If I was more practised at the craft, I would have been able to work faster, with fewer mistakes and even some precious minutes to check over the work.
So, I need more and more writing practice and I need to keep working on the grammatical and orthographical weaknesses which dog me.
I need to keep reading a lot, to help with style, syntax, the “feel” for the written language.
Then, within the next two years, I can have another go at the writing paper.
As to timing, I’m not sure yet. Spring or summer next year are both possibilities. In the meantime, my Russian will be in maintenance mode.
The rest of this year, I want to take my French further and look out for a post soon about how Basque will soon be taking centre stage. I’m very excited about it.
There’s more on learning Russian coming up soon on blog as well. I have a couple of interviews with advanced learners in the pipelines and that piece on common mistakes in written Russian.
I’ll also be looking at materials you can use to prepare for the 2nd and 3rd Certificates and writing in detail on the format of each part of the exam, with more tips for tackling each part. I also plan a post on how to turn things round mentally when your results are not quite what you’d hoped.
Don’t forget to subscribe in the box below if you’d like to be kept up to date with new stuff on the site and please do let me know via email or in the comments if you have a language exam coming up or you’ve recently done one. What sort of concerns do you have? Are you going about preparation the same way as I did?
[UPDATE (ONE YEAR LATER): I went on to retake the TRKI 3rd certficiate writing and passed the test and hence the whole exam. Check out the full story here.]