What we should be doing when trying to “level up” our foreign language abilities effectively at the advanced level? This is topical again for me after I took an advanced German exam a few months ago, because I’m a month into a three-month project: to improve my Russian and take an advanced Russian exam. If you’re interested in levelling up your language decisively, at whatever level (and improving your advanced languages in particular), this post is for you. Let’s have a look!
Project Advanced Russian: how I got here
My back history with Russian is rather similar to my German one. With knobs on. I got my initial grounding in both informally “on the hoof” in the first couple of years as a graduate student of Russian history. I spent a year in archival research in Russia (all my documentary sources were in Russian) and later – when I was a history lecturer (assistant professor) returned for shorter research visits.
Scroll on a few years and I had qualified as a lawyer and spent four years working in the Moscow office of an international law firm (drafting and negotiating in English, but speaking a lot of Russian with colleagues).
When all this time “in the field” is added up, it comes to about six years overall.
During my stays in Russia I was certainly well-integrated linguistically. I felt able to do everything I needed and lived much of my life through the language. Yet again, I was working very long hours at the law firm and in my free time I focussed on seeing the country and friends. Although I was using a lot of Russian, I wasn’t taking active steps to get better.
The truth is, by the end, I was camped firmly on a linguistic plateau. It’s seven years now since I left my job in Moscow and, until last summer, I hadn’t been using my Russian more than for a few conversations a year.
Reviving a foreign language after a long break
If you stop learning a language at a lower level or if you learn to a high level very quickly, you can lose much of it (though revival is of course always easier than from scratch). It seems that my knowledge, in contrast, was deep enough to be stable. As I’ve found with my German, if you have substantial experience in the language at an upper intermediate-ish level, you can very get back up to speed very quickly after a long break.
The revival began last summer. I attended a ten-week advanced evening class one evening a week (two and a half hours). I started watching things on YouTube, started tuning in again to Russian radio.
I put my Russian on hold again for the last four months of last year, while I focussed on my German but for the last five months, Russian has been back in my study routine.
The motivation is two-fold: first – and foremost – because moving further towards mastery is incredibly enriching of itself. Second: I’m always looking to hone those skills that I have with an eye to potential career moves.
Why should you take a Russian exam?
Why take an exam?
Well, for one thing I like certificates. They help shore up my fragile self-esteem….at least for a short period until I start to think “well, the standard can’t be so high after all if even I managed to pass.” To paraphrase Groucho Marx: it the club really worth being in it if will have me as a member? 🙂 🙂
Ok, ok, there are other rather better reasons too.
Execution, as they say, focusses the mind. A clear goal to aim for, not so far ahead that action can be postponed, is a real help in getting back into shape and – hopefully – cranking up a gear.
There’s no place to hide in another sense too: an exam is a recognised objective standard. It’s useful as a shorthand to others where you stand, particularly if you need your language for work.
Meet the Test of Russian as a Foreign Language
The exam I’m going to take is at the C1 level, the second from the highest on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. This corresponds to 3/3+ on the Interagency Language Roundtable Scale used by Federal agencies in the USA or Advanced High on the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages scale.
This will be my second C1 exam, following my Goethe Institute German C1 exam four months ago. Russian and German are, with Welsh, the languages that I’ve got furthest with so far.
The name of the exam is the “Third Certificate” of the Test po russkomu iazyku kak inostrannomu or TRKI for short (Test of Russian as a Foreign Language (TORFL)). As I understand it, the framework requirements are set by the Russian Ministry of Education and Science but the exam is now administered and certified by individual Russian universities. I will be taking the exam at the Russian Language Centre in London. The examiner is sent over by Moscow State University.
The “Third Certificate” is one of four levels at which TRKI can be taken. The lowest (First Certificate) is B1 level lower intermediate, the highest (Fourth Certificate) is the upper advanced the C2 level.
As to competences (according to the Russian government’s requirements): “Successful performance in the Third Level Certificate in Russian indicates an advanced level of competence in Russian which enables a candidate to communicate fluently in all communicative spheres, to do scientific research in Russian and to teach Russian in courses at an Elementary level.”
At each certificate level, the exam has five parts, usually spread over two days: Vocabulary and Grammar (90 mins), Reading (60 mins), Listening (35 mins) and in the second day the last two: Writing (75 mins) and Speaking (45 mins).
The mysterious TRKI-4 – the TORFL fourth certificate – for exceptional native speakers only?
The TRKI level descriptions do cause me a certain confusion. The TRKI-3 description sounds more like C2+ to me: it claims to enable the holder to: “Participate professionally in philology, translation and interpreting, editing, journalism, diplomatic service and management in a Russian speaking environment; receive diplomas, bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D degrees in these fields (except specialist’s degrees and Master of Arts degree in Philology)”.
The Third Certificate does sound quite something, in fact so much so, that I’m left wondering what the point of the Fourth Certificate is (the description says: to “receive a Master of Arts degree in philology, undertake all forms of work in Russian philology”). I thought C2 was supposed to be about approximating to native ability? How many natives are ready to roll with a degree in philology?
Some university masters programmes in conference interpreting require TRKI-4 (yes, of course they’re in Germany! I’m thinking of you, Institüt für Übersetzung und Dolmetschen der Universität Heidelberg). Yet very few places (if any) in Western Europe seem to offer the chance to sit the Fourth Certificate exam and I haven’t found any clear evidence of anyone on the internet who’s done it who doesn’t have a Russian-sounding name.
If anyone can enlighten me further on TRKI-4, or has done TRKI-3 or 4 themselves, I’d love to hear from you [UPDATE: for more on the 4th Certifiate, see my subsequent interview with successful TRKI-4 candidate Daria here].
An overwhelming task? How I’m preparing for my advanced language exam
I have a lot of work to do. If you don’t speak Russian and you heard me speak, you’d be impressed but, while my Russian may sound fluent, if truth be told, it’s it some ways pretty rough and ready.
The further I get, the less sure I feel. That’s may be faux panic in my eyes in the jokey feature photo at the top of this post but, really, I’m feeling pretty overwhelmed at the moment and can’t see how I’ll be able to pass this exam. I’m doing what I can to advance on a very broad front.
As there isn’t time to review everything, I’m focussing on some of the areas of grammar that I still find most difficult.
The one thing I’ve always felt least comfortable with are the complexities of the conjugation of the verb, in particular when there are changes in the stem or the stress.
Aspect and verbs of motion are two other tricky facets of Russian that no learners will need reminding about. While I understand the principles, practising taking apart my game – not just teasing out the finer nuances but getting back to basics – also makes a lot of sense.
The use of long and short form of adjectives, gerunds and participles are also firmly back on the agenda.
I have cranked up my learning actions for the three months or so to the end of June.
Back in the Add1Challenge
As with my German C1 preparation, I’m again using the Add1Challenge on-line study group to establish accountability and provide positive community support (you can sign up or get on the mailing list for the next one here).
I’ve committed to study 30 minutes study a day, five days a week, but that’s just a minimum.
There are several of us on the Challenge working on our Russian. I have to post brief thirty-day and sixty-day update videos in Russian on my progress and record a fifteen minute conversation with a native speaker at the end of the Challenge. Here’s the video.
Which learning activities?
I’m busy with a mixture of reading, exercises and audio from textbooks, referring to grammar books (I prefer those which have accompanying exercises with the answers for self-correction).
I’m also translating from English into Russian. I write the translations by hand. Then I wait a day or two (spaced repetition in action) and type them up. Learning to touch type is something I should long ago have done in Russian. Now, I’m killing two birds with one stone. Once I can type fast, I’ll be able to stop writing in Latin letters on Russian friends’ Facebook walls (it looks like an emaciated Polish).
I have high-quality talk radio on in the background as I do other things about the house. I’m doing some initial reading (beyond the textbooks)(though never as much as I’d like).
I’m pulling apart Russian poems (which I still find at times excruciating difficult).
At C1 level, Vocabulary 12,000 words, 7,000 of them active. I still occasionally come across quite basic words that I didn’t know and wonder how I’ve got so far without them. That said, vocabulary is not generally a major problem for me and I wouldn’t be surprised if my passive vocabulary was comfortably at this level. One area where I can improve, though, is the multiple meanings of verbal prefixes. The principles are not complicated, but meanings and usage are endless and they’re tested mercilessly in the grammar/vocab paper.
I’ve also had an assessment at the Russian Language Centre and, for the last six weeks before doomsday will be having 90 minutes a week one-on-one tuition there with one of their most experienced tutors, Dmitrii. He’s a hard task-master.
I’ve also found two really good teachers via italki, Andrei (in Kiev) and Mikhail (in St Petersburg) and I’m trying to box myself in by pre-booking a couple of sessions a week with both teachers (two one-hour and two thirty minute slots).
The time with the teachers mainly goes on general conversation across a range of topics and some exercises from the books. I’m also having my teachers go through my translations with me during the lesson. They may be dotted with mistakes, but at least they’re beautifully typed 🙂
Whatever level I’m at with a language, I always try to engage in active production of the language as much as possible. I’m trying to see the inevitable mistakes as positive feedback rather than a discouragement.
Sometimes that’s easier said than done. It can be more discouraging at this level, simply because of the vast amounts of time, energy and emotion you’ve already invested in the language.
Trying to keep the exam in proportion
Exam skills are important too: I don’t want to be let down by unfamiliarity with the format.
For me, though, this period is also opportunity to focus on Russian is something to be savoured and enjoyed.
For as long as possible I want to spend most time practising the language generally in ways that I will be continuing with after the exam and which reflect what I want to be able to do with it later.
I don’t want the time to be dominated by worry about the exam and its requirements. It must be kept in its place. Only in the last month or so before the exam will I really pull apart the structure of the paper and practising past questions.
Watch this space!
I’ve gone into more detail about how I prepare for language exams in my post on German.
My approach with Russian will be essentially the same and rather than going over the same ground again in detail, my next posts in Project Russian will be updates on how I’m going. I’ll look at the materials I’m finding useful for advanced Russian too.
Oh, and before I go, if you’ve got this far, you deserve an apology for the pun in the title. I promise nothing like that will ever happen on the site again……well at least not until after a decent interval 😉
For the two-part story of what happened next in my quest to pass the TRKI 3, check out the subsequent posts below: