A lot of mystery surrounds the TRKI 4th Certificate, the top exam for Russian as a foreign language within the framework guidelines established by the Russian Ministry of Education (тест по русскому языку как иностранному Четвертый сертификационный уровень (ТРКИ-4)). It’s “the ultimate” Russian exam, the equivalent of the C2 level (“Mastery or proficiency”) on the scale of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (itself like the 4/4+ on the US Interagency Language Roundtable Scale).
The (few) centres in Europe (outside Russian and the former Soviet Union) that offer the lower levels of the TRKI often appear not to offer the fourth (or at least omit any mention of it from their websites). I’ve found very little online of war-stories (or actual hard evidence that the exam is a going concern) and was beginning to wonder whether there are actually people out there taking it.
So, you can imagine how intrigued I was to make contact with Daria. She took her 4th Certificate exam in St. Petersburg about the same time I was taking the Third Certificate here in London. She passed handsomely. I was delighted when she agreed to share her experience. Here’s my interview with her.
Why have you learned Russian and how long have you been learning?
I moved to Russia a couple of five years ago with my husband. I wasn’t interested in the language at first, to be honest. Having mastered some basics of the language, the first few years I learned by immersion, albeit at a snail’s pace. I’ve been learning it intensely only for the last 2 years, strictly with the TRKI 4th certificate in mind. I think it’s fair to say my Russian was around the B2 level at the time when I first started studying it for real.
I imagine living in Russia would be a real help to perfect the language?
Yes, my husband is Russian and we speak the language at home together and, of course, being able to stay in Russia for five years helped me tremendously. I’ve been able to familiarize myself with various registers of the language, converse with native speakers of various social and educational backgrounds, and also have get hold more of more sophisticated resources more easily. A lot of the resources aimed at foreigners learning Russian are just very basic.
You also speak English to a very high level. Has your language learning journey with English and Russian been similar or would you point to significant differences?
Although I’m a native speaker of another Slavic language (Polish), I consider Russian a lot more difficult than English. The most important difference between English and Russian is, I think, the complicated grammar Russian is so well-known for and the “movable” accent that’s still giving me a major headache. Russian is also harder to hack because there aren’t enough resources for advanced learners. I majored in English, by the way, and also took courses in other languages like French, German, Italian and Latin—and when I started learning Russian a few years later, its complexity shocked me.
Where did you take the TRKI 4th Certificate and why?
I need the certificate in order to attend a PhD programme in Russia. I took the test at the Saint Petersburg State University’s Language Centre. They offer examinations at all levels. The website give the impression that exams are held weekly. In practice, they hold them when they have a number of candidates waiting. I had to wait six weeks after registering. So don’t just turn up in St. Petersburg expecting to take an exam on demand. Be sure to check with them first.
The mystery and confusion around the exam is bound up with questions about the seemingly stratospheric level of Russian demanded. My Russian teacher told me he knew a native speaker who’d failed the fourth level. I’ve heard other stories of how difficult it is. As somebody who’s just passed it, can you enlighten us?
I’ve also heard stories of native speakers failing this exam and I’m not surprised. It’s really hard. I think the exceptionally high level of Russian demanded for this level testifies to the status the Russian language enjoys within the culture. It’s more than simply a means of communication. It’s a cultural myth, a source of eternal pride for Russians—in part due to the great literary heritage and its role in defining standards of excellence for modern Russian. This is probably also why the reading comprehension part contains some very detailed questions about literature. And let me tell you they aren’t easy!
Another thing is, citizens of other countries are required to take this exam in order to study in Russian grad schools even if they’re native speakers. I suspect this is one of the reasons why the level has been consistently so high—most people required to take the test are not only Russian majors, but also Russian native speakers from other countries (often from the now-independent former Soviet republics such as Belarus or Ukraine).
There’s only one example paper freely-available online, a model exam published by the Russian Ministry of Federation in the year 2000. Did the actual format of the exam correspond with what would be expected from that model exam? Could you talk us through the five papers and offer any particular advice on them?
The actual exam generally follows the same pattern as the model paper. The only difference is that in reality many assignments contain longer instructions that may, or may not, complicate the task at hand.
1) Grammar/vocab [60 mins, 100 questions, 80 of which are multi-choice, 20 – “fill in the gaps” – the summaries in bold of the five sections are mine. Formats could change. Always be sure to check the current format yourself before the exam – Gareth]
It’s generally just like the sample test. It focuses on verb forms, paronyms, and idiomatic expressions. No surprises there.
2) Reading [60 mins, five texts, 24 multi-choice questions]
Again, the same format as the model test except during my exam the 4 texts were significantly longer, and there were questions about painting and poetry, rather than literature. The problem with these questions is that they’re scored three times higher than the multiple choice questions. If you can’t answer them correctly, you lose so many points you can barely afford to make a mistake elsewhere as well.
3) Writing [1 hr and 20 mins (the 20 mins is intended for reading/thinking), 3 tasks]
Yeah, very hard. Although it follows the same format as the sample test, the topics are longer and more complicated. Each of the three tasks comes with a whole page of very specific instructions about what you’re supposed to address and how you’re not supposed to write. Having to complete those tasks within 20-minute timeframes also means you have no way of doing a revision. I think it’s also important to know that you’re not allowed to draft during the exam and won’t be getting any drafting paper. However you plan out your writing, you will have to do that in your head.
4) Listening [45 mins, audio and video recordings, 25 multi-choice questions]
The recordings are of high quality which is nice, but there are hardly any breaks between them. So make sure you catch up on reading questions during those moments when nobody is speaking. I’d also advise you to get acquainted with Russian TV personalities and their work, because a lot of those questions require knowing that wider cultural/media context.
5) Speaking [60 mins, an examiner is your conversation partner, the conversation is recorded, 11 set exchanges]
The same scheme as the model exam. One thing to mention is that it’s fast-paced and if, in the course of the exam, you get a text to work with, it’ll inevitably be very long! You have to be able to speak and write fast.
How much time did you put into preparing?
Like I said earlier, around the time when I started learning Russian seriously my level was a solid B2. To be more specific, I could speak the language fairly fluently at that time already, but my vocabulary was very limited. My writing skills, on the other extreme, including spelling and punctuation, were lagging far behind my speaking skills. So it was very uneven. But I clearly remember that when I looked at the C1 practice tests I found them too difficult to even try.
I studied systematically for the next two years, following a routine that worked for me. That would be around 2-3 hours day, 5 days a week, plus as much reading in Russian as I could possibly squeeze in. I spent a lot of that time looking things up in dictionaries, learning more and more sophisticated vocabulary and taking extensive notes as I moved forward.
That said, I am not really going to advise people to study for “2-3 hours” a day, or to learn the meanderings of Russian word-building (it’s all great but not really required for this exam specifically). Yes, you have to work hard, but good time-management and efficient “hacks” are also very important.
Did you have problems with finding time and motivation?
For sure I did! At least once in three months I was so overwhelmed I thought I was never going to achieve my goal.
As you know, the further you get with Russian, the more tedious it becomes. At some point you find yourself dabbling in nuances even native speakers don’t know much about and you waste a lot of that limited study time you have on searching for information you won’t always be able to find.
My way of coping with frustration was simply to take breaks whenever I needed them.
During those breaks I did more fun reading and listened to theatre plays in Russian and tried not to look in the direction of my ever-growing pile of textbooks and abbreviated dictionaries prepared for rote learning. I treated myself to those breaks liberally. I’m happy to say that throughout the gruelling 2 years of preparation for TRKI-4 I somehow managed to escape the burnt-out syndrome.
If you had to do it again, would you prepare in the same way?
This is a question I’d been asking myself before my results arrived. If I fail now after all I’ve done to pass this exam, what else can I do to succeed? I got an overall score of 81.6% so the answer is yes, I’d prepare the same way. But there’s obviously lots of room for improvement.
I haven’t found any textbooks other materials aimed specifically at those learning Russian at this level. Were there any published books or other resources which you found particularly useful?
I got most of my resources in Russia; I’m not sure how many of those books are available for purchase online. I can give you a general guideline to look at the series “Словари XXI века”. The volumes include interesting textbooks and abbreviated dictionaries of collocations, paronyms and the like.
Forget about books for so-called “advanced” learners of Russian as a foreign language and, instead, always look at those aimed at native Russian journalism majors and editors. One truly in-depth resource on grammar covering topics from phonetics to text editing is available online, but you have to be absolutely fluent in Russian in order to use it.
Keep in mind too that both the grammar test and certain tasks during the oral exam require some theoretical knowledge of linguistics and a knowledge of technical grammatical terms such as “predicate” and “modality”, so that’s not something you can ignore or do without.
Would you encourage serious students of Russian to aim for this exam?
Totally. Even though it takes tremendous effort and eats up a lot of time, the journey itself is very rewarding. And if you want to work with the Russian language professionally, owning such a prestigious and rarely seen certificate will surely give you a leg up on the competition. Besides, once you’ve passed the Russian TRKI-4, no language exam can scare you!
Check out the dedicated TRKI 4th certificate section that Daria has published on her website, for more advice and materials. If you’re preparing for Russian exams at any level, do get in touch with me in the comments or by email and share you experiences/ask questions. If you have experience of the highest level exams in other languages, it would also be great to hear about how it was for you. For more on this from me, check out the archive tab above for my posts about my TRKI 3 and German Goethe C1 exam experiences for more information and tips.