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.
[UPDATE SPRING 2020 – interviews with three further successful TRKI 4 candidates are now live. Links at the bottom].
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 TRKI 4 paper freely-available online, a model exam published by the Russian Federation Ministry of Education 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) TRKI 4 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) TRKI 4 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) TRKI 4 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) TRKI 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) TRKI 4 Speaking [60 mins, an examiner is your conversation partner, the conversation is recorded, 11 set exchanges]
The same scheme as the model TORFL 4th certificate 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 for the TORFL 4th certificate?
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 to prepare for TRKI 4?
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!
[Published September 2016. UPDATE 12 AUG 2018 – interviews with two further successful TRKI 4 candidates coming up on the site soon. Sign up to the Howtogetfluent.com email club/mailing list to stay informed on new content.]
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.
Interview (2) in the TRKI 4 series, with successful candidate Barbara is available here.
Interview (3) in the TRKI 4 series, with successful candidate Aga is available here.
Interview (4) in the TRKI 4 series, with successful candidate Ivan is available here.
Interview (5) in the TRKI 4 series, with successful candidate Raffi is available here.
For more on exams from me, check out the archive tab above for all my posts about my TRKI 3 Russian and German Goethe C1 exam experiences for more information and tips.
You might also like my general series on language exams, including How to pass a foreign language exam and Ten brilliant ways to beat exam nerves.
Dear Gareth and, hopefully, Daria,
my name is Grzegorz and I write to you from Poland, I am also thinking about taking TRKI 4 (June 2017 / Febraury 2018) and this interview appears to be a true pearl in the Internet as there is really little material out there. I would be very grateful if you could ask Daria on my behalf what specific tips for a Polish native speaker could she give. Or, even better, could you ask her whether she could get in touch with me (I guess that my email is visible to you)..
Thanks again for the comment, Grzegorz. As discussed by email, I have have let Daria know of your interest.
Congratulations to Daria and best of luck to Gareth on the upcoming writing exam. My question is, regarding the listening section, which Russian personalities are you referencing? Could you please provide a few examples?
Thanks, Brad. I think Daria meant that you should be familiar with the TV, broadcast and wider cultural landscape in general. Check out the section on listening on Daria’s site as well.
I’m also preparing to TRKI IV. There arę virtually no materials except the old test from 2000. In addition, some of the testing centres outside of Russia are discouraging candidates to even aproach this exam. I was wondering whether it would be possible to get in touch with Daria or Grzegorz to find out how they prepared themselves and what their exam looked like.
You’re quite right, Aga. There’s very little out there and many of the foreign centres don’t seem to offer the exam (though in London you can do it at the Russian Language Centre). Daria has a lot of info on her site (follow the link at the bottom of my article) and you can contact her directly there. I’m sure she’d be pleased to hear from you. Keep in touch and let me know how you go on.
Unfortunately I postponed taking the exam until summer 2018 (in the worst case scenario until winter 2019), but I am happy to discuss possible exam strategy on top of Daria’s brilliant resources. Maybe we can think of some joint preparation?
Thanks, Grzegorz. Keep us updated if you can! 🙂
Passed !:) How about you Grzegorz ? In the end exam was not as scarry or complex as described above but it’s true that the knowledge of culture (classic literature, paintings etc. is required unlike in other language exams (English, Italian).
Well done Aga! Great news 🙂
Thanks for this article, it really convinced me that I could pass the test, and I did!
I think it’s definitely harder than other language tests, I took the Cambridge proficiency (C2) certificate around the same time and the TRKI-4 is definitely harder, especially the spoken and written sections. In the Russian test you have 1 hour 10 minutes to write three texts of 200-350 words each, whereas for the English one you have 1 hour 20 minutes for two texts of the same length. And for speaking you have to speak on many complicated topics, with or without preparation. I also found the listening part very hard: you have no specific time to read the questions and must often read the questions while listening to the texts. Strangely enough, I got my lower grade in reading, probably because there are often awkward questions of text analysis that are not really related to your comprehension of the text but more the interpretation of it and there is a difficult exercise of ordering parts of a text.
Generally speaking, I think the main issue in this test is time management. You almost never have time to re-read and correct what you did so you have to make sure you answer right the first time but also don’t spend too much time on each task. For the writing part there’s definitely no time to re-read or even to make a draft.
On the other hand, although there’s only one test to train with, it’s very useful to actually use it (and even several times) to prepare yourself, because the tasks you will have to do are very similar. Even if you’re a native speaker of Russian, as the two other candidates with me were, you should train with this test, otherwise you might not be used to doing the tasks in the limited time you have.
I am preparing the TRKI IV. Can you inform me about sone new books for it?
Privet Jankowski. There aren’t any specific TRKI IV books that I know of, I’m afraid. At this level I think you can work more with TRKI III materials (see my posts on that level) and look at what my three interviewees say they’ve used. Mainly guides to grammar and style for native speakers, plus a lot of input and output practice with corrective feedback. Exam skills and timing are key in this exam as well, I think.
Hi! Thanks for this series. I’m also hoping to take the TRKI-IV exam next year in Paris, assuming it will be offered. Your readers will probably be interested in two recent pieces of information:
1) Davide Gemello also passed the TRKI-4 exam, and has made a vlog about it here (in Italian with English subtitles). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tTqzgfk6WCQ
2) The International Russian Institute at St Petersburg State University recently published a series of webinars on preparing for each of the levels of the TRKI test, including the 4th. https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL6lHxSRBeygZB67tw42YwmRII-LhyNpSI
Hi David, glad you enjoyed the series and thanks for your comment. Another reader has also drawn my attentino to the vids form StGU and I must link to them here. I’ve met Davide a couple of times at the Polyglot Gathering and I check out his channel every now and again, but I didn’t know that he was a Russian learner. I’ve had a quick look at the vid and look forward to watching it in full. Let me know how your preparations go, and the exam next year. Keep in touch!
Hi! Apparently, you can take the tests online now, and I am from a different country. I am a long way from C2 (I’m B1-B2) but I do want to ask if you have any advice for learners like me who do not live in Russia? How much work will C2 level be? I am currently having a private tutor and self-studying with conversations with classmates and language exchange.
Hi Karyn, yes, you’re right. St Petersburg University, for example, now offers the exams online. If you look at the other interviews here on the site with successful TRKI 4th certificate candidates you’ll see they didn’t all live in Russia (so it can be done, but being in Russia is obviously an advantage). The Russian Language Centre in London says about 1450 hours of study (plus lots of practice) needed for C2 while it takes 1100 hours to prepare for the TRKI 2nd cert (B2) but these are very rough figures. I would start by doing the TRKI 1st cert (B1) and build from there. The slower the better in a way, because you want deep mastery, well I do! 🙂 Check out my post “How long does it take to learn a language: the truth” for an overview.
thank you for this blog post. As someone trying to reach a C2 in Russian myself, this is a fascinating read and offers great insight.
I am especially impressed by Barbara, seeing as she is the only candidate presented here that actually learned Russian from scratch, meaning without any prior knowledge of Slavic languages. I am doing the same so I am well aware of how difficult and time-consuming this process is.
Is there any way you could tell me how to contact her by mail, if she’s ok with that, or could you perhaps ask her if she could contact me? It would be incredibly helpful for me on my own path to the Russian C2. You should be able to see my mail address, but I will check back periodically to see if you answered on this blog post.
Thank you very much and regards
Dr Popkins says
Thanks for reading, Ab and I’m glad you found the interview series useful. I’ve passed your email on to Barbara.
Just wanted to share some resources. They should absolutely help those preparing for this exam. They fall in two categories: a) annotated texts; and b) graded readers. They are of the very highest caliber, authored by scholars of the Russian language. Some are written by native English speakers, others by native Russian speakers. They should be seen as scaffolding, to help students scale the vast heights of the Russian language. Some of the books are so good, that if you manage to learn just half of the material, it should increase your spoken eloquence tenfold. These books are not easy. But you show me one treasure chest that was easy to capture!) You will be required to meet Russian writers on their level, not the other way around.
First: I unreservedly recommend: “The Meek One: A Fantasitc Story,” by Fyodor Dostoevsky. This is an ANNOTATED book. But the extensive annotations are for people LEARNING the Russian language. The book was published by Ms. Julia Titus who teaches Russian at Yale, no less. Ms. Titus, who is a native Russian speaker, brings you, the learner, up to the level of Dostoevsky. And, yes, you will plunge deeply into verbs, adverbs and adjectives that will enrich your output.
(Ms. Titus also published a similar-style annotated reader on the poetry of Pushkin, and other great Russian poets. Again, she brings you UP to the level of Pushkin, not the other way around. If you can’t keep up, that’s fine; come back to this book when you’re ready. It is for those who strive to be world-class communicators, those who aim to shift perceptions of the heart, and nothing less. Think of this book as the Olympics of Language Learning. And the thing to remember is, you’re not trying to walk into a test sounding like Pushkin (although you could do worse), but to have this level of linguistic flexibility permeate your own speech patterns, giving your expression a sort of third dimension, if you will.
Second: Purchase every “annotated reader” you can get your hands on, published by Mr. James S. Levine. He has published annotated readers on famed literary greats like Daniil Kharms and Lyudmila Ulitskaya, and others; and it appears that yet another work is on the way. Some of Mr. Levine’s book titles include: “The Old Woman: A story by Dannil Kharms” (this book focuses on verbs of motion); Bronka; and Selected Short Stories of Vassily Aksyonov. Mr. Levine is a long-time Russian scholar who teachers at the famed George Mason University. If you can’t find his books on Amazon, head over to ilearnrussian.com.
And the third series of books I will recommend were actually penned by a woman who used to be an attorney in Moscow, but moved to the U.S. She has created a series of “graded readers” that address all the grammar topics in Russian that seem so insurmountable, like, NUMBERS! She literally created an entire book, more than 200 PAGES, WITH A PLOT mind you, about a little boy who doesn’t want to learn math. By the end of the book he sees why math is important. But beyond the plot: the book is a tour de force for anyone swimming in the rough currents of numbers + cases + declensions. The author’s name is Ms. Tatiana Mikhaylova – she is on Amazon. Buy every book you can that she has published.
And of course, all of these books recommendations should be accompanied AND discussed vigorously with your tutor or language exchange partner. And it may take you a year or more to work through all the books. And that’s fine.
I would also invite you to listen to speeches given by Russian diplomats at the United Nations. It is Russian spoken at the very highest possible level when it comes to diplomatic formalities. Yet, they are talking about issues of the greatest import. Try listening to the Security Council meetings every now and then. At first, the speeches, even in English, were incomprehensible to me. But the skill you pick up is learning how to wade through extremely dense texts on complex issues.
And of course, listen to the news, read the newspapers or website, and discuss vigorously with a native-speaking Russian tutor.
I just wanted to share these resources to help those who want to bend the Russian language to their needs, and leave any test examiner with their jaws on the ground in awe at your command of the language.
I work as an interpreter and what separates superior language practitioners from those who are merely “advanced” is the fact that Superior-level speakers of any language successfully maneuver from the concrete to the abstract without missing a beat. Funny enough, when interpreting speeches, diplomats are notorious for moving from the concrete world to the abstract world in the same sentence. One speaker I interpreted for mentioned the Senegalese poet, Léopold Sédar Senghor being a “hybrid” man. (I said to myself: what? A hybrid man?) The speaker went on to explain that Senghor was a hybrid man because he was of two worlds, the world of faith, but also the world of science. (Imagine the mental capacity to catch that while interpreting simultaneously!) So, interpreting and language learning, while not the same, are sort of kissing cousins, and many of the same problems that lead to interpreters struggling on tests are sort of the same problems that some students suffer from when trying to pass extremely high-level language proficiency tests (i.e.: not being linguistically agile enough, not reading for meaning, not listening for meaning, getting caught up in word-for-word translations, etc.)
So, again, while these resources don’t “prepare” you, per se, for the TRKI4, they will turn you into the type of success candidate that ANY language exam around the world is looking for. Remember, at the very highest levels of any language test, sure, they are testing your grammar and technique, but you should also be skilled at putting forth weighty arguments or the major questions of the day. Have an opinion about the world, and express that with nuance, and dare I say beauty. Just take a look at those books, you might be in for a pleasant surprise.
Dr Popkins says
Hugely valuable comments, Ian. Thanks very much and I, for one, can’t wait to get stuck into some of these. By the way, I have an older post here about interpreting as a career and it would be great to know whether that’s on the money/there are any obvious gaps or inaccuracies, if you have time to take a look: https://howtogetfluent.com/how-do-you-become-an-interpreter-what-is-working-as-an-interpreter-like/