Advanced Russian learner Aga has been telling me how she passed the top official exam in Russian as a foreign language, the dreaded Test of Russian as a Foreign Language 4th Certificate (ToRFL or TRKI 4) (Тест по русскому языку как иностранному Четвертый сертификационный уровень (ТРКИ 4)).
Is the Fourth Certificate really as fiendishly difficult as it’s rumoured to be? How long in advance did Aga start to prepare and where did she take the exam? What tips does she have in light of her success?
This is the third in my series of interviews with heavyweight Russianists (links at the end). Together, the series provides priceless first-hand information about this elusive exam.
Now, let’s meet Aga.
Dr P: When did you start learning Russian and why?
Aga: I had my first Russian lessons in secondary school but they were not very productive. Then I studied Russian as the second foreign language at Warsaw School of Economics.
Dr P: How did learning Russian to this level compare with learning other languages?
Aga: Apart from Russian, I hold C2 level certificate in Italian (CILS 4) and would class myself as fluent in English (C2 level). I am also learning French (approximately at B2 level now).
Russian has always been my favourite language but even though it has some similarities to my mother tongue (Polish), it has been the most challenging to learn. The different alphabet is only a tiny challenge and can be overcome in one afternoon but the moving stress and extensive vocabulary make Russian very difficult.
Dr P: Why did you decide to do the TRKI 4th certificate exam?
Aga: I wanted to prove to myself that I can pass it. My personal goal is to pass C2 level exams in every foreign language I learn.
Dr P: It seems to me that a certain mystery and mythology surrounds the TRKI 4 exam. I’ve personally found it difficult to get information about it. Did you experience the same?
Aga: When I asked about this exam in London and in Warsaw at exam centres I got some awkward responses and was strongly advised not to even attempt taking TRKI 4 and to focus on TRKI 3 instead.
There are no model tests available except one sample from nearly 18 years ago.
However, I can understand why commercially focused language schools advise to try lower level exams first.
In St Petersburg the approach of the exam centre was more professional and all my questions around the exam were answered without strange remarks that I heard in London and Warsaw. There were still no additional sample tests provided.
Dr P: Where did you take the exam? Was the administrative side straight-forward?
Aga: I passed the exam at the St Petersburg State University. Everything regarding registration and exam procedures was very straightforward and clear.
Exams are organised frequently in St Petersburg in contrast to London where exam is organised annually.
If you want to take the exam in St Petersburg, though, I definitely suggest contacting the exam centre first in order to get the dates arranged before you travel. That’s because there are times, when there may be no spaces available due to large number of candidates (all level exams are organised in the same time).
Dr P: Before you started preparing, did you feel that you were at roughly the same level in speaking/reading/writing/listening (and what level would you estimate that this was). Or, was there one (or more) particular sub-test(s) you felt needed more attention that the others?
Aga: My listening and reading skills were at much higher level than speaking and writing.
Writing in particular required a lot of work. It was very important not only to learn to write without major spelling and punctuation errors but also to understand what the required structure, length and assignment type was.
Dr P: What materials did you use to prepare? (Please include references to any textbooks/reference works/online resources etc).
Aga: Parallel to my exam preparation, I read quite a lot of classics in Russian. That helped as did watching programs about arts, literature and theatre plays. The Russian TV channel “Kultura” (Culture) was my favourite and major resource, especially for such cultural knowledge and for listening comprehension.
For revision I also used some of the books that were included in C1 level recommended study materials on the website of the Pushkin’s Institute [in Moscow – another place where you can take the exam (adds Dr P)]:
Dr P: Did you work with a teacher?
Aga: Yes, I did. As I neither live in Russia nor share accommodation with Russian native speaker, speaking practice would have been almost impossible without a teacher.
Dr P: How much work did you put into preparation?
Aga: I started over a year before my exam.
It is difficult for me to estimate how much time it took daily on average as there were some weeks where I only read a book or watched programs and there were periods of time, when I focused on grammar and writing.
During the whole year before the exam, I did read Russian literature every day on a way to and from work.
Just before the exam I spent a month in St Petersburg and that helped a lot.
Dr P: As you mentioned, there’s only one model paper available online, published on behalf of the Russian Ministry of Education in the year 2000. Did the actual format of the exam correspond with what would be expected from that model exam?
Aga: Yes, it did in 90%. The only major difference that I noticed was in the third written assignment. There was no audio or video material provided to summarise.
Dr P: Do you have any particular advice for any of the five sub-tests (writing, reading, speaking listening, grammar/vocab)?
Aga: In the writing part, you need to not only read the requirements for each tasks carefully, but also to have in mind a structure for the text. You should also should know how approximately how many words fit on a page in your handwriting, to avoid spending time on counting words.
For the grammar and vocab sub-test, it is worth reviewing set or fixed expressions (I had quite a few questions on these).
The reading comprehension part not only tests candidates’ understanding of various literary works but there are also questions loosely related to the text provided which pertain culture, arts, literature (those were one of the most scored questions). Mere understanding of all words in the text is definitely not sufficient to pass this part. It really requires knowledge of the culture and ability to make an interpretation of the text and to draw conclusions.
In the listening test, I tried to understand what the speakers tried to convey, rather than focus on small details. This was contrary to what other language tests, that I took, required and it worked very well.
The material that was chosen for my exam was very interesting so viewing it as if I did it for my personal interest, rather than trying to work out each question before listening, was much more efficient.
Dr P: Did you find the exam as difficult as it is rumoured to be?
For me this exam was difficult for two major reasons.
Aga: First, there is very little time to complete each task. It’s doable but very tight.
Second, the exam not only tests your knowledge of the language but also of the culture, including literature and arts. This isn’t so much the case in other equivalent language exams, so far as I can see.
Dr P: Is there anything you’d do differently if you were going through the preparation and exam process again?
Aga: I would probably have spent a bit more time on doing various grammar tests and writing on time, just to gain more speed.
Dr P: Would you encourage others to do the TRKI 4 and – if so – what’s the one main piece of advice would you give them?
Aga: This exam is somewhat a bigger challenge than some other language exams. Russian is very difficult but at the same time, one of the most beautiful languages so I would definitely encourage others to study to that level and take the exam. Knowledge of language without interest in history and culture is not sufficient to pass it, so be prepared for questions regarding arts, literature etc.
Dr P: What next for your Russian/your language learning in general?
Aga: I would love to study Russian literature (of course in Russian) but at the moment cannot see this possibility in the UK, unless you enrol on a full-time bachelor’s program. That said, I could not find one for those suitable for somebody with already fluent Russian at the beginning. Anyway, it would be practically impossible for someone working full-time so I will have to postpone that!
The next language that I am going to focus on is French.
Dr P: Good luck, Aga, удачи!
The interview with Barbara: The TRKI 4th certificate advanced Russian exam: successful candidate interview (2)