The TRKI 4th Certificate or Тест по русскому языку как иностранному Четвертый сертификационный уровень (ТРКИ 4) is the top official Russian as a foreign language. My earlier interview with Daria, a successful TRKI4 candidate from Poland, provided some scarce first-hand information about an exam that is seemingly shrouded in mystery and rumoured to be fiendishly difficult. I’m delighted to share below the first of two further interviews with successful candidates (link to the third at the bottom).
Barbara is a French historian of Russia. Her Russian was already at a very high level. As a result, unlike Daria (and me for my TRKI 3rd certificate exam), she did not actually do much short-term preparation. As somebody who always finds the writing section of language exams the most challenging, I was amazed to hear that it was speaking that was worrying Barbara much more.
We started our conversation by looking at her back-story with the language. She credits intensive undergraduate study of Russian, high motivation and lots of practice with her longer-term success.
Barbara has also recently passed the C2 Cambridge Proficiency Certificate in English, so was able to compare the two exams. As for the TRKI4 exam itself, timing was the main challenge that she reports.
Here’s our conversation:
Dr P: When did you start learning Russian and why?
Barbara: I have been attracted to Russia, its language and literature for as long as I can remember.
From about age fourteen, I knew I wanted to learn Russian some day. I first started learning it on my own in my later teens. I didn’t get very far, because the grammar in particular was difficult.
Then I took Russian up again the summer before going to university. This time it was a bit easier. I even “read” my first bilingual book in Russian (a “parallel text” with one page in Russian, the opposite in my native French). I could understand almost nothing but it was thrilling (and it was my favourite author, Dostoyevsky). Start reading as soon as possible, I’d say. It really makes you learn more quickly.
When I started university Russian was one of my two majors (the other was history). The first year there was really special because I was so motivated to learn.
Dr P: How did learning Russian to this level compare with learning other languages? (please say which other languages you have learned to a serious level).
Barbara: I am now fluent in English and I have a C1 certificate in German. For each language it was a different story. I think what really made the difference with Russian was the fact that I was able to study it intensively over four years (3 to 6 hours a week of language classes, 1 hour of phonetics, etc.), including one year in Russia on an exchange program, with 20 hours of classes a week.
This was much more intensive than for other languages I learned and I think these were the best conditions to reach a very high level in just a few years.
It took me seven years to reach the same level in English studying it in school, going through a special program with additional classes, although English is, of course, much closer to French than Russian is. It took me six years of classes in school and university and over 12 years of irregular self-studying and online classes to reach this level in German.
Besides intensity of study, your level of motivation is very important.
I think German and Russian grammar are probably equally difficult, but my motivation was much greater for Russian than for German.
I also practised Russian much more outside the classroom, and practice is another crucial aspect of learning a language. Because I loved Russian literature and was eager to read it in the original language, whereas I wasn’t very much interested in German literature and seldom took the trouble to read in German.
Dr P: Why did you decide to do the TRKI 4th certificate exam?
Barbara: I only took the decision this year, because I am going on the job market and I figured that it could be a good thing to be able to show my actual level of proficiency.
But actually, I think that what motivated me to take the exam is that I heard from a friend that it was extremely difficult. I love challenges! But I was worried that my level (especially for the speaking part) had dropped since my last stay in Russia, last year.
Until I’d actually done the TRKI4, I wasn’t sure I would succeed, especially as I had little time to study for it.
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?
Barbara: Yes, that’s right. I wasn’t able to find any detailed information on official websites. Only here on Howtogetfluent.com did I find an interview, which provided me with detailed information about the test, and this greatly reassured me and helped me figure out what to expect.
Dr P: Where did you take the exam? Was the administrative side straight-forward?
Barbara: I took the exam at the Maxim Akademie in Hamburg, Germany.
Registration was pretty straightforward, all the information is on their website. You just have to download the registration form and send it by mail and then pay the exam fee by wiring the money into their bank account.
There was no pre-selection before the test and no one tried to discourage me from taking the exam, although I had not taken any classes in this language school.
However, the registration form mentions that if the number of participants is lower than three, the exam may be postponed (in which case you can receive a refund). Otherwise there’s also the option of taking the exam at any time of your convenience by paying a higher fee.
Dr P: Before you started preparing, did you feel that you were at roughly the same level in speaking/reading/writing/listening or, was there one (or more) particular sub-test(s) you felt needed more attention that the others?
Barbara: I was more worried about the speaking exam because I’d had little practice for about a year. I was also a bit worried about the listening part, which I realised was difficult. On the whole, though, I felt pretty confident for all parts. I knew I would be most successful at writing.
Dr P: What materials did you use to prepare?
Barbara: I mostly worked with the one “official” sample test that is available in various places on the net.
I did it twice, once mostly looking at the questions and answering part of them, the second time in exam conditions.
I also used a book I bought in Russia a long time ago, entitled «Трудные случаи употребления семантически близких слов.» (С.И. Дерягина, Е.В. Мартыненко, 2006). It did help a bit for the grammar part, as this is mostly a multiple choice test where you have to select the correct response among 4 possibilities and some of them require to use the right word among close variants, e.g. водяной/ водный / водянистый.
Dr P: Did you work with a teacher?
Barbara: No, not for the test preparation.
Dr P: How much work did you put into preparation?
Barbara: Not much, actually. I started about a month in advance but since I was also preparing for the Cambridge Certificate at the same time I split my time between the two. It was only during the last two weekends before the test that I really spent time on preparation for the exam: a couple of hours each evening the week before.
I worked at it for most of the weekend before the exam, including a lot of training with the sample test.
Since I was most concerned about the speaking test, I arranged to have lunch with a Russian friend two days before the test and I started talking to myself in Russian regularly to make sure I had re-activated my spoken Russian.
As it happened, the speaking part came for me at the end of a day. Taking all the other parts and talking with other Russian-speaking candidates was sufficient to re-activate the language sufficiently on day.
Dr P: So far as I know, there’s only one published 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?
Barbara: Yes, very much.
Although it annoyed me that I could train only with one model paper, I found that it was very close to the test I took in terms of the format, for all parts.
There is no audio file for the listening part, so I trained by reading the text of the dialogues, but which is not the same as listening to them.
Otherwise, the model test it is very helpful. I think it really makes a difference to train yourself in the specific format, even if you are a native speaker of Russian.
In general, I would recommend first reading the whole test without necessarily doing all the exercises.
Then do it a second time under simulated exam conditions, with a timer.
The grammar part is multiple choice and the questions are very similar to the ones asked in the real exam), so training with the model test helps from the perspective of content as well as from and timing.
DrP: Do you have any particular advice for any of the sub-tests?
Barbara: Timing is the key.
You have to work at getting as efficient as possible. Don’t spend too much time on any given task. If you cannot find an answer, leave a blank and go back to it later, but also be aware that you may have very little time to review your answers later on.
For the writing test in particular you have to be very efficient in terms of time management. You have three tasks to complete in just one hour and ten minutes and each is a text that is quite long (between 150 and 350 words depending on the task).
So try to respect the time you are granted for each writing task (20 or 25 minutes each). Even if you write a very good text, if it doesn’t contain the elements required you won’t get all the points for the exercise. So, make sure you include all the elements required in your answer.
For the grammar test too you need to be very quick.
Think through every question carefully because chances are you won’t be able to review your answers.
For the listening test, make sure you use the pauses between exercises to read the questions of the next one. This will help you spot the right elements when you listen. Make sure you answer the questions while listening and not after. Otherwise, you may not remember the answers because some dialogues are very long. Many people intervening in the recorded conversation and you just won’t be able to remember all their names.
At the very beginning of the speaking test, you are given preparation time. Make sure you prepare for all exercises you’re supposed to (I mistakenly didn’t prepare for the last exercise).
Dr P: Did you find the exam as difficult as it is rumoured to be?
Barbara: Yes, definitely.
It is much more difficult than the C2 Cambridge Proficiency Certificate (supposedly the same level) that I took around the same time.
This is mostly because there is much less time for each task and almost no time to revise your answers. The challenge is greatest in the writing part, where you have to complete the three tasks in less time than you get to complete two tasks with the Cambridge certificate.
One of the three TRKI-4 writing tasks consists of listening to a text, taking notes (you get to hear it twice, fortunately) and then telling the story in your own words with quotations from the characters’ words. So you need to work fast, efficiently, and to respect all the requirements of the task.
Time pressure is also an issue for the listening test. You get no specific time to look at the questions before listening and have to read them in the time that is given to you to write down the answers to the previous question.
For several of the listening tasks where you have long dialogues, you really have to be able to read the questions and listen to the dialogue simultaneously.
Even the Russian native speakers who took the test with me found this hard (and this even though we had absolutely no trouble understanding what people were saying). So I think training for this test requires training your brain to concentrate on several things at the same time and be very efficient.
The reading test is also difficult. This is where I ultimately got my worst grade, ironically). Some questions relate more to literary analysis than to actual comprehension of the texts.
The first reading task requires you to order the different parts of a text. While it was pretty straightforward in the sample test, for the real test we received an extremely difficult piece. If you get the order wrong, then you probably lose all the points for the exercise, which is a lot.
Finally, the grammar test is not the easiest either. You need an in-depth knowledge of the language. But this is where working with the sample test will work best, because some questions are very similar. However, there the grammar test also requires you to fill in blanks with words and here you need to have a very extensive vocabulary, sometimes literary.
Dr P: Is there anything you’d do differently if you were going through the preparation and exam process again?
Barbara: No. I think there’s only so much you can plan in advance.
A lot depends on how concentrated you are on the day of the exam.
You have to make sure you get enough sleep and are able to withstand the pressure throughout the day.
In my case we took all five parts in a row, with only short breaks in between, although I think in some places the exam is scheduled over two days.
DrP: Would you encourage others to do the TRKI 4 and – if so – what’s the one main piece of advice would you give them?
Barbara: Yes, definitely. I you are thinking of taking the exam, I would just say trust yourself if you feel that you are really fluent in Russian.
Just because they say it’s impossible doesn’t mean you can’t do it.
Don’t put pressure upon yourself, either. It’s ok to fail.
I think feeling under excessive pressure can be counter-productive.
As I was listening to the other candidates, who were Russian native speakers, speaking in their flawless Russian, I began to worry in advance about the speaking part, instead of concentrating on the task in hand. This is doesn’t help at all. In the end I got congratulations from the other candidates for performing well in the speaking part!
Dr P: What next for your Russian and your language learning in general?
Barbara: Right now I feel like I’ve achieved everything I wanted to achieve with my Russian, but the task is to maintain this level. So far I’ve been able to do this through my work as a historian of the Soviet Union, hopefully I will remain in contact with the language for years to come!
Большое спасибо! to Barbara for sharing her experience and advice. Look out for the next interview with a TRKI 4 candidate. If you’ve done this (or any other) Russian exam and would like to share your experience, I’d love to hear from you. There’ll be much more to come on the site on Russian (all levels). (Published November 2018)
The interview with Aga: The TRKI 4 advanced Russian exam: successful candidate interview (3)