Taking the TORFL B2 / ТРКИ II online.

SPOILER ALERT: I did in fact pass this exam! I can’t find my certificate so I can’t remember the exact percentages BUT but I passed Speaking with a percentage in the high 90s,  scraped through Writing and Reading with around 68% and failed Listening with something like 63%. Failing listening didn’t matter because I  got more than 60% passed the other three.

Read on for the story…

Today I took the five exams of the B2 level Test of Russian as a Foreign Language, or ТРКИ II. I took it online, as this is an option available since Covid, and I took it with via Herzen University St Petersburg. I thought I would describe the process here to help anybody else who googles this. I don’t think I have passed all five subtests; I am hopeful of the Speaking and know I failed the Reading because I ran out of time and guessed quite a few questions. However, here are my impressions:

Speaking: This was done on Zoom; it lasted 40 minutes and followed the schedule as in the practice tests, so no surprises. I had to first of all disagree with some statements, using antonyms, then agree, using synonyms, then read out a series of statements in certain emotions (surprise, disgust, happiness etc) and then initiate a telephone call asking for more information about (in my case, a competition, but in other situations it might be a job) I was then shown a short video clip which I had to describe and say what I thought was happening, what the characters’s motivations were. This was quite a modern film – there was a troubled young girl who looked to me dressed like a a Goth (I am not going to be too detailed so as not to give away spoilers). I didn’t understand it all but managed to say enough, I hope. Finally there was a discussion on a topic suggested by the examiner, which in my case was education related – luck of the draw or what? I managed to get a promo for Moodle in there too! This is the only subtest which I am confident I passed, so even if I fail one or more of the others – which I think I have – then I will be pleased to announce that I can officially speak Russian at B2 level (albeit without the certificate.)

Then I had a 45 minute break and then joined another Zoom call where there was a proctor who got me to share my screen and log in to the test site. I was surprised because the subtests came one after the other with no pause. I had expected a short break in between. but no.

Lexis/Grammar: This lasted 45 minutes with (I think) 100 questions. Well at least 95 but I got confused when it suddenly stopped and moved to the next subtest – I think I had 2 minutes left; I really needed all the time I could muster. I was disappointed with this test because I had thought I was OK on grammar and vocab but it was if they knew all my weakest areas and put them all in the test, along with some words I had literally never seen before. I guessed quite a few – in fact by the end became blasée in the way teenage students who lack confidence or don’t know the answers pretend to be annoyed and just answer at random. Whether I can get the required 66% I don’t know. In the practice tests I usually got between 70% and 75% but this was harder than the practice tests.

Reading: This lasted 30 minutes and I ran out of time. This was a disaster – in fact I twice looked to check they hadn’t given me the C1 exam TORFL 3 by mistake, but no. There were two very long texts with a slightly shorter text in between. I confess I found it hard to concentrate on the long texts, and switched between trying to read them carefully and then simply looking at the questions and then going back and trying to find the answers. I think for that reason I probably wasted too much time and was just clicking my final guess (I didn’t manage to read everything) when I got cut off. There is a handy but scary timer at the top of the page as you go through the exam.

Listening: This was 30 minutes and 25 questions although I finished it in about 25. There were interviews, some news items and a couple of video clips where it said (in Russian) “Watch this clip” but I was only able to listen. When I got to the second of these, I questioned the proctor (you are allowed to do that) and she said – oh  it’s just a mistake on the test; just listen instead; it’s fine. Hmmm.. Anyway some of these I felt confident in, some I guessed. I felt better about the Listening than the Reading though.

Writing: This was 35 minutes, two questions, and I finished it in just under 30 minutes. You can either type your answers on the screen or, as I chose, write them and then email the letters. The proctor typed the email into the chat and I took a photo on my phone and emailed them once I had finished. One letter was some kind of official document requesting a postponment of studies – I wasn’t confident about that and I don’t think I wrote enough words but by then I was past caring (and was feeling somewhat negative about Russian bureaucracy anyway) The second letter was an informal  letter of recommendation, recommending a friend for a job. I had learned some set phrase for such a letter (as you do!) and added them with a bit more confidence than the first one. It remains to be seen how this exam is graded, whether the better second letter will make up for the poorer first one.

And that was it. I photographed and emailed the letters, made one last click and was done.

If I pass the Speaking and fail one or more of the others, I am not sure I will try again. I’ve spent five years now – what was meant to be a hobby at the start of this blog has turned into a somewhat stressful obsession, so it’s probably time to call a halt, focus on my speaking (which is all I basically need anyway) and relax!

If you are planning to do the TORFL II B2 online then I hope my experience has been useful to you. Also, know that if you don’t pass the whole thing you only have to retake the subtests that you didn’t pass – not the whole lot, which is good!

Triangulating – with italki!

I’ve been triangulating! I never even realised I was doing it until I read Richard West-Soley’s latest blog post on Avoiding the Translation Crutch where I learned that you can triangulate your language learning by linking two foreign languages.
A few months ago, via Twitter, I was encouraged to try out the site italki, , not for formal studying, but simply because I was looking for an informal opportunity to speak French for half an hour a week. French is my best language, my degree language and the one I am most at home with, but I rarely get a chance to speak it these days, although I read and write it frequently in my day job. I thought it would give me a confidence boost if I could have a pleasant French conversation each week, reminding me that, OK I do struggle with my B1+ Russian, but you can’t take my C1 French away from me !!

So I searched through the community tutors on italki and found a very pleasant teacher, Ana G… and just as I was booking the lesson, I noticed it said she spoke fluent Russian. Hmmm.. my usual habit of googling everyone I encounter online kicked in and I discovered while Ana is a native French speaker, she comes from a Russian family and is also a native Russian speaker. Oh joy!

So each weekend now, we have a  relaxed discussion in French for half the session and then move to Russian – I can feel my stress level increasing even though it’s very informal – and whenever I am stuck for words, I just give her the French and she provides me with the correct Russian translation. No English exchanged at all.  I end the session feeling refreshed both in French and Russian and enthused to continue my quest to feel as comfortable in Russian as I am in French. Since I started learning French in 1970 and started learning Russian in autumn 2016, I only have another 46 years to go 🙂

Помогите! I need daily Russian motivation

Only three weeks ago I returned from another extended stay in St Petersburg, just about managing to keep my head above water with  my day job as Education Manager at Moodle HQ and  Russian student at Liden-Denz. I was going to return in April for a wedding, and return again at the end of May for another study period and work towards taking the TRKI 2 (official Russian B2 level exam) towards the end of the year. As a language lover, former language teacher  – oh  and mother of son permanently living in Russia – I was highly motivated to continue.

Now it’s all changed. April trip is cancelled; May trip is highly unlikely and the earliest I can see myself returning is September, optimistically. Add to that the fact that, with the whole world wanting to learn how to teach online, my educator role in Moodle means I am currently never offline. That’s  great! I love helping people use Moodle – but…I am really struggling to maintain the momentum of my Russian studies.

I still have my weekly Skype lessons with my wonderful teacher Lilya, and I am still diligently doing my homework. Lilya challenges me to work above my comfort level, something I never encountered at school or university, making this an interesting but salutary experience! However, Moodling in these manic times means I  do hardly any Russian at all during the week, and  my head is full of English. I end up spending  the whole of Sunday doing my homework ready for the lesson Monday lunchtime – and that’s  Russian “done” until the following weekend. Gone is my good intention to do half an hour a day with anything Russian – when I take a break from work I just want a lie down!

My study books

Of course we can always make time for the things we want to do – and I  do want to do Russian every day. It’s choosing a time to fit the half hour in. I can’t really do it in the EU morning because there are usually meetings and (ours being a global organisation) I need to catch up on what others have been doing while I’ve been asleep. I work through lunch, dropping my food on the keyboard but hey.. and then,  late afternoon, early evening when I begin to flag from the (great, I am not complaining) Moodle job, my brain is equally too tired to switch onto Russian. In theory, I could devote half an hour after dinner, around 8 , 9 o’clock, although the temptation to have a glass of wine and watch some mindless TV is winning at the moment. (Yes! There are lots of Russian TV serials I could watch, but believe me, in the last three and a bit years of learning Russian I have already watched hundreds of them! I see actors in one show and remember them from other shows they were in that I’ve also watched. Oh – and I’m in love with Kirill Käro.  However, yes, Russian TV remains a possiblity.)

I subscribe to the Russian from Russia podcast  These are very good, but again, and even with the transcript, I need a time when my brain is receptive in order to take them in. Is this old age creeping in? Likewise, I look forward every week to Michele Berdy’s  column The Russian Word’s Worth which I read and listen to, but fail weekly to memorise all the interesting phrases. In fact, I seem to have so much vocabulary thrown at me these days I don’t even try to memorise stuff. I mean – which ones to choose? Grammar is fine now. Just so many words!!

I’m going to have to be strict with myself! Force myself to do something I love and want to do anyway – half an hour of Russian  – probably at an easy level – at a specific time each day. Question is: when?

Three years of learning Russian: Progress report

Three years ago, I began learning Russian and three years ago this week I began this occasional blog to document my progress (or, in my own head, frustratingly, lack of progress.) Being a linguist and former language teacher brings both advantages and disadvantages when learning a new language. It’s an advantage because you know how to learn, you can make linguistic comparisons and shortcuts, but it’s a disadvantage because you are aware of how much you still have to learn.  When struggling to express yourself in the new language you realise you could say it without effort in your other languages. I’ve been tormenting myself with this for three years, along the lines of “When will my Russian be as good as my French?” conveniently forgetting that I have been speaking French for 50 years and have a degree in it -whereas in three years, all I have to show is that  I obtained B1 First Certification ТРКИ …

Which, of course, is actually rather good,  especially as I have a full time job and was also studying for a Masters degree at the same time (which I have now got!) . Were it someone other than myself, I’d be congratulating them, but something in me still felt the need to prove myself further.

Last week I presented in Russian (on Gamification)  at a Moscow conference on 21st century digital learning and fielded questions without the use of the translation headset. Within five minutes of arriving at the conference, one of the delegates was quizzing me about forum grading and plugins in the latest version of Moodle and I suddenly realised – I could understand him – this is my specialist subject, in Russian, and I could understand him!  For once, instead of focusing depressingly on the long road ahead, I became aware just how far I have actually come  along that road in three years. A bit of a threshold moment (see Threshold concepts, which I embraced in my Masters!) and, fingers crossed, it might go someway to easing my personal pain of not being good enough yet.

I originally started studying Russian because my son has moved there and  I wanted to be able to cope on my own when visiting him. Three years on I am also using Russian in my job with Moodle HQ, spreading the word in this slavic tongue.

And so, abandoning my plan of stopping my private lessons at the end of this year, I shall instead continue and take the next level up – B2 level. Watch this space!

4 weeks in Russia: Joanna Stingray (in Wonderland)

Thirty five years ago a young American woman arrived in Leningrad and fell in love not only with the city but also with the music scene – bands such as Kino, headed by the legendary Viktor Tsoi (whom I also fell in love with two years ago on discovering him and whom I  often think of  as my second  Russian teacher)

The love affair continued when she subsequently fell in love with and married Tsoi’s bandmate Yuri Kasparyan.

That woman was Joanna Stingray and she went on to play a major part in Russian music of the final years of the Soviet Union, and was also responsible for introducing Russian singers to the USA, via somewhat difficult means. I’d read about Joanna when I read about Viktor Tsoi and so when I spotted an advertisement in a local bookstore announcing her arrival yesterday (Saturday) to publicise her new biography, complete with reminiscences of that time, I decided to turn up. I wasn’t sure whether Joanna would be a half forgotten name from the past, with plenty of spare seats, or whether she still held cult status and people would be queuing up outside to catch a glimpse of her. Either way, I arrived 45 minutes before the start time of 12 midday, since I am that kind of person anyway! And when I arrived, there were only a couple of free seats left at the back. I was lucky. I got a seat. I estimated there were about a hundred chairs but by 12 midday there must have been at least another hundred people standing all around (Russian health and safety, anyone?) and I realised  Joanna Stingray is still very much in the hearts of Russian people.

She gave the whole interview in Russian -fluent Russian albeit full of grammatical errors – very much the kind of Russian you’d learn if you picked most of it up along the way. But hey, kudos to any American who learns/learned Russian, and it certainly allowed the audience to connect with her.  They asked many questions about people of the time, about Tsoi, about communism… and many of her answers were met with applause, from people happy that someone at that time from ‘the West’ had shown an interest in and desire to promote their culture outside of the then Iron Curtain. It was interesting to note that a significant number of the audience would not have been born at the time Joanna, Viktor and other Russian singers and bands were around, and yet they still felt the need to come.

Of course I bought the book! I’ve even started to read it – I can make out quite a bit of it, as it is written in the first person in a fairly conversational style. There is the added motivation that I am interested in the era so I actively want to understand it – always a boost. Here it is (Russian only) Стингрей в стране чудес  –  I got mine at a considerable discount as part of the event. Great photos, and apparently there are two more books on the way over the next couple of years.


4 weeks in Russia: The Man Tuman – Туман Жумабаев/ Tuman Zhumabaev



As if it weren’t enough star-spotting bumping into Russian musician Евгений Фёдоров from Tequila Jazz and Zorge while out for dinner with John and Irina at a (recommended) Asian vegetarian café Laor, the next night I met esteemed artist Tuman Zhumabaev /Туман Жумабаев at the opening of a new exhibition at his own art gallery, tumanart.ru

This was a wonderful experience, thanks to the connections of Irina, not only because I have never actually been to such an opening – many smartly dressed women (and men!) , champagne and the chance to meet the man himself but also because of the opportunity to see such beautiful art. Tuman hails originally from Kyrgyzstan, but for the past thirty years has been producing wonderful paintings – portraits – Vietnamese and Crimea landscapes – all in an enchanting style which, to me, is very reminiscent of the Impressionists. My photos here  don’t do it justice. I recommend you look on the painting page of the tumanart website.

Irina introduced me to Tuman, and when I said I was learning Russian he said he was too 🙂 Apparently he sometimes claims he hardly speaks Russian, yet I suspect that’s not entirely true! His family were there too including his son, also a major talent. Tuman’s wikipedia page gives a biography of Tuman, but only in Russian. There is an older gallery page about Tuman here in English.


4 weeks in Russia: Seeking Serenity in St Petersburg

Today, Sunday, was a beautifully cold but sunny,  blue-sky day in St Petersburg and I took myself off to Старая Деревня, north of the city (where, I only discovered later, Restoration and Storage centre of the Hermitage museum is open to the public) I was there to visit the northernmost Buddhist temple in Russia, built in 1915,  officially recognised in 1989 and now very popular with tourists. It took me twenty minutes on the metro, changing once, and then under ten minutes to walk to the temple. It looks incongruous next to tall concrete skyscrapers with the noise of traffic from the main road,  but when you enter the large gates you are in peaceful oasis. The temple is fronted by a garden with sculptures and spinning prayer wheels with benches to sit and relax.  It’s free to go inside except for the five roubles for those ubiquitous blue plastic shoe covers, and you can visit the ornate prayer rooms and even go into the basement for cabbage soup in a little cafe.

The area seems fairly prosperous – a contrast to the long walk I did on Saturday with my son from Lomonosovskaya metro to Obyxovo metro, where we walked parallel to a sinister-looking industrial plant, hidden by high walls and barbed wire, next to an equally sinister looking “”State psychiatric hospital number 6″…

This week I am on leave from Moodle and am continuing the lessons at Liden & Denz without the stress of an upcoming exam. I feel I’ve been through some of the mental stress of the latter picture from Saturday’s walk and am hoping now for some of the serenity of the former picture from today’s excursion 🙂

4 weeks in Russia: Victory – in two parts

Well, obviously, after all that stress, anxiety and cardiac shock,  I had to pass -and I did. But before that, the night before in fact, I had a lovely, relaxed evening with several  ITMO English language teaching  colleagues at the home of John Kuti

We met up at the metro station at Victory Park (Московский парк Победы), a park I highly recommend for a pleasant walk with history lessons thrown in.

It is Lent – Great Lent or the Great Fast here in Russia and so (as a complete contrast from the wonderful but very rich food I experienced last weekend (blog post at your own peril) we had ‘vegan snacks’ which turned out to be marinated tofu, a kind of chickpea/pea puréé and fresh vegetables to add to Lavash bread (kind of like tortillas), mushrooms, fresh fruit and oh – lovely ginger tea. You don’t have to be religious to follow he Great Fast and I think there is certainly merit, health-wise, in restricting yourself periodically.

Conversation flowed freely, mostly about my favourite subject – languages (and a bit of Moodle!) Alexandra had brought her 6 year old son and I experienced that entertaining phenomenon when you meet a young child, native speaker of the language you struggle so hard to master – and they speak it with no effort at all 🙂

We did a circular tour back to the metro to take in Park Aviatorov (aviators’ park) where there is an imposing fighter plane mounted on a concrete base.

I , however, was in no fighting mood when I arrived with the son at the University on Friday morning to get my results. I was as nervous as before the exams themselves. I hoped and expected I would pass – it’s just you can never be certain until you see the actual grades on the paper. So here they are!

  • Writing = 92%
  • Speaking  = 91%
  • Vocab  and Grammar = 87% (Mock horror from daughter: What went wrong? Disaster!)
  • Reading = 90%
  • Listenig = 93%

In just under a year since I did the A2 exam I have got the B1. And yes I am stopping here. No more exams. No, really  – no more exams…

4 weeks in Russia: The curious case of the chair in the corridor…

Day two: Listening and Speaking. I arrived again 45 minutes early, to wait in the wide corridor by the exam room. Yesterday there had been a chair, so I sat on it, giving the young Chinese students who trickled in the opportunity to revise standing up. Today, there was no chair, just me alone in an empty corridor. However, there was a storeroom open and I saw a chair in there and after a short debate with myself, I removed it, positioned it against the wall and sat on it. Within a couple of minutes a cleaning lady arrived with another, officious looking woman who announced in an annoyed tone “What’s that chair doing there? There shouldn’t be any chairs in this corridor! There was one here yesterday but I deliberately put it back! How did it get here?” My honesty surfaced and I felt I should own up. The conversation continued a bit like this:

Me: Actually it was me – I did it- I got the chair – from there (pointing at the storeroom)

Officious woman: There shouldn’t be any chairs in this corridor! What do you want a chair for anyway?

Me: Well – I wanted to sit down. (thinks to self :Well, dur…)

Officious woman. Harumph! Well  you had no right to do that.

Me (Prepares to get out my passport and plead advancing years – although in retrospect I could have produced my cardiogram: she’d have been none the wiser!)

Officious woman: You can’t put it back now because the door is locked. Harumph… (They both walk off)

So I kept my chair and was just pondering on the bureaucratic nature of cleaning supervisors in Russia when the subordinate cleaning woman came back, winked and gave me the nod as if to say “Oh don’t bother about her -you sit on that chair if you want to” Then she asked me where I was from, what I was doing here, we had a chat and I realised: I didn’t need to pass this exam at all. I have already achieved what I set out to do, make myself understood in Russia in a natural way.

My young Chinese co-examinees arrived and we were then taken into the exam room to do the Listening test. My big worry about this was that we could only hear the passages once. However, this was compensated for by the fact that we had plenty of time to read and digest the multiple choice questions, of which there were 30 and about six passages, dialogues and announcements. I felt very tense throughout, and was calculating the time in the test where, if I had got enough correct, I might pass.

Then we had the Speaking part. The first two parts are unprepared questions and the second two parts are prepared, so we had twenty five minutes to prepare for the second part. We had a passage to read – which was a story about a girl, dumped by her boyfriend , who found a lost dog and loved that instead, then discovered the dog was owned by someone else who subsequently became her boyfriend.( And they all lived happily ever after.) Then we had to prepare a personal talk – and again – I couldn’t believe my eyes when I read that the talk (like the Writing exam) was about learning languages, advice on how to do it, your own experiences etc etc. I was eager to get going – and in fact, I was “first on”…

Somewhat of a shock was the fact that I was placed in front of a video camera. These exams, official exams, are recorded. I complained I hadn’t done my hair! I was quite nervous for the first few, unprepared questions but the examiner was very kind (I hope that’s not a trick) and we eventually got onto the girl/boy/dog story, which I had to summarise and give my own opinion of, and then we actually had a very interesting, natural conversation about languages, language learning at a senior age (he started learning Turkish at the age of 54) and the mental benefits of studying a new subject in later life. So I seriously hope I have passed after this.

As I was leaving, the nice cleaning woman saw me and asked me how I got on. I said I’d done the exams and would be back tomorrow with the results. (But they don’t matter. Making connections with people is what matters, and she made me see that. Chair or no chair.)

4 weeks in Russia: Russian exam TORFL/ ТРКИ 1 – Day One

Back again

I’ve been in St Petersburg for two weeks and today did the first part of the First Certificate in the (official, state) Test of Russian as  a Foreign Language. (Information about the level and equivalents here courtesy of Pushkin House) I arrived well before the set time of 10 am at St Petersburg University, and sat waiting along with many young Chinese students for the door to open and the exam to start. Same room as last year, same procedures.

First up: Writing, one hour. There is a long passage on a modern day topic which we must summarise and give our own opinions on, and there is a more informal letter or email on a personal topic which we must then write. I had worried a lot about the first question because the topics in the sample papers are quite complex: I had revised Ecology, the Role of Women in 21st century, Technology in Modern day life, Changing family life… and when the papers were handed out and I looked anxiously at the first question, I laughed out loud. (Well laughed out quietly) “How best to start speaking a foreign language”  I was fazed for a moment, not because I didn’t know what to write but because I didn’t know what to leave out!! The second question was an email about what you’ve up to in the past year – work, studies, family, holidays and plans for the future. I tried to put some good phrases in – remembering my years of telling my own language students the same, so we’ll see.

Second: Grammar, another hour.This consisted of 165 multiple choice questions where you have to get the correct word, be it a verb ending, case ending or appropriate adjective. This was very intense because even if you know the answers and are confident, 165 is a lot to read and reply to. There were some I guessed because I hadn’t learned the topics well enough (verbs of motion – flying – carrying by hand – carrying by car – tut tut) and some I guessed because I genuinely hadn’t seen the words before. Although we can use a dictionary in the Writing exam it is not allowed in the Grammar exam – and there is no time, anyway. The pass mark is 66%, which is 109 out of 165. That means I could get up to 57 wrong and still pass. Hopefully  I have got fewer wrong than that.

Third: Reading. This was fifty minutes and consisted of three  passages, one on the Summer gardens in St Petersburg, one on some Russian academic whose name I forgot immediately after the test and the final one on the home town of Grandfather Frost. There were only twenty questions to compensate for the length of the passages but I am slightly concerned about this one because I found the questions quite straightforward (always a worrying sign) and kept looking for tricks to catch me out. Also, I completely forgot we were allowed to use a dictionary, as I just don’t have the habit of it from my previous student days. By the time I remembered, the exam was almost over. Well, if I was caught out, then I deserve it. I will find out on Friday.

And tomorrow: Listening and Speaking!

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