A Fresh Start: Multilingual university
There is a Russian proverb, an old one, from the time of Kievan Rus: ‘Your tongue can get you all the way to Kiev.’ Today it can be rephrased as ‘tongues will take you to St Petersburg.’ This is confirmed by facts.
For example, we were approached by a young man from Tyumen. He found an interesting and well-paid job in Turkey, sent his CV there, and they offered him a contract. The young man knows English and Turkish well, but the employers need a proof of language proficiency in these languages, at least at level B1. He already had a certificate in English, but where could he sit the Turkish proficiency exam? Fortunately, he found St Petersburg University, where this exam is held. So, he came to St Petersburg, signed up, took the test, and received a certificate confirming knowledge of Turkish at B2 level. And finally, he flew to Ankara to work.
Here is another example. A Greek girl was fascinated by Russian culture. She loved Russian composers and dreamed of studying at a university in Russia. To this end, she decided to take a test in Russian as a foreign language at St Petersburg University. Well, to cut the story short, today she is a university student in Russia. By the way, it is not only here in St Petersburg that you can take the test. You may choose one of the 70 testing centres around the globe – from São Paulo to Tokyo – with whom the University has partnership agreements for holding testing sessions.
Until 2017, St Petersburg University could conduct examinations only in Russian, English and Hebrew. During the last two years, we have signed a series of partnership agreements with leading foreign universities, centres and associations. Consequently, we have been able to expand our operations significantly. At present, the University conducts examinations in 18 languages. How is the language testing system developing and improving? What language proficiency tests can be taken at the University? Where else, apart from Russia, can you attend a Russian language course and then sit for the test in Russian as a foreign language? These and other questions will be answered by Dmitry Ptyushkin, Acting Director of the Language Testing Centre at St Petersburg University.
Dmitry Ptyushkin graduated from St Petersburg School of Religion and Philosophy under the aegis of the St Petersburg Union of Scientists and Scholars as a specialist in religious studies. He started working at the University in January 2015 as a laboratory assistant at the Language Testing Centre. In March 2015, he was appointed a Deputy Director of the Language Testing Centre. He has been Acting Director of the Centre since April 2017.
‘Our centre was established in August 1997,’ revealed Dmitry Ptyushkin; ‘however, 10 to 20 years ago, we could hardly have been called active in the field of language testing. At that time, St Petersburg University could conduct proficiency tests only in Russian as a foreign language (TORFL). We began to hold testing sessions in English and Hebrew in 2016. The University had only eight testing centres for conducting TORFL abroad at that time. Nonetheless, it was largely due to the efforts of scholars and experts of St Petersburg University that the Russian state testing system for non-Russian speakers was established. It was here at St Petersburg University that the research potential of TORFL was promoted. The TORFL test materials and guidelines were developed by University researchers including Kira Rogova, Tatiana Popova, and Inna Erofeeva. However, until 2014, this line of work was progressing at a slow pace.’
TORFL and comprehensive examinations
What happened in 2014, Mr Ptyushkin?
In 2014, the University was authorised to conduct TORFL and a comprehensive examination for migrants. The latter consists of three parts: Russian as a foreign language; the history of Russia; and the fundamentals of the legislation of the Russian Federation. For this purpose, St Petersburg University was included in the list of educational organisations that are granted the right to conduct testing in Russian as a foreign language and issue a state-approved certificate. This is stated in the Order of the Ministry of Education and Science of the Russian Federation of 28 October 2014 No 1394. This certificate is the only official document certifying the level of proficiency in Russian as a foreign language in accordance with the Common European Language Competences (CEFR). The certificate is required for admission to Russian institutions of higher education. It is also necessary for naturalisation in the Russian Federation.
Statistically speaking, the number of TORFL test-takers outside Russia is constantly increasing. In 2015, there were 2,052 candidates; in 2016 – 2,200; in 2017 – 2,800; and in 2018 – 4,300. In 2018, St Petersburg University held 87 testing sessions outside St Petersburg (‘We are not afraid to be the first’ – Language Testing Centre of St Petersburg University promotes the Russian language throughout the world).
Additionally, St Petersburg University was authorised to conduct a comprehensive examination in: Russian as a foreign language; the history of Russia; and the fundamentals of the legislation of the Russian Federation. This was stated in the Order of the Ministry of Education and Science of the Russian Federation of 2 December 2014 No 1533. St Petersburg University issues a certificate of proficiency in Russian, knowledge of the history of Russia, and the fundamentals of the legislation of the Russian Federation. It is a necessary document for all foreign citizens wishing to apply for a work permit, a patent, a temporary residence permit or a residence permit. Since January 2015, we have been conducting the comprehensive exam for migrants, and more than 410,000 people have taken it at the University.
In 2015, only five universities and research institutes in Russia were granted the right to conduct this examination: St Petersburg University; Moscow State University; Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia; Pushkin State Russian Language Institute; and the Pacific National University (Five universities received the right to conduct the examination for migrant workers). Unlike the others, St Petersburg University employed several third-party contractors in the Russian Federation and abroad to administer this exam, but only for the technical and organisational support of the exam procedure. Apart from that, the University has been conducting the comprehensive exam and TORFL under partnership agreements (Minutes of the Rector’s Meeting held on 29 June 2015, clause 5; Minutes of the Meeting with Public held on 29 December 2015). Currently, St Petersburg University administers exams in about 50 testing centres in Russia (testing venues) – from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok. For foreign citizens who wish to come to Russia for work, St Petersburg University also holds the comprehensive exam in the migrants’ countries of origin. This is under partnership agreements with organisations in Moldova, Uzbekistan and Estonia.
To achieve this, University experts make a selection from the applicants who have submitted an application to the Rector of St Petersburg University. The selection process starts by checking the material and technical base of the applicant, and their qualifications. In fact, a specific procedure is laid down for reviewing such applications with a list of requirements and rules. There are then negotiations with the leadership of the prospective partner organisation. A partnership agreement is drafted, and the agreement terms and estimated cost of the services are discussed and settled.
Report on the results of the audit of the activities of the Director of the St Petersburg University Centre for Expert Advice L. A. Tsvetkova and the Director of the Language Testing Centre at St Petersburg University A. A. Parfenov (2016-2017) with regard to the Comprehensive examination organisation.
Furthermore, in 2015, the status of St Petersburg University as an institutional affiliate of the Association of Language Testers in Europe was renewed. At present, the University is undergoing an audit to confirm the compliance of the work of St Petersburg University Language Testing Centre with European quality standards. The audit takes place every five years. As part of it, the test materials and the organisation of language testing at the University are subject to independent evaluation.
5 oriental and 13 European
And what is happening today?
Today, the Language Testing Centre at St Petersburg University conducts tests in 18 foreign languages (5 oriental and 13 European) and cooperates with testing agencies that are authorised to hold such examinations internationally.
We have already held testing sessions in Korean and Turkish. We have also received applications for taking the test in Japanese. The testing sessions are to be held on the first Sunday in July and then in December 2019. Persian language testing is scheduled for October. Even though the Hebrew exam has been conducted at the University since 2016, there has recently been a surge of interest in Hebrew. Consequently, we are holding more testing sessions in Hebrew in the second half of 2019. Additionally, there is a project underway to open a centre for testing the knowledge of oriental languages.
The centre is largely run ‘in batch mode.’ When there are different tests administered in many languages, the information spreads faster. People learn about our offers and contact the University. We publish brochures and booklets about the opportunities that St Petersburg University offers in the field of language testing. These materials are given to people who contact our centre no matter which language they are interested in. This information creates additional interest in our programmes. Anyone can contact, sign up, or ask for a consultation (Language Testing Centre).
You mentioned that the first exams that were held at the Centre were: Russian, English, and Hebrew. Let’s begin with English...
The Cambridge English Exams are among the most sought-after in the world. The results of Cambridge English tests are recognised by 20,000 organisations worldwide. It is also worth mentioning that the first exam for non-native speakers of English was designed at the University of Cambridge more than a hundred years ago. The first testing session was held there in 1913. Today Cambridge Assessment is one of the largest international testing bodies whose distribution centres coordinate exams around the world. Imagine a printing house the size of a MEGA shopping mall. This is where the test materials are printed. There you can see the same collection of tests with 12 different coloured covers selected to match the colour preferences in different cultures. This is done to help students develop a positive attitude toward the test.
The first Cambridge English testing session at St Petersburg University was held at the end of 2016. Currently, to satisfy the growing interest, we are holding them almost every month. An English language certificate is required for employment and internships in English-speaking countries. A Cambridge English certificate holder has many more opportunities in terms of academic mobility, and personal and career growth. At the University, B1 PET and B2 First can be taken instead of a conventional exam in English. Recently, not only students, but also the University staff began to register and take Cambridge English exams.
Many European countries have time honoured traditions with respect to language testing. For instance, students from Greece who take TORFL at the University Language Testing Centre usually have certificates in English, Italian, German and other languages at least at levels A1 and A2. They have acquired minimal knowledge of foreign languages and proved it, and this is often sufficient to study at a university or to be employed in Greece. Active young people in other countries tend to have three or four certificates confirming their levels of foreign languages. Unfortunately, in Russia, there has not yet been noticeable progress in this direction. Perhaps this is due to the fact that few Russian companies show interest in the language competencies of their employees. Recently, however, there have been some advances...
Apart from the Cambridge English exams, there are other English proficiency tests. What was the rationale behind choosing these tests?
Different English language tests serve different purposes. For instance, IELTS is best for immigration purposes, while Cambridge exams are more relevant for academic purposes. The selection process consists of a few steps, including: the testing services market analysis; the analysis of consumer demand; and the right holder organisation’s requirements. Some organisations have requirements that are clearly excessive and difficult to implement. At the University, the Cambridge exams are highly respected and sought-after mostly due to the authority of the University of Cambridge. Literally each and everyone – not only philologists and linguists, both teachers and students wish to take a Cambridge English exam. Nevertheless, at first we failed to come to an understanding with Cambridge. The agreement was reached only in 2016. And last winter, we had an unexpected guest – an auditor from Cambridge Assessment. His visit was a complete surprise to us. After inspecting the test organisation at St Petersburg University he gave us the highest rating.
The university that is unique
Which language proficiency exams can Russian test-takers sit that are only at St Petersburg University?
In St Petersburg, language proficiency tests in Korean and Japanese are held only at the University Language Testing Centre. Traditionally, these tests have been carried out at the consulates of these countries. Moreover, the University Language Testing Centre is the only place in Russia where one can take a test in Turkish and Persian. In fact, candidates from all over the North-West of Russia often choose to come to St Petersburg University to take language proficiency tests. To take a test in the Korean language, people come to the University from Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Uzbekistan and even from China. Previously, to take the test in Japanese you would have to go to Moscow. Today people sign up and come to take the test at our centre. You know, this year, St Petersburg University is holding a testing session during the summer. About 300 candidates have registered for it.
We also conduct exams that are not as popular and common as English tests. Language proficiency tests in Hungarian, Serbian, Romanian, Czech are not offered everywhere. Say, you wish to be employed by a Hungarian or Romanian company. In this case you need to prove your language skills. To this end, you look for a testing agency that conducts the test and you find the University Language Testing Centre. So, you come to St Petersburg and sit for the test. St Petersburg University is therefore becoming the centre of attraction for those who want to take the exam and receive a recognised language certificate. Indeed, almost everyone nowadays knows English – at least at the elementary level. People travel abroad and they often have to communicate in English. But try to pass a test in Romanian or Czech!
Hungarian and 12 other languages
... or, say, Hungarian. I heard that it was not by chance that the Hungarian language proficiency exam was introduced at the University?
In 2015, the Rector of St Petersburg University Nikolay Kropachev had a meeting with the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Hungary to the Russian Federation János Balla. During this meeting, a wide range of topics were discussed, including the Rector’s proposals on how to develop the Hungarian language and culture at the University (The Rector of St Petersburg University met with the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Hungary to Russia). One of the outcomes of the meeting was the Rector’s instructions regarding the development of hungaristics and strengthening international relations between the University and the Republic of Hungary. This included a specific task to organise language testing in the Hungarian language. The task has been completed; and recently, five students of St Petersburg University have been tested in the Hungarian language. All of them successfully passed the exam for an internationally recognised ECL certificate. The students explained that ECL language certificates would be very useful for them in their future career (University students take the Hungarian language exam).
That was a long story with a happy ending. It took us quite a while to find a partner in Hungary with regard to a language proficiency test in Hungarian. Finally, we found such a partner in the University of Pécs. After a round of negotiations, St Petersburg University and the University of Pécs signed an agreement on language testing. The agreement signing ceremony was attended by the Consul General of Hungary in St Petersburg Gabor Ferenc Nagy (ECL at SPbU).
During the talks it emerged that the University of Pécs is a member of the European Consortium for the Certificate of Attainment in Modern Languages. Therefore, since St Petersburg University signed an agreement with the University of Pécs, it has acquired the right to hold the ECL language tests. Now anyone can apply to the University Language Testing Centre to take a test in any of the 12 European languages: Spanish; Italian; French; German; Bulgarian; Polish; Serbian; Slovak; Romanian; Croatian; Czech; and Hebrew (ECL). The requirements at different levels are aligned to the recommendations of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. An international ECL exam certificate is useful to those who wish to pursue their education or career abroad. It is often used by applicants for internships abroad. Also it is required for employment in the European Union.
In St Petersburg, only the University Language Testing Centre conducts the ECL exams. We have already held a few ECL testing sessions. There are people who already obtained the ECL certificates in Serbian, Bulgarian, Croatian, and Romanian. And they are happy, indeed. For example, in November 2018, a woman approached us with a request: ‘I found a position in a Serbian company in Serbia. In fact, I was offered employment with this company but I need to prove my language proficiency in Serbian.’ The woman is good at her job, but in order to be employed she needed a language certificate. This was an important step in her career. The long and the short of it is that she successfully passed the ECL exam at the University, and recently we have received a thank you letter from her in Belgrade. And there are many such cases. People do realise the importance of language certificates – even when it comes to less common languages.
Please tell us how matters stand with the Hebrew exam at St Petersburg University?
Currently, St Petersburg University conducts the Hebrew proficiency exam (YAEL), as well as the ECL Hebrew exam. Additionally, the Department of Semitology and Hebrew Studies at the Faculty of Asian and African Studies is participating in our large-scale project to open a new testing centre. We are planning to implement a testing system that was jointly developed with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Moreover, not only are tests for students to be conducted, but also advanced training courses for teachers.
Thus, we will be able to bring this work to a qualitatively new level. To have an officially recognised certificate to prove language proficiency will be easier not for teachers and students, but in fact, for everyone.
The case of the Turkish language
How do you find holders of the right to conduct language proficiency tests? What affects the success of negotiations with them?
Let me give you an example. In order to be able to conduct examinations in the Turkish language, we searched for partners in Turkey. And by the way, 2019 was Russia–Turkey cross year of Culture and Tourism. We learnt that there are two universities that hold the right to conduct a language proficiency test in the Turkish language. Unfortunately, we failed to reach an agreement with one of them. We did approach it, but, for a very long time there was no response. While the representatives of Istanbul University were quick to reply and willing to cooperate. They immediately expressed interest in collaboration, and we signed a partnership agreement without delay.
The first testing session of an internationally recognised proficiency exam in Turkish (The Turkish Proficiency Exam, TPE) was held at St Petersburg University in January 2019. At present, the TPE is held in 20 countries. In Russia, St Petersburg University is the only organisation authorised to conduct this exam. 16 test-takers (levels A2-C2) participated in the first TPE testing session at the University. Moreover, we managed to attract external sponsorship for this session. Consequently, ten students of the Department of Turkic Philology, who had excelled academically over the previous academic year, were able to take the test for free. The Director of the Language Testing Centre at Istanbul University, who had come to St Petersburg for the occasion, was impressed by the test organisation at the University Language Testing Centre. Now St Petersburg University may conduct the TPE throughout Russia. In autumn 2019, we are holding the TPE testing session in Moscow.
Furthermore, our colleagues from Istanbul University expressed a keen interest in further cooperation between our two universities. They have offered to sign a partnership agreement between Istanbul University and St Petersburg University regarding student mobility programmes and the TORFL exam. Istanbul University is also willing to receive 16 University students for free at the Istanbul University Summer School. Participants will only need to pay travel and accommodation costs. The Summer School programme includes classes in Turkish (lectures and seminars) and various cultural events (Minutes of the Rector’s Meeting held on 11 March 2019, clause 2). These are the additional opportunities that have arisen as a result of our collaboration with Istanbul University.
We promote the Russian language
The TORFL exam has been held at the University Language Testing Centre for quite some time. What has changed over these years?
I believe our efforts are paying off. The last two years have been especially successful. In 2015, the University had eight overseas testing centres for holding TORFL. Now we have 70 centres in 30 countries. Almost every month, St Petersburg University is approached by the leaders of organisations interested in holding TORFL in different countries. In 2018, we concluded ten partnership and cooperation agreements. At present, St Petersburg University testing centres operate all over the world: from Buenos Aires to Tokyo. TORFL travels far and wide, reaching out to new audiences: in France, Iceland, Hungary, Montenegro, and Iran. Also, negotiations with Ireland and Singapore are currently underway.
University experts hold events to promote the Russian state testing system and popularise the Russian language abroad. Last year, the centre conducted more than 50 methodological seminars for teachers engaged in preparing take-testers for TORFL, and 60 webinars. Our seminars receive much attention. For instance, in June 2018, a seminar in Thessaloniki was attended by more than 100 teachers from all over Greece. The attendance in Prague, Czech Republic, reached 80 people. It was for the third year that we have organised a seminar there. A seminar in Minsk, Belarus, was attended by about 50 people. We are planning to hold a seminar in Kazakhstan as well. Mind you, these are not additional educational programmes for teachers, just methodological seminars on how to conduct testing and how to prepare for tests.
Who are your partners in other countries?
We have many partners. First of all, we are assisted by Rossotrudnichestvo – The Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation. We also cooperate with universities and commercial organisations that provide migration services. We have reliable partners in the Russian Centres of Science and Culture in Belgrade (Serbia), Prague (Czech Republic), Ljubljana (Slovenia), and Chisinau (Moldova).
There are many Russian Centres of Science and Culture worldwide that seek to cooperate with St Petersburg University. Recently, we have held a large joint seminar with the Russian Centre of Science and Culture in Gyumri (Armenia). It was attended by about 60 teachers. We talked about the Russian state testing system and modern approaches to language teaching. Another example is a seminar in Podgorica (Montenegro). The attendance there was about 20 teachers, which is all of the Russian language teachers in Montenegro. Our efforts were greatly appreciated, as they had not had any events dedicated to Russian as a foreign language for quite a while.
To understand the situation, consider the following scenario: TORFL has been conducted in the country for a few years, but the Russian language teachers have not had proper training in exam preparation. Nobody explained to them how to prepare students for the exam. So, they worked ‘following their gut instincts,’ or ‘playing their hunches.’ Yet, exam preparation has nothing to do with gut feeling, nor with hunches. There are certain requirements for preparing and conducting TORFL that must be met. We give practical advice about how to create a comfortable environment in class and at the exam. Indeed, any exam is a stress, and test-takers are always nervous. Nevertheless, the test should be associated with positive emotions. Think of it as customer service. People nowadays demand service on their terms, especially in Europe, where comfort and convenience are steeped in tradition and culture. People can discern whether they like the experience or not. In our centres, people like taking tests.
We try to work in countries where the Russian-speaking community is not popular. For instance, we provide assistance to the Russian-speaking communities in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. We have begun to work in Montenegro as well, where the attitude towards the Russian language has changed in the recent years.
There is an online Russian language school in Latvia. The Russian-speaking population of Latvia do not have many opportunities to educate their children in their mother tongue. This is despite the fact that there are people who wish to study or work in Russia. So, in summer 2018, a public organisation Slavija initiated a project, which was supported by St Petersburg University. The idea was to organise an online training course in the Russian language, Russian culture, and the history of Russia. Every Saturday since December 2018, three teachers from the Academic Gymnasium at St Petersburg University have been giving live lectures covering these three subjects.
In the Latvian cities Daugavpils and Rezekne, where they have suitable premises, schoolchildren gathered together to watch these lectures. In other Latvian cities (Riga, Jurmala, etc.) people could watch the lectures at home or on their computers. The day before the lecture students were sent a link, so they could log in to their personal accounts and study online. There was also a chat; so, they could get answers to their questions. In addition to following the lectures, the students received supplementary study materials with recommendations on textbooks and self-study resources for each subject. Recordings of the lectures were posted on the website of the International Russian Institute at St Petersburg University in the ‘Online School’ section. Anyone could watch the lectures whenever one needed to refresh one’s knowledge or to revise the material. Once in a while progress tests were conducted to see the students’ progress.
I watched some of the lectures, and then I talked to some students in Latvia. They said their knowledge of the history of Russia used to be virtually non-existent. For instance, they had not got a clue who Rurik and Vladimir Monomakh were. Clearly, it would have been very difficult for them to study in Russia. Now, they have learnt a lot. We know that students watched the lessons more than once or even twice, they often requested supplementary study materials. Perhaps some people in Latvia do not like this. But this is not about politics – it is about education. And in this case the University performed one of its major functions – educational. No one can deny that Russia is a country with a rich centuries-long history and culture, and if children want to study it, we cannot fail to help them.
Last year the online Russian language course ended at the end of May. The project raised great interest in Latvia. The attendance was quite consistent. More than 70 of the students who had chosen to study became real enthusiasts. Upon completion of the course, the students received a certificate of attendance of a St Petersburg University online course. In fact, some of the students have already applied for admission to St Petersburg University. The next academic year begins in September. We hope that more students will be interested in the course. Besides, we have received a request to launch online courses in the exact sciences (physics and mathematics). And we are going to expand this activity further. There are plans to launch similar projects in Kazakhstan, Estonia, Uzbekistan, Germany, and Spain.
This is not as large-scale an operation as language testing – a relatively low-key activity aimed at promoting the Russian language...but let us return to TORFL. Are the results of your work noticeable?
During the last two years, we have been able to increase the number of TORFL test-takers by 50%! The waiting times for the TORFL certification abroad have decreased to 2.5 weeks. Here, at the University, we issue certificates in one day! At present, no one issues certificates as fast as we do. These days, foreign citizens have more opportunities to be enrolled at Russian universities, where a Russian language certificate is required. And imagine how stressful it was when you had to wait for your certificate for 2–3 months. A foreign applicant would pass TORFL in February–March, then he would have to submit documents in May–June, yet he would be still waiting for his certificate...
To popularise the Russian language we organised the Olympiad in Russian as a foreign language (St Petersburg University has hosted the Olympiad in ‘Russian as a foreign language’). The competition was held in six Russian cities and more than 40 venues abroad. Almost 1,500 participants (schoolchildren and students aged 13–27) took part in the first Olympiad. On the one hand, they received the opportunity to become familiar with the state system of testing, since the structure of the Olympiad is aligned to TORFL. On the other hand, not only were they able to demonstrate their knowledge, skills, and erudition, but they also received a unique educational experience with an instant result. Incidentally, this is a motivating factor for many of them.
Our hard work and effort have paid off – the number of test-takers has been steadily growing. St Petersburg University is now receiving more partnership proposals from international companies. Some of these companies are from the countries where there has not been any interest in the Russian language and where people have never heard of TORFL. Take for instance, Brazil. Several language schools from this distant South American country approached the University offering cooperation. Since then, in two large Brazilian cities – São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro – about 60 people took TORFL. This is despite the fact that at present there is no use for this certificate in Brazil. It is practically unknown there. Nonetheless, 60 people decided to study Russian on their own initiative, with their own motivations. They wished to take the test and be certified by qualified Russian experts. Therefore, they contacted the University. Consequently, we established contacts in Brasília, the capital city of Brazil. This year we are also going to hold testing sessions in TORFL in three cities in Brazil.
Another example is the current interest in TORFL in the UK. Despite the sad circumstances that cloud the relations between our countries – such as the media hype surrounding the Skripals – our partners’ efforts did not go unnoticed. In 2018, the number of test-takers in the UK reached 90 people. And it used to be 20–30 test-takers per year. Indeed, these are people who love Russia, love the Russian language and treat it with ‘tender loving care.’
Does it apply to the USA?
Unfortunately not, there are no initiatives in the USA. Even though there is a great demand for employees who speak Russian – for example, in the police. Currently, there are plans underway to open a representative office of St Petersburg University in New York. On our part, we have negotiated an agreement to open a testing centre there. Hopefully, the matter will get off the ground soon afterwards.
How can one prepare for the test?
This year we are planning to publish practice tests for TORFL. Indeed, we are not the pioneers here – the University of Cambridge has been publishing the so called ‘past papers’ as practice tests for years. We are going to publish the St Petersburg University Practice Tests for TORFL created by our own experts. Indeed, we hold a lot of testing sessions here, at the University. Only last year, about 1,200 international students took the test – not only from St Petersburg University but also from other universities. And many of them would come in advance and ask: how to study, how to prepare for TORFL. In this project, we are working in cooperation with the Publishing House of St Petersburg University. The first compilation of practice tests is scheduled for publication in late 2019. The main difficulty is to ensure the protection of intellectual property rights. In the late 1990s, tests in Russian as a foreign language were ‘divided’ between the universities. For instance, Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia, Pushkin State Russian Language Institute and Moscow State University developed tests for the lower levels, while our experts designed tests for the higher levels. At some point, these unwritten agreements became invalid. Nowadays we do not receive any test materials from our colleagues in Moscow. We rely entirely on ourselves. Our teachers – philologists and testing specialists – are highly qualified experts who develop and update the test materials themselves. The test materials are usually updated twice a year. Hence the materials from the previous testing sessions can be published and used for practice.
I must admit, the situation with the test revision and update used to be different. That is to say, the test materials were not revised regularly. Then in 2015, when I became the Deputy Director of the Centre, someone noticed that in one of the tests there was a task: ‘Imagine what Russia will be like in 2015’. And it was already the year 2015! Since that summer, we have been updating the test materials twice a year.
For the youngest
All exams that you have mentioned so far are for adults. What about the younger generation?
Not long ago, we developed a test in Russian as a foreign language for children from bilingual families and families of non-Russian speakers. The age of test-takers was 6–16 years. It is called ‘The Russian language in everyday communication for schoolchildren.’ In fact, in some of our testing centres, more than 500 children have already taken these tests.
Professional associations of language testers in Europe do offer language tests for children, for example, Cambridge Young Learners English. In Russia, within the framework of existing state testing system, language tests for children are not developed. However, apart from St Petersburg University, Russian language tests for children are also conducted in Moscow at Pushkin State Russian Language Institute. We believe that the language test for kids provides useful experience in terms of developing their interest in further learning and drawing attention to St Petersburg University. I will give you an example. A family lives in Finland. The father is a Finn, and most of the people around are Finns. The mother is Russian. Their son is bilingual. He speaks in Russian only with his mother and infrequently with his grandmother when he comes to visit her in Zelenogorsk. His Russian is getting worse though. What can motivate him to take the Russian language test for children? We work hard so that the certificate issued by St Petersburg University, the oldest university in Russia, would become the biggest motivation factor for test-takers.
By the way, I noticed that many schoolchildren enjoy the experience of taking the Russian language test for children! Of course, winning the cup for top scorer in the local junior football teams will not guarantee a contract with a premier league club. Still, it proves that you are capable of something extraordinary. Our certificates show children what they are good at, prove their levels of linguistic competence and motivate them to continue studying the language.
There is plenty of evidence to support that. For example, a Japanese schoolgirl passed all levels of tests for children (from A2 to C1) in three years. Each time her parents would bring her from the north of the country to Tokyo to take the test. Both of her parents are Japanese, and their daughter is studying Russian. I will give you another example: a Bosnian family from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Their son, an 8-year-old boy, developed an interest in the Russian language. He likes Russian cartoons and songs by Nikolay Baskov. So, he learned some Russian – without proper textbooks. Then he begged his parents to take him to Belgrade, to the Russian Centre of Science and Culture to take the test in Russian as a foreign language for children. Well, he successfully passed the test and was happy to receive a certificate issued by St Petersburg University.
But there are no tests for children in the Russian state testing system, aren’t there?
As a matter of fact, there is the Order of the Ministry of Education and Science of the Russian Federation of 1 April 2014 No 255 ‘On approval of the levels of proficiency in Russian as a foreign language and requirements for them.’ In effect, it aligned the levels of proficiency in Russian to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. Nonetheless, there has been no mention of TORFL for schoolchildren yet. Obviously, a student who knows Russian well may sit for the regular TORFL. However, regular tests do not account for the age-specific needs of younger test-takers. The vocabulary is thematically different, focused on more serious matters. For instance, for a kid of 6, 7 or even 10, talking about environmental problems would be more difficult than about cartoons or adventure films. But most importantly, there is an urgent need for tests in Russian as a foreign language aimed at schoolchildren, which are age appropriate.
Indeed, there are precedents. For example, in Greece, some school students under the age of 18 successfully passed TORFL for adults. Nonetheless, the regular TORFL is too difficult for younger test-takers who are just starting to learn Russian at school. Besides, there are other tests for children in the European testing system.
Is it legally recognised there?
In Russia, all we have is the state language testing system. This means that every test-taker who passes the test receives a valid state-issued certificate, which is regarded as proof of language proficiency. In Europe and America, the process of obtaining a language certificate is different. Firstly, in many countries there are several testing systems as occurs in France, Spain, and Germany. Secondly, university tests are legally recognised by the state there: take for instance the Cambridge English exam in the UK. Also, in the US, there two commercial organisations engaged in language testing.
In Russia, St Petersburg University has achieved certain progress in the organisation of language testing. In fact, the role of the University in the development of Russian as a foreign language can hardly be overestimated. St Petersburg University has been instrumental in developing roadmaps to promote the Russian language internationally. And year after year, we have been working hard to implement them. Besides, there are other relevant activities of the University, which are not yet well-known.
Efforts are being made to develop interest in TORFL abroad and to promote education in Russia. For example, many university students learned about the academic programmes offered by St Petersburg University when they were preparing to take TORFL in their home country. It is also worth mentioning that not everyone knows that St Petersburg University has been allocated a number of government-funded places for international students. It turned out that for some of the University students this meant a change of destiny (Minutes of the Meeting with Public held on 19 February 2019). And according to Rossotrudnichestvo, the results of the 2018 admission campaign proved St Petersburg University to be the most attractive and recognisable university in Russia for international applicants (St Petersburg University has become the most popular university in Russia among foreigners). This is, indeed, an honour, but it also imposes responsibilities on us to work even harder. That is why we came up with a suggestion to hold an international Olympiad in Russian as a foreign language as a form of promotion and popularisation of the Russian language.
Collaboration with consulates
Speaking about oriental languages, you mentioned that usually language proficiency exams are held by consulates. How has the fact that St Petersburg University is now authorised to conduct language tests been received?
For diplomatic missions – consulates and embassies – language testing is a non-core activity. They do not have experts to promote language proficiency tests. In fact, quite often their resources are limited – usually one or two people are engaged in conducting tests. It is difficult for them to expand this activity. Even though many of them are enthusiasts and are willing to shoulder responsibility, their opportunities for further development of language testing are limited.
By contrast, St Petersburg University has a specialised non-teaching department – the Language Testing Centre, and its core activity is to organise and conduct language exams.
St Petersburg University has many more opportunities to popularise foreign languages testing, to consult teachers and test-takers and to contact subcultural organisations that work in this niche market. The University holds: seminars; conferences; festivals of national cultures, including culinary festivals; and events that support and promote foreign languages learning. Indeed, any foreign language is not just a language, it represents the culture of the country, a system of views. People who are keen to learn, for instance, Japanese, come to love the Japanese language via different pathways: some through their fascination with samurai martial arts, others through their interest in origami, and the third through their passion for the Japanese tea ceremony.
Practice has shown that the number of people who took the test of proficiency in Korean (TOPIC) at St Petersburg University has increased by 1.5 times. After St Petersburg University had been authorised to conduct TOPIC, the number of test-takers rocketed from 128 to 206 people! At present, the University is developing this line of work with the assistance of the Consulate of the Republic of Korea in St Petersburg. We hold joint events where, among other things, we talk about language testing. In December 2018, the first Korean-language festival ‘Hangul’ took place at St Petersburg University. During this festival we shared our experience of cooperation with the Consulate of the Republic of Korea, talked about our achievements in promoting Korean in the framework of language testing. We are always offered consular assistance, and our efforts have been appreciated since they bring positive results and expand opportunities. Our cooperation with the Consulate of the Republic of Korea in St Petersburg is actively developing.
I believe no other Russian university has such a portfolio in the field of language testing as St Petersburg University, which has 18 foreign languages and TORFL. Recently, I have checked out 14 major universities in Russia that are engaged in language testing (Moscow State University, Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia, Pushkin State Russian Language Institute, etc.). Most of them hold exams only in English and German, very rarely – one or two universities – in Spanish and French, and that is all! Unfortunately, in Russia, as I have already mentioned, there is no tradition of language testing, it has to be established and developed. This is a task for us. And based on our results, I can say that at present such a tradition is being established.
What are the prospects for the development of a language testing system at the University?
In the framework of TORFL, we will keep making efforts to increase the number of testing centres nationwide and worldwide. Recently, we have opened a testing centre in Tehran. At the moment, we are in ongoing negotiations to open a testing centre in France. Our next step will be to open testing centres in the Russian Centres of Science and Culture in Spain, Romania, Finland, and Kazakhstan. Negotiations in these countries are underway. In China, 11 testing centres are already operating, and we are planning to open a few more. Our plans also include strengthening the position of the University in Germany, where much interest has been expressed in testing children. A lot of work has been done in Greece: at present, there are six centres, with a few more to come, as we expect to increase the number of test-takers.
As for other languages, at present our priority is to organise examinations in Chinese and Arabic. In some languages, there are several different proficiency exams. We are interested in the French DELF and the Spanish DELE.
In many countries, a language certificate becomes officially recognised only after it has been included in the list of legally recognised qualifications and certificates of the Ministry of Education. Last year, the TORFL certificate was recognised in Italy, largely through the efforts of the University. We hope that these results can be extrapolated to other countries including Turkey, the UK, India, Iran and Iceland. As for the countries where not many people have heard about TORFL such as Brazil and Argentina, our goal there is to make sure that as many people as possible learn about TORFL. Our ultimate aim is certificate recognition: first, by the community, and then by the state.
Let me give you an analogy. Imagine a bucket of water and a bucket of mercury. Obviously, mercury is much denser than water, although the volume in this case is the same. So, our task in terms of dissemination of TORFL across the globe is not limited to expansion through new partnerships. We do our best to deepen our relations with the existing partners and improve the performance of our joint activities. Thus, ‘turning’ a bucket of water into a bucket of mercury.
It is like some sort of alchemy, isn’t it? As in the example you have mentioned earlier about Istanbul University…you began with the Turkish proficiency exam, and now there are student mobility programmes, the TORFL testing sessions in Turkey, and summer schools at Istanbul University for our students are underway…
Overall, the performance is very good. For example, in 2016, in Greece, 100 people were tested in the only centre of St Petersburg University there. At present, there are six testing centres, and according to statistics, more than 1,000 people were tested in May 2019. These results have been achieved in two years. On the other hand, there are small centres. For instance, in Copenhagen, there are few people willing to take TORFL. Or take the case of Slovenia. There has been some growth in the number of test-takers, but not as impressive: from 8 to 10, and then, say, to 12 people taking TORFL annually. But anyway, we understand that language testing is a means of supporting the Russian language. If people request it, the University will continue doing this work so that anyone can obtain a TORFL certificate. For this purpose, we do our best to expand this activity. Ultimately, we work to assist foreign citizens who are interested in the Russian language in obtaining the certificate which will make their lives better.