Dmitry Ptyushkin, Acting Director of the Language Testing Centre at St Petersburg University, has shared the plans of the Centre for 2020. He has also told us what becomes of those who have testing certificates in Russian as a foreign language.

Mr Ptyushkin, at present, the University is cooperating with 80 institutions from 33 countries in the field of language testing. Is it being engaged in negotiations to open new sites and with whom?

Yes, of course. Compared to 2015, the number of St Petersburg University partner centres in the field of language testing has increased tenfold. At present, we are working with incoming applications of those who have found us by themselves. Also, we ourselves are looking for partners around the world. The goal for 2020 is to increase the number of centres to 100, as well as to expand the geography of partners in the field of language testing: for example, start working in the United States, Afghanistan, and the United Arab Emirates.

Additionally, it is important for us to increase the number of centres in the countries where we are already conducting our activities. So, our road map is to cooperate with institutions in each province of China, and to open new centres in the UK and France. We are currently working with applications from Italy, Spain, Croatia, Macedonia, Kazakhstan, Morocco, Peru and Ecuador. It should be added that we also pay special attention to cooperation in the field of language testing with the world’s top universities: Tsinghua University (China); the Sorbonne (France); the University of Bologna (Italy); and others.

Could you please tell us what the procedure for opening such sites is?

The procedure is quite simple. If an institution wants to organise language testing in cooperation with St Petersburg University, it has to prepare a free-form letter addressed to the Rector of the University. The letter should state the history of the institution, its current state, and its readiness to cooperate. After receiving the letter, negotiations are held during which the details of the interaction are clarified. When agreement is reached on all conditions on both parties, we will send a template for a cooperation agreement for further signing. Please note that on cost matters, we are flexible. This is due to different living standards in different regions of the world. So, it would seem to me incorrect to fix a single cost for all countries. On average, the whole process from start to finish takes two to three weeks.

In addition to testing, in what areas is cooperation with these partners possible?

Admittedly, we work with these institutions in terms of testing, but our cooperation extends further. Our colleagues are actively working to inform their pupils, students and clients not only about tests, but also about the possibilities to enter St Petersburg University. We give information about: non-degree programmes in Russian as a foreign language; the possibility of online learning and online courses; online public lectures and seminars; important news and events of the University; and much more. I am sure that thanks to this work, St Petersburg University has been the most attractive university for international applicants for two years already. This is according to the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation (Rossotrudnichestvo).

You said that in addition to language testing, the Centre organises online schools, online Russian language courses in Greece, a peer-to-peer pedagogical practice programme, and much more. What new grounds will the Centre break in 2020?

For the last three years, the activities of the Language Testing Centre have been expanding particularly fast. During this year, our experts have completely updated the portfolio of locked materials not only of the test of Russian as a foreign language, but also the test of Business Russian as a foreign language at St Petersburg University. In 2020, the first online course on this topic will be implemented at St Petersburg University.

In terms of testing, which is our core business, in the future, we would like to influence the situation with the system for assessing knowledge of Russian and other subjects in the CIS. So, for example, we interact with colleagues from Azerbaijan and are reviewing and updating the testing and assessment materials of the final school examinations using the ample experience of St Petersburg University in the field of language testing.

We are also working to organise a special platform where those wishing to take a test in Russian as a foreign language (TORFL) could simulate a one-on-one situation with an interlocutor. Our plans also include various competitive events, for example, an Olympiad on the history of Russia for foreigners. Additionally, three books with practice tests will be published this year. This is a joint project of St Petersburg University and ‘Zlatoust’ Publishing House.

Now we are in a complicated situation due to the coronavirus. However, even in these conditions we are organising webinar courses, which have already been attended by about 2,000 people from more than 100 countries. Additionally, in May we launched one more course, this time together with Rossotrudnichestvo.

I also add that we would like to take advantage from the experience of distance learning after the situation normalises. So, in 2020, we are planning to implement online courses for teachers of Russian as a foreign language. Our plans are grandiose, but if you put your heart into your work and are result-oriented, it is possible to turn everything into reality.

What has become of those who passed the test of Russian as a foreign language at the Language Testing Centre at St Petersburg University?

Lives are completely different, as is the application of certificates. Of course, many foreigners use the TORFL certificate for admission to St Petersburg University. So, in 2019, 1,203 foreigners submitted documents to the University, and 238 of them had certificates. And over the last three years, more than 700 foreign citizens have attached TORFL certificates to their portfolio. I am referring not only to applicants from China. There are Greeks, Italians, Kazakhs, Japanese, Spaniards, Malian, and many others.

Of course, the TORFL at St Petersburg University is not only taken by students. In 2019, we were approached by consuls from Norway, Japan and Cyprus. I am pleased to note that their results were of a high level. Over the years, the consulate personnel of the Republic of Korea, Italy, Greece and Germany have addressed us with a similar request.

Abroad, certificates also find use in a variety of ways. In Greece, the TORFL certificate gives new career prospects. For example, in September 2019, a career day was held at the representative office of St Petersburg University in Greece in Thessaloniki with the support of our partners from the Centre of the Russian Language and Culture ‘Russian Word’. More than 70 job interviews with tourism employers were organised. Having a certificate in the portfolio provided a candidate with a significant advantage. In Poland, a TORFL certificate holder can count on a salary increase in some positions. In Switzerland, this certificate is also needed for many bank employees to be promoted. I know that even UN employees have contacted our partners abroad for testing. The C1 certificate was necessary for them for career growth.

There are also absolutely amazing stories. At one of the test sessions in Serbia, we met a Bosnian boy, he was only eight years old. He said that he had begun to learn Russian from scratch, because he really likes watching Russian cartoons and listening to the songs of Nikolay Baskov. The child had an amazing motivation and determination: he studied the language by himself, no one speaks Russian at home. The boy came to the exam to prove to himself that he can. And he passed the test successfully.

It is interesting to follow those who have a consistent approach to the process of studying Russian. So, we have an example from Poland, when a young man began to study Russian from scratch and regularly turned to St Petersburg University for an expert assessment of his progress. Over ten years, he has gone from A1 to C2, this is an estimable and impressive result. There is also an example from Germany, where a motivated girl studied Russian from an early age. First, she passed our tests for schoolchildren, and then, years later, she successfully coped with the ‘adult’ B2 TORFL and became a student at the University.

2019 saw the largest international online Olympiad in Russian as a foreign language. It was organised by St Petersburg University together with the Ministry of Education of Russia. One of the prizes was a voucher for a free TORFL. Out of 7,199 people, only 500 were shortlisted. I am sure that they will be able to cope with the test and find a worthy use for the certificate.

I think that those who decide to study Russian and connect their lives with Russia are special people. Each of them has their own path, and the University helps them along this path and provides comprehensive support.