While in Kiev this summer, I took advantage of the opportunity to take the TORFL exam as part of my Russian language courses there. This is a valuable experience I would recommend to anyone studying Russian abroad in the former Soviet Union. Below is a description of how I signed up for the test and what I experienced while taking it.
The Test of Russian as a Foreign Language – or “TORFL” – is a standardized test supervised by the Russian Ministry of Education and Science. It determines the official language proficiency level of non-native Russian speakers. The TORFL has six different levels that correspond to those used by both the Association of Language Testers in Europe, and the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). Similar in purpose to the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) administered in the United States, the TORFL was established in 1992, and is often the first serious challenge faced by foreign individuals wanting to enter degree programs in Russia or other former Soviet states. Some employers also request or value TORFL scores. The minimum level needed for admission into the Russian higher educational system is TORFL-1 (corresponding to CEFR level B1), but in order to obtain a bachelor or master’s degree at a Russian university, TORFL-2 certification (CEFR level B2) is needed. So while taking and passing the TORFL exam is by no means mandatory for American students, having official TORFL certification does have significant benefits, including the sense of satisfaction of having passed a major academic exam.
Each level of the TORFL is actually a combination of different tests covering five types of language skills: vocabulary and grammar; reading; writing; listening; and speaking. Each section has a different time limit, ranging from as short as 25 minutes to as long as 90 minutes for some of the advanced levels. A score of at least 60% must be earned on each individual section in order to pass the exam as a whole; otherwise, you’ll have to spend another few hours and anywhere from 60 to 150 Euros (depending on the level – higher levels have a higher exam fee) to retake it. The TORFL is usually taken over the course of two separate days, but at the NovaMova International School of Language in Kyiv, Ukraine where I studied through SRAS this past summer, the entire exam was administered on the same day. Since the TORFL can only be proctored by an official representative of the Russian Ministry of Education and Science, an instructor from Moscow took the train down to Kyiv about once a month during the summer in order to oversee the exam at NovaMova.
The first time I took the TORFL during my summer in Ukraine was at the “Basic” or “0” level, which corresponds to CEFR level A2 or “Waystage User” – the level of Russian I had placed into upon my arrival at NovaMova. While I quickly mastered most of the grammar and vocabulary of the A2 level, I took nothing for granted when preparing for the corresponding level of the TORFL, since the exam has a reputation for being harder than expected. My instructor at NovaMova provided me with practice exams from the school’s extensive test bank, and a friend and I studied hard for a couple of weeks before the exam. Our hard work and serious approach definitely paid off – we both passed our first TORFL with flying colors.
Preparing for the TORFL-1, or B1 level, proved much more daunting, due to the drastic increase in grammatical complexity and vocabulary repertoire with the move from A2 to B1. In studying for the exam, I followed much the same process as before, making full use of as many practice tests and study aids as I could find. The staff at NovaMova and SRAS were all incredibly supportive in the weeks and days leading up to the exam, which I actually took on my final day of classes in Kyiv. It seemed a fitting way to end my 10 weeks of Russian study in Ukraine, especially once I found out later that I had passed the TORFL-1 exam, and received all of the actual certificates in the mail a few weeks later.
I later learned that I had only received a 65% on the listening portion of the test – barely enough to pass. As a recommendation to any current or future SRAS students who might take the TORFL at more advanced levels, the listening section was definitely the most challenging part of the B1 exam, since it requires you to listen to a series of relatively complex audio tracks, while simultaneously answering comprehension questions that aren’t listed in the same order as the information you’re hearing. Thus, it is extremely important to not only be able to speak proficiently, but to be a great listener as well.
Taking and passing the TORFL not once, but twice, was one of the most rewarding academic experiences of my summer studying in Ukraine. Not only did it prove to me that I was improving my Russian language skills, but passing the B1 level also officially certifies that I am proficient enough to enroll in a Russian-speaking university. While I have no immediate plans to pursue a master’s degree in Ukraine or Russia after graduating from Indiana University next May, it is still an incredible and intriguing option to have, and just one more reason to return to the region in the future.