How I learned my first foreign language (English) in post-Soviet Russia

Updated: Feb 15

I was born in the 1980s in Ukraine to Russian parents when Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union, the USSR was the most powerful, beautiful, and happiest country in the world (at least that's what we were told on TV every day), and "the imperialists" or "capitalists" - especially the Americans - were the bad evil enemy who wanted to undermine Soviet achievements and steal our scientific inventions. Yes, that's what we were told the world was like!


I grew up hearing and speaking only Russian and had no idea about the existence of other languages until one day - when I was about 6 - I stumbled on a book in Polish at my grandma's house. Since the part of Ukraine where my grandparents lived used to be part of Poland, one could find books, magazines, and newspapers in Polish, and many people still spoke it alongside Ukrainian and Russian. I think the book was about gardening because it had photos of plants, but I could not recognize any of the letters, even though by that time I knew how to read in Russian. I remember being shocked at that discovery and thinking that it must have been just Russian written in code - the idea of having a whole new language with different words, writing and sounds was beyond me. When I asked my grandma about it, she brushed me off saying nonchalantly "Oh, it's just Polish, dear. You know, other people speak other languages that we can't understand, and they can't understand Russian". And I still remember thinking: "Why? What's the point of that? Why complicate things when life (to me as a 6-year-old) is tough enough?". That was when I decided that I won't just accept other people speak their "secret" languages and will learn all the languages in the world. Yes, I was a naive 6-year-old and thought anything was possible! 😃


No matter how much I would have loved to learn other languages, at that time in Russia the possibilities for that were very scarce. USSR, being as closed as it was to the outside world, allowed few foreigners coming into the country, and those mostly stayed in Moscow and St. Petersburg, usually under the close supervision of the authorities that limited their interaction with the locals and certainly didn't allow them to engage into any language teaching activities. Language textbooks one could find mostly had political propaganda texts and didn't teach pronunciation or day-to-day vocab. Language education at school started at age 10 (English being the only option for the most part) and was limited to 2 hours a week taught by a typical Russian uchitel'nitsa (teacher) with a horrendous Russian accent and vocabulary limited to the approved textbooks that have changed little since the 1960s. These classes were mostly taught to comply with a rigorous school curriculum, but there was no expectation of anybody actually speaking or understanding English. "London is the capital of Great Britain" (said with a thick Russian accent) was about as much as you were expected to learn at the end of 7 years of classes...


When I turned 10, I was looking forward so-so much to starting to learn English. I was dreaming of traveling abroad (an impossible dream at the time), speaking fluently not one, but many languages, and maybe even becoming an ambassador to a faraway land.


That dream was just that - a dream not likely to happen. At the time we were living on a tiny military base in the Russian Far East, where 70% of the population was employed by the Navy, and the rest were servicing the town, with hopes of going back to the "West" (of Russia) when retirement time came. But as unrealistic as my linguistic desires were, my mom decided to help me reach them (and I'll never be able to thank her enough for that). She pulled all the pennies in the house and cut her own expenses on "luxuries" such as closing and make-up to be able to pay for an English tutor for me (an expensive pleasure at the time!). And so it began... In addition to my two useless weekly English lessons at school where we drilled present continuous, present perfect, and other verb tenses without ever having a single conversation in English, I started my weekly private lessons with Lyudmila Gennad'evna, who for two hours a week made me tell stories on different topics (restaurant, travel, weather, animals, etc.), read real books in English to see how the language worked in context, even though I had to look up every second word (I still remember the book that I took a year and a half to finish - "The Labours of Hercules" by Agatha Christie), and dictated short texts for me to improve my listening and spelling. Thanks to her, after a few years I could make full sentences in English, have conversations (only with her, as nobody else in my town had an adequate level of English) and even understand some of what I heard in the Western pop songs (I remember really enjoying listening to Roxette and actually understanding the lyrics...).


What I didn't realize at the time (and how could I?) was that my ear and speech were nowhere near being trained enough to understand spoken English and actually pronounce sounds in a way they could be understood by native speakers. I remember being so proud of my good grades in English and feeling like I was SO GOOD in it. The reality was quite different, as it usually is... Some doubts about my level of English crept in when my school friends kept asking what Ace of Base sang in that song that was coming from every radio and stereo player during the summer of 1993... You know, the "All that she wants" song? Well, I could not hear "All that she wants" for the life of me... I could not understand a word those Swedes were saying!! And I was so embarrassed to admit it to anyone (since I was supposed to be "good" in English!). So I confidently told everyone the song was called "Oh macho boss" and talked about a sad secretary who had a very bad boss... Yes, shame on me and belated apologies to all my friends who I have misled so badly...


Looking back at that time, I have a lot more tolerance and understanding for foreigners who struggle so much with English, especially those who tried to learn it at a time when there was no Netflix, Duolingo, or even the internet... How can you learn a language when you don't hear native speakers speak it and your impression of what it sounds like comes from a local with a terrible thick accent? How can you avoid funding like a robot (or like Google Translate) when you can't use English in context, when there's no real immersion you can dream of?


My skills were put to a real test when I joined a group of other high school students from all over the former Soviet Union on an exchange year in the USA. This was through a program called the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX). It was a scholarship student exchange program administered by the U.S. Department of State through funding from the Freedom Support Act. The program provided opportunities for high school students from Eurasia, mainly from the former Eastern Bloc, to spend a year in the United States, living with a host family and attending an American high school.


I was placed with a host family in Texas. More exotic (or American) would be hard to imagine! All I ever heard about Texas were cowboys and the TV series Dallas. What nobody told me is that the way people speak in Texas would be hard to understand even for some native speakers! So when I arrived at Dallas- Fort Worth Airport to meet my lovely host family, they could as well be speaking Chinese. I did not get a word of what they were saying. They most definitely sounded nothing like my English teacher in Russia. They didn't even sound like Roxette or Ace of Base! The story of how I've learned to understand the Texans deserves a separate post, but let me just tell you this - I felt like I had to re-learn English from scratch in the U.S., because the things a high school English course taught me were pretty much useless when trying to speak to actual people. Really, "London is the capital of Great Britain" is not much of a conversation starter in the American south...


So if you feel like after years of learning a language in school you still can't string three words together and can't understand the native speakers, don't blame yourself. Sometimes it's really not your fault. Given the way languages are often taught in school, it's actually pretty amazing that some people learn them (almost in spite of the instruction they were given). The good news is that today there are so many really effective methods for learning languages, both on your own and with the support of a teacher, and so many opportunities for immersion and practicing! This site - www.PerfectlyFluent.com - has plenty of ideas and tips on how to do it. And if I were to summarize the main take-aways from my experience with English in those early days, it would be these ones:

  1. Learn from a native speaker, so you hear what the language sounds like from the start and learn to understand the spoken language early on. Yes, you can still learn from someone whose first language isn't your target language, but why sell yourself short and not go for the highest quality from the start?

  2. Learn by reading real-life materials in your target language (not made up texts in a textbook). It can be magazines, newspapers, kids' books, social media sites, anything that is directed at the native speakers!

  3. Speak in your target language right from the beginning (and if you have nobody to practice with, speak to yourself or your cat!). This will help get rid of the blockage many language learners struggle with, where after years of learning they suffer from stage fright when they have to speak!

  4. When you get a chance, go to a country where they speak the language you are learning! And do it early on (not after five years like I did)! This will help you get on the right track early on and reassure you of your progress, as well as give you a chance to practice in the natural habitat 😃




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