How I learned English as a foreign language

Alexei Sorokin
6 min readApr 29, 2022

It’s been a long journey and there is no end in sight!

I started at the age of nine. It was in the late 1980s. Starting from middle school (grade five in the Soviet system) there was always a mandatory foreign language class, English or German. Taking English was more common.

For the most part, it was useless — learning English at my Russian school. Even if you were an A-grade student, you could never become truly good, let alone fluent, in a language just by learning it at school. Keep in mind that I was a child of the Soviet era so at least initially there was very limited exposure to anything Western — no travel, no foreigners to converse with, no movies to watch.

That changed though after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Thanks to my Dad, I loved Western pop music. In the early 1990s, Russia’s FM radio stations were established, and music played every waking hour on my Phillips Hi-Fi, my best-ever present from my parents, received on my twelfth birthday. It was then that I fell in love with U2 and R.E.M. R.E.M’s Automatic for the People CD was the first record that I’d discovered on my own, without any guidance from my father. They played “Man on the moon” on the radio and I got the CD. The third song on that album — the Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight — was an impossible challenge in my journey of learning English through music. First, the title made no sense. Second, the entire song was sung in a very fast way. Lastly, the chorus “Call me when you try to wake her up” was totally indiscernible. The CD booklet had no lyrics and there was no internet then so I had no idea what Michale Stipe was singing. The point though is that I was learning a lot by listening to British and American rock music.

Then I also learned English from the American radio deejay Casey Kasem. Moscow’s Radio Maximum aired his Top 40 show every Sunday morning, and I’d never miss it. The ritual was like going to church. I was sad to hear the news of Casey’s passing in 2014. Little did he know (he didn’t!) that a Russian teenager on the outskirts of Moscow was one of his biggest fans.

Then in 1994, my father decided to send me to America, at least for a year. My summer language school would be in Wichita, Kansas, and then I’d either stay in Kansas or move to another state to do a year of high school.

Ahead of the trip, my parents hired a private tutor.

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Alexei Sorokin

A Russian immigrant in America, father of 4, Cambridge and Harvard Business School alum. I run and write every day. https://runningwritingliving.substack.com/