A question I’ve heard a lot in the US is “How long have you been here?” The answer currently stands at 2.5 years and counting, and the reaction has often been “But your English is so good!” The degree of amazement is usually inversely proportionate to the number heard. You may imagine what it was like when that number was in the months. A frequent follow-up question is “Did you know English before you came here?”
Far from insulting me, this line of thinking is very revealing of the Americans’ notions of language-learning. What I take from it is that people often assume that you learn a language by going to a country where it is spoken. This is consistent with how language-learning occurs for many Americans, and they seem to extrapolate that experience onto other people.
Unlike in many countries in Europe and my native Russia, Americans usually don’t start taking a foreign language until middle or high school. Those who decide (or have to) take it in college often opt for a study abroad experience as a way to immerse themselves in the language and culture and to improve their language skills rapidly. Many language majors don’t start taking “their” foreign language until college — as opposed to Russia, where you need to have a certain prior knowledge of the language to major in it.
How is it different from my experience (and I hope, this is somewhat representative of other people’s experience as well)? I started taking English in elementary school (fairly early even for Russia, where most children don’t start learning another language until the 5th grade or so). I was nowhere near fluency the first 3 to 5 years, but I had a lot of time to learn a lot of nuances of grammar and register — something an intensive-course student may not have the time to do.
So, to answer the original question, by the time I arrived in the US, I had had 16 years of English instruction (along with classes in other subjects taught in English — I was a Linguistics major) with a year-long US stint in between. While my experience may not be representative of everyone in Europe or even in Russia, I think it’s safe to assume that your average Russian will have had at least a few years of English instruction prior to arriving in the US and that this learning experience will be mostly classroom-based (as opposed to immersion or stay abroad), although this tendency is gradually changing.
Is this consistent with how people learn languages in your country? If you’re American, would you agree with how I described language-learning in the US?