Language acquisition as the main vehicle of social integration: Russian immigrants of the 1990s in Israel

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Abstract

Drawing on the survey in a representative national sample of 804 post-1989 Russian-speaking immigrants in Israel, this article highlights the key role of the host language acquisition as a pathway to economic success and social integration. Russian immigrants are known for their tendency for cultural and linguistic retention, which in the Israeli case was augmented by their advanced average age, problems of occupational integration, and the lack of their exposure to Jewish heritage (and Hebrew) in the former Soviet Union. The formation during the 1990s of a strong and self-sufficient Russian community in Israel-with its own labor market, consumer services, media, and social networks-was for many immigrants a further disincentive from improving their Hebrew level. Although they are able to meet most of their basic needs within the so-called Russian street, immigrants with poor Hebrew remain socially disengaged from the host society. The improvement of Hebrew skills with increasing tenure in Israel was mainly found among young and middle-aged respondents, while older ones do not report positive change over time. Younger and upwardly mobile immigrants show the tendency to additive bilingualism, including the elements of Hebrew into everyday communications and cultural/media consumption, while retaining Russian as the core language. Although the division between host language use in the public realm and mother tongue in the private circle largely keeps true, Hebrew gradually invades informal communications and Russian often enters public/occupational domain. Mastering and using Hebrew serves as the key trigger for the reshaping of immigrants' identity to include new Israeli elements. The ability for verbal expression and understanding is more crucial than reading and writing skills.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)83-105
Number of pages23
JournalInternational Journal of the Sociology of Language
Issue number164
DOIs
StatePublished - 2003

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