Russian immigrants in different host countries are prone to ethno-linguistic retention, which in Israel is augmented by their advanced age structure. The author highlights the key role played by host language (i.e., Hebrew) acquisition as a pathway to economic success and social integration among the massive (30–40 per cent of the country’s total population) and autonomous Russian community that has emerged in Israel since the early 1990s. The author of this long, richly documented and well-argued paper has tried to shed more light on the relationship between host language proficiency, ethno-linguistic identity and the integration / acculturation process among first-generation Russian immigrants. Compared to other Israeli studies including socio-linguistic issues, her survey has the advantage of a rather large representative sample of post-1989 immigrants. L.R. has been interested in the pathway through which language proficiency affects all other aspects of the integration process and the formation of ethnic boundaries. Her analysis confirms complex and bilateral causality between social variables involved in linguistic adaptation: language proficiency is both a prerequisite and a result of social insertion and acculturation.
Some of the study’s findings are of general relevance to the process of social incorporation of educated migrants. One such finding is that immigrants who never make it professionally and work in unskilled occupations or are unemployed (comprising the majority) are most prone to ethno-linguistic retention. Besides the detachment from professional workplace, the principal correlates for poor host language proficiency include older age, employment in the ethnic sector, and the absence of school-age children at home. Interestingly enough, virtually no gender differences were found in language proficiency and usage, or in other aspects of the acculturation process. This can be explained by the similarity of the former Soviet men’s and women’s education, employment, life style and values, both before and after emigration. The results also shed light on the interaction of home and host languages in the lives of Russian Israelis. Acculturation apparently develops along additive rather than ‘replacive’ lines, i.e. immigrants add Hebrew (and to some extent English) to their core linguistic and cultural menu, which remains Russian. However, the domains of preferential use of Hebrew over Russian tend to mingle over time—emerging as yet another sign of linguistic integration. As to the language–identity interface, the author’s findings suggest that mastering and using Hebrew by itself serves as the key trigger for the reshaping of immigrants’ identity to include new Israeli elements (“I speak Hebrew, hence I am Israeli”). As for the future of multilingualism in Israel, the author concludes that like English in the USA, Hebrew will retain its hegemonic status in Israel, and immigrant integration will always be contingent upon its acquisition.
Stéphane A. Dudoignon, National Centre for Scientific Research, Paris