Academic Exchange Quarterly      Winter   2008    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  12, Issue  4

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Acculturation Strategies: Avenues for All?


Victoria A. Malko, Ed.D., California State University, Fresno


Dr. Malko is on the Linguistics Department faculty at California State University, Fresno.



Acculturation strategies among Russian-speaking university students in the western United States involve individuals’ and groups’ attitudes toward ways of acculturating and their actual behaviors in the process of adapting to a new culture in the society of settlement. Understanding various outcomes of acculturation may facilitate development of students’ language proficiency and provide a sense of identity while living “on the borders.”



Acculturation refers to “those phenomena which result when groups of individuals having different cultures come into continuous first-hand contact, with subsequent changes in the original cultural patterns of either or both groups” (Redfield, Linton, & Herskovits, 1936: 149). Although a group may undergo profound changes, individuals may or may not participate in the community changes to the same extent. Berry (1997) distinguished four acculturation strategies that can be defined with respect to whether or not one’s cultural identity is considered important to be maintained, and whether or not contact and participation with other cultural groups is desirable. Individuals who do not wish to maintain their cultural identity and seek daily interactions with other cultural groups, particularly the dominant group, pursue assimilation. Individuals who hold to their original culture but avoid interaction with others opt for separation. Those who wish to maintain their cultural identity as well as seek daily interactions with other groups seek integration. Rejection of both cultures results in marginalization.


Berry et al. (1989) found the integration strategy the most successful, marginalization the least, whereas assimilation and separation strategies were intermediate. The interpretation was given that integration involves having social support from the dominant and ethnic communities. However, findings in a study of Chinese university students in Canada (Noels, Pon, & Clément, 1996) were inconsistent with those presented by Berry et al. (1989) who found integration to be the preferred strategy of acculturation. Only a small number of Chinese students claimed both Canadian and Chinese identities. Most of the students opted either for separation or assimilation. The researchers explained the discrepancy in findings as due to conceptual and operational differences between studies. When asked about preferred attitude they would like to experience, respondents selected integration, but when asked about the concrete situation, respondents claimed membership in only one or the other ethnic group.


Using Berry’s (1997) acculturation strategies framework, Russian psychologist Makhovskaya and French sociologist Burgos (2001) explored patterns of socialization among the Russian immigrants in France. The researchers found that the integration strategy was the most fruitful and psychologically sound strategy of acculturation (15% of participants). However, the most typical acculturation strategy was assimilation, rejecting the past and severing communication with immigrants from the former Soviet Union (70% of the study participants). The strategy of separation pursued by some parents led to negative psychological outcomes for children.


What previous studies fail to account for is the fact that the terms for adapting are created by the dominant culture, and the “avenues to adaptation” are not available to all (Moon, 1998: 328). The choice of acculturation strategies depends on the context. Therefore, in addition to surveys, through ethnographic interviews and participant observations, I examined the varying strategies Russian-speaking university students use in the process of acculturation. In addition to group-level factors, such individual-level factors as age, gender, education, cultural distance (language and religion), migration motivation and expectations were also explored.



The data were collected in the fall semester of 2004 using the constant comparative method (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) through generating theories from the data and enriching the data by grounding them in a theoretical perspective. Three sources of data were employed: demographic surveys, participant-observations, and interviews with students, instructors, and pastors. The purpose of the surveys was to gather information about the participants’ background characteristics, native and English language proficiency, as well as private and public domains of language use. The purpose of participant-observations was to collect descriptions of teacher-student interactions in university and college settings as well as Bible classes at the local Slavic Baptist Church. The purpose of ethnographic interviews (Spradley, 1979) was to verify hypotheses that emerged from participant-observations. Interview questions were adapted from a similar protocol developed by Smith (2000). Pilot interviews were conducted with graduate students to determine whether or not the questions were understandable. Interviews lasted for about thirty minutes, except two focus-group interviews with three and four students that lasted forty-five minutes each. Interviews were conducted in person at a set time inside or outside classrooms, in instructors’ offices, in a university cafeteria, student residence, or college library. The student survey and interview questions were translated into Russian and back translated for accuracy to eliminate the possibility of tainting the results due to the language barrier. Pseudonyms were used to protect the anonymity of the participants.


Data Analysis

Qualitative data were transcribed verbatim and analyzed according to a three-part model of data reduction, data display, and conclusion drawing and verification (Miles & Huberman, 1994). Application of the analysis model involved an inductive, iterative process of data reduction involving coding narrative data, identifying data categories and themes, displaying data in the form of visual networks to illustrate relationships among variables, and drawing conclusions by revising the original data, writing and inviting peer review of preliminary findings, and finalizing the conclusions.



Participants in this study were Russian-speaking students in a large public university, a two-year college, and a private Christian university in the western United States. All participants were born in the former Soviet Union and have been to the United States from several months to more than five years. The researcher used a snowballing technique to recruit participants. Slavic Baptist Church leaders and ESL program directors were approached to gain entry to research sites. With the permission of gatekeepers, the researcher contacted instructors via e-mail or phone, the instructors introduced their students during initial visits to arrange time for classroom observations and interviews, and the students introduced their friends or relatives.



Sixteen case studies were selected for analysis. Students’ age ranged from 18 to 45 years. Two-thirds of them had been in the United States less than five years. Whereas most of the participants had at least ten years of education in their native language before arriving in the United States, five students entered junior high or high schools in the United States. The larger number of the participants came from Ukraine (7), then Russia (5), and one from Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, and Moldova, respectively.


One of the main indicators of acculturation attitudes is language use in life domains. This was measured by asking participants how much English or native language they used in the family or socializing with friends in class and outside classroom, while talking to teachers, neighbors, boss, and co-workers. Home language use was predominantly Russian when speaking to a spouse, parents, or elders. Only two students indicated using English with their parents nearly ten percent of the time. Language use among siblings varied. The longer students stayed in the United States the more often they used English with their sisters and brothers, in some cases almost ninety percent of the time, while for several students Russian and English were competing in these domains. The use of language in the classroom varied depending on the environment. Whereas students used English only with their instructors, they used more Russian if there was proportionately larger number of Russian speakers in the class. The percentages of English language use with friends outside school were distributed along the broad spectrum, from one percent to ninety-five. The reasons for the limited English language use with friends outside school were being married, having children, socializing mostly with Russian-speaking friends, or staying less than a year in the United States. Graduate sojourner students used English most of the time (70-80%) while communicating with their friends outside classrooms. One reason is their higher level of English language proficiency at the time of arrival. Another reason is their relative isolation from the friends left behind in their home countries. A third reason is low involvement, if any, with the local Slavic Baptist Church. Those refugee students who entered U.S. junior high schools used English 70 to 95 percent of the time while speaking to friends outside school. Students spoke English to their neighbors, bosses, and co-workers if they were employed. Those who worked for the church used Russian.


Another indicator of acculturation attitudes is language use for cultural consumption. This was determined by asking how much English or native language students used while reading, listening to the radio or CDs, watching television or videos, corresponding with relatives and friends, and engaging in religious activities. English language was used almost a hundred percent of the time while listening to the radio and watching television or videos. The major reason is a lack of Russian language radio and television channels in the region. Although participants in this study were college and university students who read textbooks almost 100 percent of the time, only half of them indicated reading books and novels for pleasure. Overall, reading ranked fourth in the frequency of use, after watching TV, shopping, and listening to the radio. These students spent two-thirds of their time reading in English and one-third in Russian. The use of the Russian language was prevalent in four areas: religious activities (the highest), playing sports (mostly football among men), and corresponding with relatives and friends (half of the students did not engage in this activity). Students who stayed in the United States longer used more English while corresponding with their friends. Russian-speaking refugees used their native language almost 90 percent of the time for religious activities, except one student who attended English only service offered on Sundays. English was used for religious purposes between ten to twenty percent of the time as indicated by the participants in this study.


With respect to the domains of language use, English was spoken in school and at work whereas Russian was used with parents and elders, to socialize with close friends, and to read the Bible. Although two languages appear to be in a diglossic relationship, the situation is very unstable. As the students spent more time in an English-speaking environment, their English became better, while their Russian became peppered with English words. Students in a focus group interview explained that maintaining two languages was a problem. With respect to the cultural activities, in five out of the eight, English was favored over Russian, showing a trend toward assimilation.



Within the Russian-speaking community the approaches to acculturation varied. Numerous factors in the society of origin influence acculturation: political context, economic situation, and demographic conditions. With the exception of three graduate students who came to the United States to advance their education and professional careers, most of the Russian-speaking students came as refugees when Mikhail Gorbachev opened “a window of opportunity” for them in the early 1990s. Baptist refugees from Russia, Ukraine, and other republics of the former Soviet Union fled religious persecution and depressed economic conditions.


Several factors in the society of settlement further influence the choice of the acculturation strategies: the value attached to cultural diversity (multicultural ideology); the level of prejudice (ethnocentrism, racism, and discrimination); attitudes among cultural groups; and degree of identification with the larger society by all groups (Berry, 1997). Refugees from the former Soviet Union had an idealized image of the United States as a country of economic prosperity and political freedoms, but upon arrival to the land of opportunity, they faced inefficient governmental institutions, scarce economic resources, and alien sociocultural values (Delgado-Gaitan, 1994; Hinkel, 2000).


Such factors as context (home, school, or workplace), length of residence, generation status, and social support networks determine the preference for one acculturation strategy over others. The analysis of the domains of language use revealed that acculturation strategies varied in private domain and public domain. In private domain (home), Russian-speaking students pursued the strategy of separation, whereas in public domain (school and workplace), integration was favored.


In addition to group-level factors, such individual-level factors as age, gender, education, cultural distance (language and religion), migration motivation and expectations are important sources of variation in adaptation. Individuals as well as groups explore various strategies during the course of development, settling on the one more satisfying than the others.



Age is known to influence the acculturation process. Most of the participants in this study arrived in the United States between ages 17 and 40, considered first generation, except four students who arrived between ages 11 and 15, considered 1.25 generation by sociologists. These four students have been to the United States the longest (from 5 to 8 years); thus, showing the tendency toward assimilation. For these students, identity development came to the fore at the time of life transition between childhood and adulthood, compounded by the ethnic identity formation in the process of transition from their parent’s culture to the dominant culture in the society of settlement (Phinney, 1990). For those students who began acculturation late in life one’s culture could not be easily shed in a new setting.  



Gender is a factor that accounts for variation during acculturation. New roles available to women in the American society brought them into conflict with their heritage culture. Women’s success in attaining higher levels of education and language proficiency opened more opportunities for employment for them than for their men, who had to stay home to take care of the family, thus reversing the traditional gender roles. Women pursued the strategy of integration, whereas men clung to traditional cultural values, which is characteristic of the separation strategy.



Graduate international students who had more and better education pursued the strategy of integration, building on the cognitive and linguistic skills they developed through long years of schooling and transferring skills to new contexts of learning. Refugee students came with incomplete secondary or some vocational education, and many of them were deemed unprepared by their instructors for a university-level rigorous education. Some of them were retained in ESL classes or had to retake failed pre-requisite courses. They had limited access to education in the former Soviet Union, and some of them continued to experience marginalization in access to higher education in the country of settlement.



Language proficiency is one of the key variables associated with positive adaptation to the new culture and society. Graduate international students who had high proficiency in their native language and in English pursued the strategy of integration. They tried to preserve their linguistic identity and sought daily interactions with students from other cultures, especially native speakers of English. Those Baptist refugees who had low proficiency in their first language and in English oscillated between separation and assimilation. Considering Russian speakers as peers an impediment to the acquisition of English, they either tried to change the strategy or continued to rely on the support from their ethnic group in all matters except school and work.



In this study, language used for religious purposes was Russian, which is an indication of the strategy toward separation. Several students interviewed for this study pointed out that they keep up their native language by reading the Bible. However, the Slavic Baptist Church had to add an English language service on Sundays to accommodate a growing need among the younger generation who use more English than Russian in everyday life. In the long run, the tendency toward assimilation will win over separation because Slavic Baptists are part of the Western Protestantism rather than Russian Orthodoxy.  


Migration Motivation

Migration motivation has been found to contribute to the outcome of acculturation. Motivation can be voluntary (in the case of immigrants) or involuntary (in the case of refugees). In addition, those who have migrated settle either permanently (immigrants) or temporarily (sojourners such as international students). Whether refugees or sojourners, the Russian-speaking students interviewed for this study chose to come to the United States. They are willing to become part of the mainstream American culture and to find their place in American society.



Acculturation is a process of adaptation of individuals socialized in one culture to new contexts that result from immigration. It is a dynamic process that constantly changes under the influence of multiple factors. The Russian-speaking students’ acculturation strategies varied. In private domain, the strategy of separation was evident, whereas in public domain, integration was favored. Some of the recently arrived Russian-speaking immigrants pursued the strategy of separation, holding on to their original culture and native language while avoiding interaction with other cultural groups mostly due to the language barrier. Other newcomers, mostly graduate international students, fluent in English, pursued the strategy of integration. They did not perceive a threat to their identity, as they became more proficient in English, and sought daily interaction and help from their English-speaking instructors and peers from other cultural groups. Unlike sojourners, Russian-speaking refugees came to the United States to stay. As a long-term survival strategy, they will pursue assimilation into the mainstream American culture like previous generations and other ethnic groups did throughout the history of American immigration.


Despite rigorous selection of the research techniques, the design of the study has several limitations. The sample size is small; therefore, the findings should be viewed with caution. Participants of this study were Russian-speaking students from three post-secondary institutions in California; thus, the findings cannot be generalized to other Russian-speaking learners or other language groups in other geographical areas. A larger comparative study can be conducted to see if the acculturation strategies reported by the participants hold true for students from other cultural backgrounds. Perhaps, the most important limitation is the danger of “essentialism,” an assumption that a group has some features characteristic of all group members. The term “Russian-speaking” used in this study refers to students from Russia as well as students from other former Soviet republics who spoke Russian as their first or second language in school and home settings. Although these students speak Russian, this does not make them Russian in culture and identity. In fact, students from Estonia, Georgia, Moldova and some students from Ukraine interviewed for this study attend the Slavic Baptist Church and use Russian for communication because it is the language of the chief pastor. Yet, there is a possibility that in a focus group interview situation the presence of Russian speakers could influence their responses. As one participant observed, in the presence of other Russian speakers they are less likely to admit that they are more American than they wanted to believe.


An earlier version of this paper was presented at the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages Conference held in Chicago, IL on December 27-30, 2007.



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