February 1, 2017

What It Takes to Truly Be ‘One of Us’

1. Language: The cornerstone of national identity

Of the national identity attributes included in the Pew Research Center survey, language far and away is seen as the most critical to national identity. Majorities in each of the 14 countries polled say it is very important to speak the native language to be considered a true member of the nation.

Roughly eight-in-ten or more Dutch, British, Hungarians and Germans believe the ability to converse in their country’s language is very important to nationality. Canadians and Italians are the least likely to link language and national identity. Nevertheless, roughly six-in-ten in Canada and Italy still make that strong connection.

In U.S., many say speaking English is important for being ‘truly American’

In the United States, about half of all immigrants were proficient in English as of 2014. Most Americans consider such language facility to be an important attribute of U.S. nationality. Fully 70% of the public says that to be truly American it is very important to be able to speak English, and an additional 22% believe proficiency is somewhat important. Just 8% assert that English is not very or not at all important.

U.S. generations differ on whether English proficiency matters to being an American. Among people ages 50 and older, 81% say such language ability is very important. Only 58% of those ages 18 to 34 place an equal premium on speaking English.

Americans with a high school education or less (79%) are more likely than those who have graduated college (59%) to voice the view that speaking English is very important to being a true American. Similarly, white evangelical Protestants (84%) are much more likely than people who are religiously unaffiliated (51%) to strongly hold such views.

There are virtually no racial or ethnic differences on the importance of speaking English to be truly American: Roughly seven-in-ten whites (71%), blacks (71%) and Hispanics (70%) agree it is very important.

Europeans see language as a strong requisite of national identity

The European Union has 24 official languages and a number of other regional and minority languages among its 28 member states. Majorities in all of 10 European nations surveyed say it is very important to be able to converse in the local tongue, ranging from 84% of the Dutch to 59% of Italians.

Although majorities agree on the link between language and national identity, older Europeans and those on the political right often feel more strongly about the importance of native language facility.

For example, in France those on the right end of the political spectrum are 22 percentage points more likely than those on the left to say that language is very important to being truly French. In Sweden, the partisan divide is 20 points and in the UK it is 19 points.

In some European countries, the ability to speak the official language is more important to people ages 50 and older than to those ages 18 to 34. In Sweden, for instance, the oldest generation is 23 percentage points more likely than the youngest generation to say language is very important to being Swedish. Generational splits are also found in the UK (18 points), Spain (17 points), Greece (13 points) and the Netherlands (11 points).

Language and national identity in Australia, Canada and Japan

In Australia, roughly two-thirds (69%) of the public believes it is very important to speak English to be a true Australian. A majority of all age groups hold this view, but older Australians (78%) are much more likely to voice this view than younger ones (59%).

English and French both have federal status in Canada, meaning all government services and federal legislation are bilingual. English is the mother tongue of 57% of Canadians, French that of 21% of the population. The survey asked Canadians about the importance of being able to speak either English or French. Overall, 59% across both groups say speaking one of the official languages is very important to being a true Canadian. Although a majority, this is a smaller share of the population than in the other countries surveyed (except Italy, where 59% also hold this view).

Language is also important to the Japanese sense of national identity. Seven-in-ten say it is very important to speak Japanese. This includes roughly three-quarters (77%) of older Japanese and a majority (57%) of younger ones. Language facility is considerably more important to Japanese women (77%) than to men (62%).