Quest: Language and National Identity

Pew Research Center        Global Attitudes & Trends

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.