What Does It Take to Fit Into a Nation? Speak the Dominant Language, Many Say.


Language is the most important identifier of national identity in many countries, according to new research. Sarah L. Voisin/Washington Post/Getty Images
Language is the most important identifier of national identity in many countries, according to new research. Sarah L. Voisin/Washington Post/Getty Images

What does it mean to be "truly" American, German or Japanese? As U.S. politicians debate a wall along the Mexican border, and post-Brexit Europe contends with waves of displaced migrants, there's renewed debate over the recipe for national identity. Do new arrivals threaten to dangerously "water down" the native culture or does diversity strengthen democracy?

According to a Pew Research Center global attitudes survey conducted from April 4–May 29, 2016, language is the single most important requirement to be "one of us." That's true in the U.S., Canada, European countries, Australia and Japan, where clear majorities of those surveyed ranked "being able to speak our national language" far above other considerations like being born in the country, sharing national customs and traditions or being a Christian.

Wide agreement that language is at the core of national identity

Sanford Levinson, an expert on the U.S. Constitution and professor of government at the University of Texas Law School, isn't surprised by the Pew survey results. Levinson says that language is the primary way nations have identified themselves since the Middle Ages.

France, for example, is "obsessed" with the purity of the French language, even writing it into their Constitution as the official language. Well before the state of Israel was established, Zionists insisted on establishing modern Hebrew as the national language. In Turkey, the government has waged a war against the Kurdish language in attempts to purify the national identity.

While the framers of the U.S. Constitution avoided establishing a national language, the debate over language and national identity was there from the start, Levinson points out. In the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin was ticked off that German was the lingua franca for a third of Pennsylvanians. And a lot of upstate New Yorkers only spoke Dutch at the time.

Some of the Founding Fathers worried that a multilingual nation couldn't be fully united. As a result, says Levinson, "There's always been a strain of American thought that 'real Americans' speak English."

Writing in The Federalist Papers (18th-century essays urging ratification of the Constitution), former Chief Justice of the United States John Jay was one of the first to argue that America's strength comes from its homogeneity.

"Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people," Jay wrote in "Federalist No. 2" under the pen name Publius, "a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs."

What Levinson finds extraordinary about Jay's assertion that America is blessed for our monolingualism is that it was never true. "John Jay clearly had to know that he was wrong when he said we were united by a common language," says Levinson. "He was from New York. He had to know about the Dutch speakers and the German speakers."

Levinson sees a straight line from the anti-diversity rhetoric of Federalist No. 2 running up to politicians like Bobby Jindal, the former Louisiana governor and Republican presidential hopeful who called for English to be the national language and warned that "immigration without assimilation is invasion." Actually, Levinson published a whole book in 2015 on reading The Federalist Papers in the 21st century.

President Donald Trump won the 2016 election partly by harnessing the growing nationalist tendencies of an American public worried about the threats of global terrorism and the impact of immigration on American jobs. Although both Republicans and Democrats told Pew that language was a requirement of being a "true" American, there was a significant divide along party lines. Eighty-three percent of Republicans said speaking English is "very important" compared to only 61 percent of Democrats.

have failed over the centuries to pass through Congress. Voting, one of the hallmarks of American civic life, can be conducted in multiple languages in most states.

And there are those like Levinson who believe that the motto of the United States, e pluribus unum ("out of many, one"), remains the proudest example of "American exceptionalism."

"It's the claim that people of different religions, different ethnic backgrounds, who speak different languages can nonetheless unite around a set of abstract values found in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution," says Levinson. "And that's what keeps us together and makes us strong."