Language

Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images

In 2015, former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin came under heavy fire for telling U.S. immigrants to “speak American.”

Obviously “American” is not a language. But the idea that the melting pot of the world should formally identify with any single dialect is one that has been hotly contested for years.

With one in five U.S. residents speaking a language other than English at home, the country’s lack of any official language has roots in our foundation as a nation of immigrants.

Now, though, it seems most citizens feel that there is a particular “American” sound. And that people who want to live here should feel obligated to talk the talk.

The study released Wednesday from the Pew Research Center found that nine in ten U.S. residents feel that “to be truly American it is very or somewhat important that a person speak English.”

The study also looked at other characteristics that could affect national identity, like sharing common traditions, birthplace and religion, but found that language was perceived as the most important by a wide margin.

The connection between patriotism and fluency was perceived differently by different demographics.

Republicans, older people (ages 50 and up) and people with a high school education or less felt the ability to speak English was important significantly more often than Democrats, younger people and more educated survey responders.

Interestingly, there was no significant difference between how different racial groups viewed this connection. The same proportion of black people, Latinos and white people agreed on the necessity of English-speaking for establishing American identity.

The U.S. is not the only country in which language is seen as an important skill for residents. In fact, residents of six European countries felt even more strongly that people can’t truly belong to their nations if they aren’t fluent in the national language.

Residents in the Netherlands most closely associated language fluency with national identity and Italians were least likely to feel the characteristic was significant – though a majority of them still considered it to be very important.

Despite rising nationalism, the U.S. remains among the half of the world’s countries with no official language. Even so, when someone says speak “American” it seems almost everyone knows what they mean.



Next, read about some of the most unique languages in the world. Then, check out this map of the world’s second languages.

Annie Garau
Annie is a NYC-based writer. For tips, write to annie@pbh-network.com.
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