Language and culture is more important than country of birth

by Ray Clancy on February 3, 2017

As debates about immigration and citizenship take centre stage around the world, new research has found that fewer people are concerned about where someone is born and language is regarded as the core of national identity.

But there are differing views between younger and older generations and some believe more that religion is an important part of who a person is, according to the report from the Pew Research Centre in Washington, United States.

Unease over the cultural, economic and security ramifications of immigration helped to fuel the Brexit vote in the UK, added to support for Donald Trump becoming President in the United States and has broadened support for right-wing populist parties in France, Germany and the Netherlands.

Debates over what it means to be a ‘true’ American, Australian, German or other nationality have often highlighted the importance of a person being born in a particular country. But the research found that people generally place a relatively low premium on a person’s birthplace.

Only 13% of Australians, 21% of Canadians, 32% of Americans and a median of 33% of Europeans believe that it is very important for a person to be born in their country in order to be considered a true national. There are some exceptions, for example 52% in Hungary, 50% in Greece and 50% in Japan do think it is important but just 13% in Germany and Australia and 8% in Sweden make a strong connection between birth country and national identity.

But people do think it is important to speak the language of a country that you make your home. Majorities in every country surveyed said so including 77% in Europe, 70% in Japan and the United States, 69% in Australia and 59% in Canada.

Sharing national customs and traditions was also regarded as very important to many people’s sense of who they are. Some 54% in Canada, 50% in Australia and 48% in Europe linked the adoption of local culture to national identity.

The survey also asked about the link between religious affiliation and national identity. Some 32% in the US said they believe it is very important to be Christian to be considered truly American. This contrasts with 54% of Greeks but only 7% of Swedes.

Across the countries surveyed, there are significant differences in how the youngest and oldest generations view national identity. In the US people aged 50 and older are more likely than those ages 18 to 34 to say it is very important that a person be born in the country to be considered truly American.

In Japan, the generational divide is even more pronounced. Older Japanese are more likely than their younger counterparts to link national identity to birthplace by a 59% to 29% margin. Generational differences, though generally more modest, are also evident in Australia and Canada and across most European countries surveyed.

The generations differ even more sharply over the importance of national customs and traditions. In the US people aged 50 and older are far more likely than those ages 18 to 34 to say sharing such cultural elements is very important to being truly American. There is a similar generation gap in Canada, Australia and Japan.

‘Despite the debate we have about immigration and birth right nationality, we hear it in Australia, we hear it in the United States, when you ask people a question about this, they don’t put a high premium on it. This may make sense because we’re all countries of immigration,’ said Bruce Stokes, director of Global Economic Attitudes at the Pew Research Centre.

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