US & World

To be American, first 'speak English,' study says

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You've probably heard someone complain about an automated voice system that requires the caller to "Press one for English." The gripe usually includes a complaint about this being America and English being the official language. Not quite. The U.S. does not have an official language. Never has. But, it seems that a wide swath of the country strongly associates being "truly American" with speaking English.

A study released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center reveals that nearly nine in 10 people in the U.S. "voice the view that to be truly American it is very or somewhat important that a person speak English." The report's authors conclude that of all the attributes associated with national identity, "language far and away is seen as the most critical."

The Pew study, conducted between April and May 2016, took a broad look at the things people most associate with being American. There were some big differences among respondents when it came to connecting citizenship to language, faith, and country of origin. The older you were, for example, the more likely you were to make those connections.

When it comes to language, education, age and faith can strongly influence how people view the connection between English and citizenship, the researchers say. Among people 50 or older, 81 percent say speaking English is very important. In the 18-34 group, only 58 percent say the same. Those who have gone only as far as high school are more likely (79 percent) than those with college degrees (59 percent) to hold that opinion. The figures for white evangelical Protestants and the religiously unaffiliated are striking, with 84 percent of the former and 51 percent of the latter affirming the importance of English fluency as part of national identity.

Among the three largest racial and ethnic groups in the country there is virtually no difference of opinion when it comes to language. They all connect English and citizenship. About seven in 10 Black people, Latinos , and white people concur that speaking English is critical in establishing a person's American identity. In 2014, half of all immigrants in the U.S. were proficient in English, according to the Pew report.

In 2015, roughly 14 percent of the U.S. population was foreign born. Another 12 percent were second-generation immigrants. "So roughly a quarter of the public are immigrants or the sons and daughters of immigrants," the researchers said. It might make sense, then, that only 32 percent of people believe that "to be truly American it is very important to have been born in the United States." About a quarter say it is "somewhat important."

Race accounted for considerable variation in this category. About half of black people, 28 percent of Latinos, and 28 percent of white people believe being born in the country is very important to being "truly American," the report said. And respondents who were 50 and older were twice as likely as those ages 18 to 34 to hold that view.

The Pew survey found that in a country where nearly 70 percent of Americans said they were Christian in 2014, people are fairly divided when it comes to connecting Christianity and American identity. A third of Americans said being Christian is "very important" to "be considered truly American," and about a third said "it is not at all important."

For even more insight into this emerging dichotomy, the Pew study includes survey data on Canada, certain European countries, Japan, and Australia, with findings largely splitting by generation, political leanings, education, and age.

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