Canadians outpace their American neighbours in tying the importance of language to national identity.
84% of Canadians believe that speaking English or French is very or somewhat important to national identity, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center.
This sentiment is significantly stronger than in the United States, where only 78% consider speaking English important to national identity, marking the U.S. as having the least emphasis on language among the 23 countries included in the study.
15% of Canadians said that it was not at all or not very important to national identity to be able to speak English or French. Across the border, 21% of Americans said the same about English.
In addition to language, customs and traditions also play a key role in Canadian identity.
In Canada, 81% of respondents linked customs and traditions to their national identity, which is a 9-point decline since 2016 but still represents a strong majority. The United States trails with 71% of its respondents saying the same about their traditions.
There was a significant decline in seven countries where the question was previously asked, the biggest being a 14% decrease in Japan between 2016 and 2023.
The survey highlighted four different areas: the importance of language, customs and traditions, birthplace, and religion to national identity.
“Of the four dimensions of national identity included in the survey, language is by far the most valued,” said the report’s authors. They added that in all countries polled, more than eight in ten point to language as important for true belonging in the country.
Political ideology played a factor in these perceptions.
In Canada, 88% of those on the ideological right see language as important, compared to 79% of left-leaning participants. The divide is most notable in the United States, where 90% of right-minded thinkers view speaking the country’s most common language as very or somewhat important. Conversely, in the U.S., only 58% of those on the left feel the same way — a difference between left and right-leaning thinkers of 32%.
Birthplace as a component of national identity seems to be less emphasized in Canada, where 66% deem it not at all or not very important, a sentiment that aligns with countries where international migrants make up a larger share of the population. The U.S. is nearly split on this issue, with 50% considering it important.
Globally, the importance of language and customs remains high, although birthplace and religion see more varied responses.
“Nations where immigrants make up a smaller share of the population tend to see birthplace as a more important component of national identity, and countries with a greater share of immigrants are more willing to accept those born outside of the country as true nationals,” said the report.
The countries with the largest portion of respondents valuing birthplace as important to national identity are Indonesia and Mexico, where 91% of respondents said it was somewhat or very important to national identity to be born within the country. Immigrants make up less than 1% of the population in these countries. Conversely, immigrants make up about a fifth of the population in Canada, where only 33% consider birthplace very or somewhat important to being Canadian.
Regarding religion, 27% of Canadians responded that it was somewhat or very important to national identity. In the U.S., 37% consider religion a key aspect of being American. Countries where these views were most prominent were Nigeria, Kenya and Indonesia, which said that religion was somewhat or very important to national identity at 88%, 87%, and 86%, respectively.
The study’s Canadian segment surveyed 1,007 people across Canada by phone, and it carries a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points. The survey did not include residents of Yukon, Nunavut, and Northwest Territories.