A recent Pew survey on national identity shows that speaking a nation’s language is by far the most important defining attribute. The Pew Research Center asked people from fourteen nations how important religion, following customs and tradition, being born in a country, and speaking the national language, were for defining national identity.
The survey looked at ten European countries: Netherlands, UK, Hungary, Germany, France, Greece, Poland, Sweden, Spain, Italy, along with Canada, Australia, the US, and Japan.
Religion was the least important. Excluding Japan, on average, only 21% thought being Christian was very important for defining national identity. Only in Greece, where 54% thought it very important, did a majority consider faith a vital element of national identity. Religion’s importance was at its lowest in Sweden (7%), the Netherlands (8%), Spain (9%), France (10%) and Germany (11%). It fell even further among those under 35. Among this age group Germany (0%), Sweden (2%), Canada (6%), the UK (7%) and Spain (7%) were at the bottom.
In the middle, were, following culture and traditions, and being born there. On average 48% thought following culture and traditions was very important, while an average of only 31% placed very high importance on birthplace. Where you were born matters most in Hungary (52%), Greece (50%) and Japan (50%), and least in Sweden (8%), Germany (13%) and the Netherlands (16%).
National language was by far the most critical element of national identity. On average, 71% thought it was very important, with percentages ranging from 84%, in the Netherlands, down to a still high 59% in Canada and Italy. 99% of Dutch thought speaking Dutch was very or somewhat important. At the bottom, 59% of Italians, thought it was very or somewhat important to speak Italian.
So where does this leave Switzerland? If national identity is so heavily dependent on language, how does a nation with four of them define itself?
Long time correspondent for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Christophe Büchi, who speaks three of Switzerland’s national languages – French, Italian and German, but not Rumantsch – thinks Switzerland’s national language is reconciliation.
According to him, Swiss identity is not based on linguistic unity, nor is it ethnic, religious or a vision of a monolithic nation. If it exists “Swissness” resides in the acceptance of diversity. This diversity includes the multilingual character of the country. Multilingualism is the ultimate symbol of “Swissness”.
He likes to remind himself of what the Italian writer and semiologist Umberto Eco said: The language of Europe is translation. He believes in a certain sense Switzerland does a brilliant job of reconciling its different groups through democracy. Viewed this way, its four languages play the fundamental role of go-between, providing the cement to hold it all together.
Perhaps the rest of the world could learn a thing or two from Switzerland.
What it takes to truly be “one of us” – Pew Center Survey (in English)