The World in Words

The World in Words


The World in Words is a podcast about languages and the people who speak them. What happens to the brain on bilingualism? Does it matter that so many languages are dying out? Should we fear the rise of global English? Is the United States losing its linguistic cohesion? Why are Chinese tech words so inventive? Why does Icelandic have so many cool swearwords? Patrick Cox and Nina Porzucki bring you stories from the world’s linguistic frontlines. Also at


The global rise of Swahili  

Hakuna Matata. You may recognize this phrase. You may even find yourself humming the earworm-provoking song of the same title from Disney's the Lion King. "It means no worries" goes the lyric. But Disney fails to mention that "Hakuna matata" means "no worries" in Swahili. Swahili – known as Kiswahili in East Africa – has its roots in a small tribal Bantu language spoken along one strip of Africa's eastern coastline. But these days, it's spread across the African continent. Today its spoken by more than 100 million people. More people speak Swahili than Korean or Italian.This week reporter Daniel A. Gross investigates how Swahili became a prominent language on the African continent and increasingly around the globe.

The Standing Rock Sioux's other fight  

Standing Rock is more than a social movement for clean water rights. It's also where the Lakota language is re-inventing itself.

'I'm Arab but I don't speak Arabic'  

The language you would expect to hear in the United Arab Emirates is Arabic. Yet in a place like Dubai, English is the language on the streets, cafés and malls. Many Emiratis struggle in their own mother tongue. When oil was discovered in this mainly desert nation in the late 1950s, money and rapid development followed. An outside workforce poured into the country and a lot of them spoke English. So they communicated in English. At the same time, leaders in the UAE started to view English as the language of future. English entered the schools and classrooms. Slowly English became the lingua franca in the UAE. Arabic, meanwhile, slipped. This week on the podcast, reporter Shirin Jaafari heads to the UAE where she investigates what happened to Arabic in this Arab nation.

How do you say 'cancer' in Mixtec?  

Folks from Salinas, California like to remind you that their valley is the “Salad Bowl of the World.” Not that you can forget. When you drive around town, everywhere you look there’s fields growing lettuce, strawberries, and broccoli. A growing number of the farm workers picking the broccoli and lettuce from those fields speak neither English nor Spanish but several Native Mexican languages like Mixtec, Triqui, Zapotec. How are these farmworkers navigating life in California speaking their languages? Turns out, it's not so easy. This week on the podcast we visit Natividad Hospital in the town of Salinas on California’s Central Coast. This hospital, surrounded by fields, serves many of the farm workers in the valley. Four of the most commonly spoken languages at the hospital are Native Mexican languages. For years doctors and staff at Natividad struggled to communicate with their indigenous language speaking patients. And finding qualified indigenous language interpreters proved to be difficult. Then hospital officials realized finding indigenous language interpreters was as easy as visiting their own waiting rooms. Many bilingual and trilingual farm workers were already informally interpreting for their family members and friends. What if they trained these folks to become qualified medical interpreters? In the podcast we’ll meet some of Natividad’s indigenous language interpreters. We’ll also head 250 miles south of Salinas to Oxnard, California where a new community radio station is broadcasting in some of these Native Mexican languages.

Should we learn in two languages?  

We know much more about bilingualism than we did 18 years ago when Californians voted to ban bilingual education. What does the research tell us? And will it effect Californians' upcoming re-vote on the issue?

Speak perfectly or don't speak at all  

The Keres language, spoken by the Laguna Pueblo of New Mexico, is dying. When younger tribal members tried to revive it, they were blocked by elders fearful that spiritual essence of the language would be lost.

A language preserved in song  

A group of anarchist Christians known as the Doukhobors emigrated to Canada in the early 1900s after becoming outcasts in Russian society. Their descendants don't use the old Doukhobor-Russian dialect, except for when they sing.

What US city is fully bilingual? Not Miami!  

Miami, the Magic City is bilingual in practice, but not in theory, says one linguist. During the 1960's Miami was an example of bilingual education; the place where educators around the world went to see how bilingual ed was done. Somehow that got lost along the way. Today Miami-Dade County, the sprawling bureaucracy that surrounds the City of Miami, is about 70 percent Latinx, yet, most kids in public schools only get about an hour of Spanish education, not really enough to be proficient in a language. This week on the podcast, guest host Maria Murriel heads down to her hometown to explore how Miamians, including herself, feel about Spanish in Miami.

Maisam learns Dutch  

What is it like to learn a second language when you can't read and write in your first one? That's the challenge for this Afghan teenage refugee now going to school in Belgium.

How the Miami Tribe got its language back  

What happens when the last native speaker of a language has died? Is that language 'dead' or just 'sleeping'? And can it be woken up again?

Toppling the Tower of Babel  

When Netflix launched their talk show "Chelsea" this past May, they promised to deliver it three times a week in more than 20 languages. To do that, they had to invent a whole new translation process. We're in this interesting moment in media. The internet has made communicating with others across the globe easy and instant. But despite all the chatter about the global rise of English, the Tower of Babel still stands. The world remains multilingual, and not always translated. But more than a century ago, filmmakers thought they had found the key to tumbling the Tower of Babel. Directors like Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith felt that silent film was the perfect medium to bring the world together, unite us all, be our “visual Esperanto.” And then sound came and wrecked everything. This week on the podcast we go back to the silent film era and examine what happened when sound entered the picture. We also get a peek into Netflix’s solution to translating Chelsea at a rapid rate and ensuring that the show is still funny in 20 languages.

Sing to me in Vietnamese  

A Vietnamese-American stays in touch with her cultural roots through language and song. But which language besides English will she pass on to her own children? Vietnamese or...Spanish?

Sorry we killed off your language  

The Canadian government eliminated many indigenous languages by sending children to church-run boarding schools. But the government has apologized and pledged to help bring back those languages. In British Columbia, the Ktunaxa language is making a modest comeback.

So, what are your pronouns?  

What pronouns do you use? Have you ever been asked? Do you ask others their pronouns? This week on the podcast, we hand over the reins to our talented summer intern Paulus van Horne to share a very personal story about pronouns. In the spring of 2016, Paulus came out as non-binary at college, asking friends and teachers to use the gender neutral pronouns they/them their. This summer at The World, Paulus came out for the first time at a workplace. This is their story.

The Last Native Speakers of Hawaiian  

Hawaiian is often offered up as a language revitalization success story, a model for other endangered languages to follow. But language revitalization isn’t so simple. While activists are reviving the Hawaiian language, opening up pre-schools, teaching thousands of second language learners there was and still is a small group of native speakers who have never lost the language, a group of native Hawaiians from the island of Niihau. This week The World in Words takes a trip to the Hawaiian Islands to meet some of Hawaii’s last native speakers. How have they managed to hold onto the language? What struggles do they face going forward? Is the variation of Hawaiian that the Niihau speak different from the language spoken by the activists leading the Hawaiian revitalization movement?

Arabic as Americans hear it  

This just in: Arabic is not a violent ideology. It is a language that a handful of Americans are learning and loving.

Live show: From Ainu to Zaza  

Nina, Patrick and friends record this episode in front of a live audience at the New York Public Library. They discuss the rewards and challenges of language revitalization, complete with singalongs and a few dodgy jokes.

Deciphering the world's strangest encyclopedia  

In the late 1970s the writer Alberto Manguel was working in Milan for an Italian publisher that had taken to publishing hidden or little-known manuscripts found in secret libraries. One day the publishing house received a package that contained a strange manuscript written in incomprehensible script. There was no note with the manuscript. No sign of who sent it or where it came from. This manuscript was more than strange, it was as if the publishing house had been gifted the encyclopedia of an alien planet with diagrams of everything on that planet from microbes to fantastical beasts to unusual vehicles and houses, the elements of a completely unknown civilization, all described in a strange swirly script. A note soon followed from the author of the text, Luigi Serafini. This week on The World in Words podcast, a mystery of encyclopedic proportions.

Who in Japan speaks Ainu?  

Japan's indigenous Ainu language is a mystery. Russian-born Anna Bugaeva is one of several non-Ainu linguists who have become semi-fluent in the language. They are on a mission to document Ainu, and figure out where it came from, before it disappears.

Languages real and unreal  

Dutch-born writer Gaston Dorren grew up speaking two languages, fell in love in a third, and added a fourth and fifth along the way. OK, he's obsessed with languages but in much of Europe multilingualism is common. Also, who owns Klingon?

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