Polyglot, as its Greek roots take no great pains to conceal, means the speaking of multiple languages. Somewhat less obvious is the meaning of the associated term hyperpolylot. “Coined two decades ago, by a British linguist, Richard Hudson, who was launching an Internet search for the world’s greatest language learner,” the New Yorker’s Judith Thurman writes, it refers not just to the speaking of multiple languages but the speaking of many languages. How many is “many”? “The accepted threshold is eleven,” which disqualifies even most of us avid language connoisseurs. But Vaughn Smith easily makes the cut.
You can meet this formidable hyperpolyglot in the Washington Post video above, which complements Jessica Contrera’s story in the paper. Smith grew up in D.C. speaking not just English but Spanish, his mother’s native language. On his father’s side of the family, distant cousins from Belgium expanded Smith’s linguistic worldview further still.
At 46 years of age, he now speaks just about as many languages, “with at least 24 he speaks well enough to carry on lengthy conversations. He can read and write in eight alphabets and scripts. He can tell stories in Italian and Finnish and American Sign Language. He’s teaching himself Indigenous languages, from Mexico’s Nahuatl. to Montana’s Salish. The quality of his accents in Dutch and Catalan dazzle people from the Netherlands and Spain.”
Unlike his fellow hyperpolyglot Ioannis Ikonomou, profiled in the Great Big Story video above, Smith is not a translator. Nor does he work as a linguist, a diplomat, or anything else you’d expect. “Vaughn has been a painter, a bouncer, a punk rock roadie and a Kombucha delivery man,” writes Contrera. “He was once a dog walker for the Czech art collector Meda Mládková, the widow of an International Monetary Fund governor,” which was “the closest he ever came to having a career that utilized his languages.” Having brought him most recently to the profession of carpet cleaning, Smith’s life resembles a beloved genre of American story: that of the undiscovered working-class genius, most popularly told by movies like Good Will Hunting. Contrera’s investigation adds a chapter in line with a major 21st-century trend in reportage: the brain activity-revealing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scan.
Under the fMRI scanner, “Vaughn works through a series of tests, reading English words, watching blue squares move around and listening to languages, some he knows and some he doesn’t.” The results were surprising: “the parts of Vaughn’s brain used to comprehend language are far smaller and quieter than mine,” writes the monoglot Contrera. “Even when we are reading the same words in English, I am using more of my brain and working harder than he ever has to.” Perhaps “Vaughn was born with his language areas being smaller and more efficient”; perhaps “his brain started out like mine, but because he learned so many languages while it was still developing, his dedication transformed his anatomy.” Smith himself seems to have enjoyed the experience — not that it took his mind off a matter of great importance even to the less intensive language-learners: keeping his Duolingo streak intact.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.