Most hyperpolyglots can speak just over 11 different languages. Smith, who works as a carpet cleaner, has set the bar much higher.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on April 13, 2022. It has since been updated.
In Washington, D.C., where embassies and diplomats abound, interpreters can earn six-figure salaries at the State Department or the International Monetary Fund. Vaughn Smith can speak 37 languages by his count—at least 24 fluently enough to hold a conversation. He cleans carpets for a living. The 46-year-old claimed it was "missing the point" to wonder why he continues to work as a carpet cleaner. According to one expert’s definition, a hyperpolyglot can speak 11 languages or more: the higher the number, the rarer the person. Nonetheless, there have been several undocumented cases of linguistic talent. Regardless, Smith's abilities have raised questions about the limits of human potential, The Washington Post reports.
MIT scans brain of hyperpolyglot Vaughn Smith, who speaks 24 languages - Washington Post https://t.co/eVBQrUI7pX— Branford Marsalis (@bmarsalis) April 12, 2022
Smith grew up in Maryland. As a child, he spoke two languages: English, his father's native tongue, and Spanish, his mother's. He would often visit his family in Orizaba, Mexico, where he enjoyed speaking Spanish. However, he kept his Spanish a secret back in Maryland, where he was already very different from the other children he went to school with. One day, some of his dad’s distant cousins visited from Belgium. He recalled how he felt frustrated when he could not understand what they were saying or engage in a conversation with them. He remembered, "I was like, ‘I want that power.'"
😵!!! Meet a man who can speak 24 languages: Neuroscientists from MIT scanned the brain of hyperpolyglot Vaughn Smith, a carpet cleaner who grew up in the D.C. area and can carry on conversations in 24 languages. https://t.co/VUAIw8BG4o via @YouTube— polarbear (@polarbear_2017) April 6, 2022
From then on, Smith tried to learn every language possible however he could. From his mother's French music albums to a German dictionary he found at one of his dad’s handyman jobs, he immersed himself in language. Soon, the library became his favorite place, as he would check out beginner's guides to various languages. Unfortunately, his teachers and parents were often disappointed with him as they believed he lacked focus. To Smith, it felt as if something was "wrong" with him.
Growing up, Vaughn Smith never felt understood. He has spent his life learning to understand others, so that they feel connected. He speaks over 24 languages.— Neyda A Borges (@Neyda_Borges) April 8, 2022
I love this story by @mjcontrera for The @washingtonpost : https://t.co/plv2ApWtkd
Eventually, his mother took him to a psychologist, where she learned he was "muy, muy intelligent." But as Smith grew, his mother, Sandra Vargas, learned it was more complicated than that. "Not only a big brain, but a big heart," she said. "And that’s the problem. Because he’s very sensitive. And he tends to think he’s not wanted, or he’s not loved." At the age of 14, he finally moved to a school where he felt more at ease. There, he befriended children from around the world who spoke different languages. For instance, there was a clique of Brazilian students, so he started to learn Portuguese. He befriended a brother and sister who would write him lists of phrases in Romanian. He also met a shy Ethiopian girl who taught him Amharic.
But three years later, he moved back to Maryland, where, once again, he felt like he did not fit in. Therefore, his high school diploma was the last he received. Although a counselor encouraged him to apply to a trade school for medical assistants, he did not get in. Smith shared, "Once that happened, I just gave up on the idea, and that was the very end of it." Throughout adulthood, he worked odd jobs here and there: he has worked as a painter, a bouncer, a punk rock roadie and a kombucha delivery man. But his love for language never died; it only got stronger. He learned even more languages over the years, including American Sign Language, which he learned from Gallaudet University students at a club called Tracks that had a dance floor known for its vibrations.
The remarkable brain of a carpet cleaner who speaks 24 languages— Milton Cooley, EA, Financial Advisor, NTPI Fellow (@MiltonCooleyTax) April 6, 2022
In a city where diplomats and embassies abound and interpreters can command six-figure salaries, Vaughn Smith is a savant with a secrethttps://t.co/4OlFA2nuKc pic.twitter.com/SJXFNc7TeP
For Smith, speaking in different languages is a way to connect with people. He cherishes the moments when he speaks in someone's mother tongue and their face lights up. During the interview with The Washington Post, he spoke with a friend over the phone. "I got to practice Lithuanian today," he told them excitedly. "Catalan, Spanish, Russian, and a little bit of Korean!" He added, however, "I just feel like, work-wise, I gotta do something else. I need to figure out how and what to do. It’s not going to get better unless I do something." Presently, Smith is on a 330-day streak of practicing Welsh on the app Duolingo. While he finds his professional footing, he does not plan on losing the streak any time soon.