The Washington Post published a story today about a man named Vaughn Smith who works as a carpet cleaner in and around Washington, DC. Smith is a high school graduate who never seemed to find his way into higher education or a white collar job but he’s also got a secret. What he really does with his time when he’s not working is teach himself languages. And on that front, he may be one of the most remarkable people in the world.
“So, how many languages do you speak?”
“Oh goodness,” Vaughn says. “Eight, fluently.”
“Eight?” Kelly marvels.
“Eight,” Vaughn confirms. English, Spanish, Bulgarian, Czech, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian and Slovak.
“But if you go by like, different grades of how much conversation,” he explains, “I know about 25 more.”
As the story explains, some small fraction of people in the world are considered polyglots because they can speak 4 or more languages. And then there are a few truly gifted people called hyperpolyglots who can speak 11 or more languages. Vaughn Smith can speak 8 languages fluently and is conversational in another six. And as the story explains, he was selling himself short because he actually knows parts of an additional 31 languages in a range between intermediate knowledge and basic familiarity. Here’s a chart from the story:
Two obvious questions came to mind when reading the story. The first is: Can he really do it? And the answer to that appears to be yes. The reporter witnessed him carry on conversations in many of these languages with random people he encountered. He also briefly had a YouTube channel called the Multiglot several years ago and in this video you can see him speaking 7 languages (besides English).
Apart from that one brief effort four years ago to promote his abilities, Smith seems to have never really talked about them. He didn’t ask to have a story written about him for the Post either. The author of the story explains a friend of his mentioned it to another Post writer and that’s how the story got started.
The other question raised by the story is how did someone this gifted wind up as a carpet cleaner? And here the story suggests that Smith is probably on the autism spectrum and may have some difficulties because of that. In addition, he also seems to lack the kind of confidence needed to really promote himself into a professional job using his unusual skills. And so he’s just been doing odd jobs most of his life.
But wherever he goes, he’s listening to accents and when he hears one he recognizes or one he doesn’t recognize he strikes up a conversation. People are often thrilled that someone is speaking their language and Smith likes the feeling he gets from that. Speaking multiple languages also has occasional benefits even for a carpet cleaner. This vignette sounds like a scene out of a movie.
He feels the way some customers look at him and his brother, who owns the carpet-cleaning company. Sometimes they yell at Vaughn about the stains they made. One couple spent the whole time complaining to each other in Portuguese, saying Vaughn looked unprofessional and predicting he wouldn’t do a good job.
And just like that, Vaughn is back to feeling like the kid disappointing his teachers. The depressed 20-something getting the word “revenge” in Armenian tattooed on his arm. The 46-year-old not reaching his potential.
“Where are you from?” Vaughn’s brother asked the rude couple after they’d made the curtains spotless.
“Portugal,” the husband answered.
“Acabamos de fazer uma limpeza para a embaixada Portuguesa na semana passada,” Vaughn replied with a smile. We just did a cleaning for the Portuguese Embassy last week.
He liked the look that put on that man’s face.
The story even has something like a happy ending. The author takes Smith to an MIT brain research center where PhD candidates use an MRI machine to scan his brain while he’s doing certain tasks. The author also had her brain scanned for comparison purposes. And the results show that Vaughn Smith’s brain is actually far more efficient when he’s using his native language than the reporter’s brain. For Smith’s brain, using language is just easy.
Something about the experience seems to have gotten through to Smith who tells a friend on the phone, “I just feel like, work wise, I gotta do something else.” Here’s a four minute video based on the story.