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Washington Carpet Cleaner Speaks 33 Languages: What's His Secret?

Vaughn Smith, 46, a carpet cleaner, has a wonderful brain that can memorize dozens of languages. Washington Post.

Photo: Shutterstock

The carpet cleaner takes his car up the stairs, untangles its hoses, and promises to only drain the dirty water into the approved toilet. Another day of carpet cleaning for less than $20 an hour. Another home in the Washington area, filled with bookshelves and walls covered in memorabilia from places he'd like to visit one day.

But it won't be now.

“Tell me about this stain,” Vaughn Smith, 46, asks his clients.

"Well," says one of the homeowners, "Schroeder rubbed his butt against him."

Vaughn knows what to do with it, and the couple, Courtney Stamm and Kelly Videlska, know they can trust him to do it. They've hired him for years, once watching him clean even a Pepto-Bismol-splattered stain.

But this time, when Vaughn called to confirm their January meeting, he quietly explained that there was something about him that he had never told them. That he rarely spoke to anyone. And he asked permission to bring with him a journalist who writes a story about him.

Vaughn Smith soothes a dog named Schroeder while cleaning carpets at a home in Alexandria, Virginia.
Now, as they listen to Vaughn discuss the porosity of wool and the difference between Scotchgard and disinfectant, they can't help but look at him differently. Once the stain is gone, Kelly will only have to ask, "So, how many languages ​​do you speak?".

“Oh my god,” Vaughn says. “Eight, running.”

Kelly is in awe.

“Eight,” Vaughn confirms. - English, Spanish, Bulgarian, Czech, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian and Slovak».

“But on a conversational level,” he explains, “I know about 25 more.”

Vaughn knows at a conversational level, can write and read: Croatian, Finnish, Italian, Latvian, Serbian and Nahuatl (Aztec language).

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Intermediate, reads and writes a little on: Catalan, Danish, French, German, Hungarian, Icelandic, Irish, Norwegian, Polish and American Sign Language.

At a basic level, he reads and writes a little in some languages: Amharic, Arabic, Estonian, Georgian, Greek, Indonesian, Japanese, Lithuanian, Navajo, Swedish, Ukrainian, Hebrew, Lakota, Mandarin, Salish, Sinhalese, Welsh.

Knows a little (up to 100 words, phrases): Mongolian, Vietnamese, Tzotsil, Zapotec.

Vaughn looks at the reporter. He still underestimates his abilities. That's actually 37 more languages ​​by his count, with at least 24 he speaks well enough to carry on long conversations. He can read and write in eight alphabets and scripts. He can tell stories in Italian, Finnish and American Sign Language. He himself teaches indigenous languages, Mexican Nahuatl. The quality of his Dutch and Catalan accents amaze the people of the Netherlands and Spain.

In a city filled with diplomats and embassies, where translators can earn six-figure salaries at the State Department or the International Monetary Fund, where language skills are resume fuel, Vaughn was an odd polymath.

“A real living polyglot,” Kelly said.

Kelly, who dabbles in Cantonese, has seen polyglots on YouTube who promise that anyone can learn many languages ​​if they try.

Much more unusual are the world's "hyperpolyglots," people who, by definition of one expert, can speak 11 or more languages. The higher the number, the rarer such a person is. But there have been many documented cases of such linguistic legends, each of which raised questions about the limitations of human potential — the same questions the journalist asked Vaughn.

How did he get to this? What was going on in his head? But also: why did he make a living cleaning carpets?

To Vaughn, none of this makes sense. He is not interested in impressing anyone. He only counted his tongues because the journalist asked him to. He realizes that he seems to remember names, numbers, dates and sounds much better than most people. Even for him, it was always a mystery. But there is no reason why he devoted his life to learning so many languages.

“I see a couple more stains on the carpet,” Vaughn says. “We need to get rid of them.”

He doesn't feel comfortable with all the attention. He gets on his hands and knees. He turns on the carpet cleaner and it gets too loud for anyone to talk.

At first he thought that there were two languages. English, as his father spoke, and Spanish, as his mother spoke. Vaughn loved visiting his family in Orizaba, Mexico, loved the way the Spanish words sounded on his lips.

But growing up in Maryland, he often tried not to use them. He didn't want to feel even more different from the other kids. He was already more tanned than they were. He no longer understood why they laughed at certain things or why they seemed to be able to follow the teacher's instructions that made no sense to him. Spanish was his first secret.

When distant relatives of his father came to visit from Belgium, they used words that Vaughn had never heard. Vaughn became more and more frustrated that he again could not understand.

“I thought, ‘I want this power,’” Vaughn recalls.

Since then, he has been fascinated by every language he came across. His mother's French records. A German dictionary he found from one of his dad's handymen. A boy from the Soviet Union who entered the lower grades. By that time, one of Vaughn's favorite places was the library. He was studying a beginner's guide to the Russian language.

Shortly thereafter, he heard a Russian woman in a grocery store.

"Hello, how are you?". Vaughn asked. He explained that he was trying to learn Russian.

He liked the expression on the woman's face.

“It was like happiness had hit her,” Vaughn recalls.

His teachers and parents meanwhile often looked at him with disappointment. He chose the wrong sentence when it was his turn to read aloud to the class again. His teacher called his mother to say that he was once again oblivious to the learning process. His father sent him back to his mother's house again. Vaughn always felt there was something wrong with him.

“I don’t think I knew how to help him get better,” his mom Sandra Vargas now says.
She was in her early 20s, divorced, and raising Vaughn and his brother in a country that was completely new to her. When she first realized that her son wasn't interacting with other kids the way he should, she took him to a psychologist, who only told her that Vaughn was just "really smart."

When her boy grew up, she realized that everything was much more complicated.

“Not only a big brain, but also a big heart. And therein lies the problem,” Sandra says. Because he is very sensitive. And he tends to think that he is not wanted or loved.”

By the age of 14, Vaughn was again living with his father in a basement apartment in Tenleytown, close to the many D.C. embassies. He no longer had to be afraid of looking different from his classmates, because the students at Wilson High School included children from all over the world. Children speaking other languages.

There was a group of Brazilian students, so he started learning Portuguese. He befriended his brother and sister, who wrote him lists of phrases in Romanian and watched Vaughn memorize them all. When he spotted a shy Ethiopian girl, he asked her to teach him Amharic.

On weekends, he took the bus downtown to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, which he discovered had the best selection of language books in town. As Vaughn describes it, every time he reads something in a book, he can remember it almost perfectly. When he returned to school, he had something to say and he could understand what was being said to him.

In an environment where he never felt at ease, he communicated like no one else.

But by the age of 17, his mother moved him back to Maryland. Vaughn was tested for the upper class of Russian at his new school, despite never attending a class before.

His high school diploma will be the last thing he gets. The consultant advised him to apply to a vocational school for paramedics, but he did not enroll.

“As soon as it happened, I just dropped the idea and that was it,” Vaughn recalls.

Thus began adulthood, with works that came and went. Vaughn was an artist, bouncer, punk rock roadie, and kombucha delivery man. His friends urged him to start a YouTube channel, but after a bout of depression, he stopped filming. On days when there are no carpets to clean, he helps a friend tint the windows of an office building. He once walked the dogs of the Czech art collector Meda Mladkova, widow of the manager of the International Monetary Fund. She left him as a caretaker at her Georgetown home, which was the closest he ever had to a career that used his languages. Visitors to the house spoke almost all Eastern European dialects, and soon Won.

After school, he never had the opportunity to take a language test. And the more he studied, the more he understood the complexity of what it means to “know” a language.

While words such as "fluent" or "colloquial" are often heard, there are no generally accepted definitions for these levels. Proficiency tests designed by governments or academic institutions often emphasize the skills needed to communicate in a formal setting rather than the casual, slang or emotional language needed to truly understand another culture. And what characteristic of a language should matter the most: having a large vocabulary? Grammar understanding? Improve your pronunciation?

The most famous case of testing the skills of hyperpolyglots was the 1990 competition, which aimed to find the most multilingual speaker in Europe. Participants had short conversations with native speakers who gave them points based on their apparent skills. The winner, a Scottish organist named Derick Herning, demonstrated significant proficiency in 22 languages. He is said to have learned at least eight more before he died in 2019.

Herning was dropped from the Guinness Book of World Records for another hyperpolyglot who claimed to speak 59 languages, but mostly faded from the spotlight after a TV appearance in which he did not answer questions in a number of those languages. Some consider him a fraud; others think he just panicked under pressure.

However, many of the most famous hyperpolyglots dismiss the question "How many languages ​​do you know?" because this question ignores many of the nuances of language learning.

Timothy Doner spoke about the media frenzy he went through after the New York Times featured him as a teenager who spoke a dozen languages. TV producers didn't want to hear that language acquisition was about much more than repeating phrasebooks. They wanted him to declare in German that he was fluent in 23 languages, recite a patter in Chinese, and say goodbye in Turkish, all before the commercial break.

“I kind of fell into the category of a dancing bear, a prodigy,” says Doner, who is now a national security researcher.

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Michael Erard, who interviewed more than 400 people who said they could speak at least six languages ​​for his book Babylon No More, says he is often more likely to believe in someone's language abilities when they're not looking for chances to perform or monetize your skills.

Vaughn never looked for journalists. He agreed to let him hang out after one of his friends mentioned him to another Washington Post reporter. For two months, the journalist tested the extent of Vaughn's ability by interviewing 10 people who had seen him use his language skills over the years and watching him speak 17 of his languages. When the journalist introduced him to Richard Simcott, who is organizing an international conference for polyglots, Vaughn switched between 10 languages ​​as they spoke, telling stories in Welsh, Bulgarian, Serbian, Norwegian and more.

Because for Vaughn, every language is a story about the people with whom he connected it.

He learned American Sign Language from students at Gallaudet University at the Tracks Club, which had a dance floor known for its vibrancy.

He took some Japanese from the restaurant staff, where he volunteered to clean the aquarium once a week.

When his niece liked the way the word "chicken" sounds in Salish, they began to study it together, became friends with the leaders of the language school on the Flathead Indian Reservation, and traveled twice to Arly, Montana.

Vance Home Gun, who worked at the school, was stunned to hear an East Coaster speak his language, and even more stunned that Vaughn could actually pronounce it.

“You have to remember that even in our tribe there are very few people left who can speak Salish,” Home Gun said. “The older people who still speak it are pretty amazing.”

Vaughn tries to recognize people in the language that has influenced their lives. Instead, they shape it. Welcoming him. Taking it. Appreciating him.

“We will go and see two people sitting, and he will say: “I heard you have an accent, do you speak any other language?” And boom, says his friend Ryan Harding. “We are invited to their home for dinner.”

This is how Won met a Paraguayan special needs teacher who, in addition to taking him to her family's home in New York to learn some Guarani, told him about the children in her class with autism.

“I thought she was applying a New York accent to the word artistic,” Vaughn says. But when she explained the traits associated with autism, they seemed perfectly familiar to Vaughn.

Perhaps that was why, he thought, he did not understand his teachers. Why did some adults think he was rude. Why do people tell him that he can use his talents for any career but he doesn't really know where to look or what steps he needs to take to get a more formal, professional job.

“Of course I tried,” he says. “But nothing happened.”

Some days he doesn't necessarily want it. He loves to dress casually, wearing one of 10 logo T-shirts from his favorite vacation spot, Bar Harbor, Maine. He likes to make his own schedule when he can spend the day talking on the phone with his girlfriend who lives in Mexico. Or painting landscapes. Or working on his train model. Or developing film photography. Or cooking brisket for his friends. He wants to be free to take his mother, with whom he lives, to doctors who treat her Parkinson's disease. He wants to sit in coffee shops, drink a quarter of an espresso, and listen for an accent that could lead to a connection with someone new.

And sometimes he drags a carpet cleaning machine into the homes of the nation's capital, a state that places so much value on degrees, titles, and statuses that never existed in Vaughn's life. He can feel the way some customers are looking at him and his brother, who owns a carpet cleaning company. Sometimes they yell at Vaughn because of the spots they made. One couple kept complaining to each other in Portuguese, saying Vaughn looked unprofessional and predicting that he wouldn't do his job.

And just like that, Vaughn feels like a child disappointing his teachers again. A depressed 20-year-old man tattooed the word "revenge" in Armenian on his arm. The 46-year-old is not living up to his potential.

“Where are you from?” Vaughn's brother asked the rude couple after they had cleaned their curtains.

“Portugal,” the husband replied.

“Acabamos de fazer uma limpeza para a embaixada Portuguesa na semana passada,” Vaughn replied with a smile. “We just cleaned up the Portuguese embassy last week.”

He liked the look on the man's face after that.

Vaughn is silent as the doors open and we are ushered into a building with a brain sculpture hanging from the ceiling. He photographs a sign on the wall: MIT Brain + Cognitive Sciences.

During Vaughn's years of learning languages, the Russian-born neuroscientist Evelina Fedorenko worked at one of the most famous universities in the world, studying people like him. Much of the research into how our brains process language has focused on people with developmental disabilities or strokes that have disrupted their speech. One of Fedorenko's interests was trying to discover the secret of the other end of the spectrum: people with advanced language skills. What distinguishes polyglots and hyperpolyglots from the rest?

When the journalist called Fedorenko, she told her how amazed she was watching Vaughn talking to Dutch travelers at Starbucks who can't believe he's never been to the Netherlands and spends his free time reading books like Finnish for speaking Swedish.

“It made me question my own brain and understand why, despite spending so much time thinking about words for my work, I always found it incredibly difficult to remember any other language I had ever tried to learn.” - says the journalist.

For a neuroscientist constantly looking for new data, the next step was obvious: she invited Vaughn to scan his brain.

“Over there,” says one of the graduate students leading us into the scanning room, “I was very happy to see Catalan on your list. I'm from Girona."

Vaughn's nervousness seems to evaporate in an instant.

“Tenia un amic que és de Palma de Mallorca!” Vaughn says excitedly as he tells her about a friend who taught him Catalan 15 years ago.

Saima Malik-Moraleda continues to tease him, noticing the precision of his accent. She is also a polyglot. But like most of the world's multilingual people, she became so out of necessity, not choice. She learned Spanish from her mother, Kashmiri and Hindi-Urdu from her father, English from both of them, and Catalan at school. Only her French and Arabic lessons were extracurricular.

Although the reasons for their learning were different, the question this lab asks about them is the same: Is the average human brain fundamentally different from the monolingual brain?

Malik-Moraleda shows Vaughn a machine that will help answer this question, functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. It looks like a trampoline surrounded by a massive plastic donut. Vaughn soon switched from his Bar Harbor, Maine jersey to a blue uniform. He has headphones in his ears, foam rubber on the side of his head, a shield on his face and a remote control in his hands.

"Can you hear us?" asks Malik-Moraleda from the other side of the glass window. "Okay, we're getting started."

Over the course of two hours, Vaughn completes a series of tests by reading English words, watching blue squares move, and listening to languages, some of which he knows and some he doesn't. All the while, the machine hums and hums and thumps, making three-dimensional images of Vaughn's brain every two seconds.

Each image essentially breaks his entire brain into two-centimeter cubes and tracks the amount of oxygen in the blood in each of them. Each time speech processing areas are activated, these cells use oxygen and blood rushes to them to replenish them.

By observing where these changes occur, researchers can pinpoint which parts of Vaughn's brain are being used for speech.

Malik-Moraleda is watching the screen, it all looks like constant shades of gray. After the journalist got over her unexpected claustrophobia inside the scanning machine, her brain scan looks exactly the same.

But a week later, the scans were analyzed to create two color maps of our brains.

“I assumed that Vaughn's language zones would be massive and very active, and mine - miserable, miserable. But the scans showed the opposite: the parts of Vaughn's brain used to understand language are much smaller and quieter than mine. Even when we read the same words in English, I use more of my brain and work harder than he does,” the journalist said.

This matches what the researchers found in other hyperpolyglots they scanned.

“Won needs less oxygen to send it to the areas of his brain that process language when he speaks his native language,” explains Malik-Moraleda. He uses language so much that he has become very effective. It is possible that Vaughn was born with smaller and more efficient language areas. Perhaps his brain started the same way as mine, but because he learned so many languages ​​while he was still developing, his dedication changed his anatomy. It could be both. Until researchers can scan language learners as they grow, there's no way to know for sure."

But even without that answer, even before we got the scan results, Vaughn got what he came to MIT for.

“I have to practice Lithuanian today,” he tells a friend over the phone as we drive through the Boston airport. Catalan, Spanish, Russian and some Korean!

He bounces about all the connections he made in one day with explorers and strangers he met at the coffee shop. All the people who, as he would say, "hit a wave of happiness." “Here’s what I found in getting to know Vaughn: by putting in the effort to learn someone’s language, you show them that you appreciate who they really are. I wonder if Vaughn will ever see the same value in himself,” says the journalist.

And at this very moment, he says to his friend on the phone, “I just feel that in terms of work, I need to do something else. I need to understand how and what to do. If I don't do something, I won't get better."

Wong explained that he thinks about how neuroscientists from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology asked him questions. Not only because of their research, but also because they want to understand how they can be more like it in learning their own language.

“It's really comforting,” Vaughn says. – I always wonder how my skills compare on a broader scale? What if it's really not something to worry about?"

He was excited.

“I’m not some useless person,” he says.

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