Meet the Hyperpolyglots, the People Who Can Mysteriously Speak Up to 32 Different Languages

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.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Learn 48 Lan­guages Online for Free: Span­ish, Chi­nese, Eng­lish & More

What Are the Most Effec­tive Strate­gies for Learn­ing a For­eign Lan­guage?: Six TED Talks Pro­vide the Answers

215 Hours of Free For­eign Lan­guage Lessons on Spo­ti­fy: French, Chi­nese, Ger­man, Russ­ian & More

The Tree of Lan­guages Illus­trat­ed in a Big, Beau­ti­ful Info­graph­ic

A Map Show­ing How Much Time It Takes to Learn For­eign Lan­guages: From Eas­i­est to Hard­est

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.

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