The remarkable brain of a carpet cleaner who speaks 24 languages
The carpet cleaner heaves his machine up the stairs, untangles its hoses and promises to dump the dirty water only in the approved toilet. Another day scrubbing rugs for less than $20 an hour. Another Washington area house with overflowing bookshelves and walls covered in travel mementos from places he would love to go one day.
But this was not that day.
“Tell me about this stain,” 46-year-old Vaughn Smith asks his clients.
“Well,” says one of the homeowners, “Schroeder rubbed his bottom across it.”
Vaughn knows just what to do about that, and the couple, Courtney Stamm and Kelly Widelska, know they can trust him to do it. They’d been hiring him for years, once watching him erase even a splattered Pepto Bismol stain.
But this time when Vaughn called to confirm their January appointment, he quietly explained that there was something about himself that he’d never told them. That he rarely told anyone. And well, a reporter was writing a story about it. Could he please bring her along?
Now as they listen to Vaughn discuss the porousness of wool, and the difference between Scotchgard and sanitizer, they can’t help but look at him differently. Once the stool stain is solved, Kelly just has to ask.
“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.”
Vaughn glances at me. He is still underselling his abilities. By his count, it is actually 37 more 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.
In a city where diplomats and embassies abound, where interpreters can command six-figure salaries at the State Department or the International Monetary Fund, where language proficiency is résumé rocket fuel, Vaughn was a savant with a secret.
“A real, live polyglot,” Kelly said.
I’d never heard of that word – meaning, a person who can speak several languages – before meeting Vaughn. But Kelly, who dabbles in Cantonese, Mandarin and “beer in most languages,” had seen polyglots on YouTube, promising that anyone can become multilingual if they try.
Far more unusual are the world’s “hyperpolyglots,” people who, by one expert’s definition, can speak 11 languages or more. The higher the number, the rarer the person. But there have been many documented cases of such linguistic legends, each one raising questions about the limits of human potential – the same questions I had about Vaughn.
How did he get this way? And what was going on in his brain? But also: why was he cleaning carpets for a living?
To Vaughn, all of that is missing the point. He’s not interested in impressing anyone. He only counted his languages because I asked him to. He understands that he seems to remember names, numbers, dates and sounds far better than most people. Even to him, that has always been a mystery. But his reason for dedicating his life to learning so many languages has not.
“I see a couple more spots on the rug,” Vaughn says. “Do I have permission to treat them?”
He’s uncomfortable with all this attention. He gets down on his hands and knees. He turns on the carpet-cleaning machine, and then it’s too loud for anyone to speak.
He thought, at first, that there were two languages. English, like his dad spoke, and Spanish like his mom spoke. Vaughn liked visiting his family in Orizaba, Mexico, liked the way the Spanish words sounded in his mouth.
But growing up in Maryland, he often tried not to use them. He didn’t want to feel even more different than the other kids. He was already browner than them. He already didn’t understand why they laughed at certain things, or why they seemed to be able to follow instructions from the teacher that made no sense to him. Spanish was his first secret.
When some distant cousins of his dad’s came to visit from Belgium, they used words different than Vaughn had ever heard. Vaughn became more and more frustrated that once again, he couldn’t understand.
“I was like, ‘I want that power,’ ” Vaughn remembers.
From then on, he was entranced by every language he encountered. His mom’s French record albums. A German dictionary he found at one of his dad’s handyman jobs. A boy from the Soviet Union who joined his junior high class. By then, one of Vaughn’s favorite places was the library. He checked out a beginner’s guide to Russian.
Soon after, he overheard a Russian woman in a grocery store.
“Здравствуйте, как поживаете?” Vaughn asked. Hello, how are you? He explained that he was trying to learn Russian.
He liked the look he put on that woman’s face.
“Like she was hit with a splash of happiness,” Vaughn remembers.
His teachers and his parents, meanwhile, so often looked at him with disappointment. He’d chosen the wrong sentence when it was his turn to read aloud in class, again. His teacher called his mother to say he wasn’t paying attention, again. His dad was sending him back to his mom’s house, again. Always, it felt to Vaughn like there was something wrong with him.
“I feel like I didn’t know how to guide him to do better,” his mom, Sandra Vargas, says now.
She was in her early 20s, in the midst of a divorce, raising Vaughn and his brother in a country entirely new to her. When she first realized her son wasn’t connecting with other kids the way he should, she took him to a psychologist, who told her only that Vaughn was just “muy, muy intellegente.”
As her boy grew, she knew it was more complicated than that.
“Not only a big brain, but a big heart. And that’s the problem,” Sandra says. “Because he’s very sensitive. And he tends to think he’s not wanted, or he’s not loved.”
By 14, Vaughn was living with his dad again, in a basement apartment in Tenleytown, not far from D.C.’s many embassies. He no longer needed to fear looking different than his classmates because the student body at Wilson High School included kids from around the world. Kids who spoke other languages. Immediately, Vaughn had an in.
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, and watch as Vaughn memorized them all. When he noticed a shy Ethiopian girl, he asked her to teach him Amharic.
On the weekends, he took the bus downtown to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, which he’d discovered had the city’s best selection of language books. The way Vaughn describes it, any time he reads something in a book, he can remember it almost perfectly. When he returned to school, he had even more to say, and more that he could understand.
In an environment where he never felt like he fit, he was connecting in a way that no one else could.
But by 17, his mom had moved him back to Maryland. Vaughn tested into the highest-level Russian class at his new school, despite never taking classes before.
His high school diploma would be the last he’d receive. A counselor encouraged him to apply to a trade school for medical assistants, but he didn’t get in.
“Once that happened, I just gave up on the idea, and that was the very end of it,” Vaughn remembers.
And so began an adulthood marked by jobs that came and went. Vaughn has been a painter, a bouncer, a punk rock roadie and a Kombucha delivery man. His friends encouraged him to start a YouTube channel, but after a bout of depression, he stopped filming. On days when there aren’t carpets to clean, he helps a friend tint office building windows. He was once a dog walker for the Czech art collector Meda Mládková, the widow of an International Monetary Fund governor. She kept him on as a caretaker of her Georgetown home, which was the closest he ever came to having a career that utilized his languages. Visitors to the house spoke nearly every Eastern European dialect, and before long, so did Vaughn.
Beyond high school, he never had the chance to take a proficiency test in any language. And the more he learned, the more he understood the complexity of what it means to “know” a language.
Though it’s common to hear words like “fluent” or “conversational,” there are no universally accepted definitions of such levels. Proficiency tests developed by governments or academic institutions often stress the skills needed to speak in formal settings, rather than the casual, slang or emotional language needed to truly understand another culture. And which feature of a language should matter most: Having a large vocabulary? Understanding the grammar? Perfecting the pronunciation?
The best-known case of hyperpolyglots’ skills being tested was a 1990 contest that aimed to find Europe’s most multilingual speaker. Participants had short conversations with native or advanced speakers who awarded them points based on their apparent proficiencies. The winner, a Scottish organist named Derick Herning, showed meaningful proficiency in 22 languages. He was said to have learned at least eight more before he died in 2019.
Herning was ousted from the Guinness Book of World Records by a hyperpolyglot who claimed to speak 59 languages – but who mostly disappeared from the limelight after a TV appearance in which he failed to answer questions in a number of those languages. Some believe he’s a fraud; others think he simply panicked under the pressure.
Still, many of the best-known hyperpolyglots reject the question “How many languages do you speak?” because it ignores the many nuances of language learning.
Timothy Doner did a Ted Talk about the media frenzy he endured after he was profiled by The New York Times as a teenager who could speak a dozen languages. TV producers didn’t want to hear about how language mastery was about far more than parroting phrase books. They wanted him to declare in German that he was fluent in 23 languages, recite a tongue twister in Chinese and say goodbye in Turkish, all before the commercial break.
“I kind of got pigeonholed into the category of the dancing bear, the boy wonder,” says Doner, who today works as a national security researcher. “It’s exaggerated, it’s sensationalized.”
Michael Erard, who surveyed more than 400 people who said they can speak at least six languages for his book, “Babel No More,” says he’s often more inclined to believe in someone’s language abilities when they don’t seek out chances to perform or monetize their skills.
Vaughn never sought me out. He agreed to let me spend time with him after one of his friends mentioned him to another Washington Post reporter. Over two months, I verified the scope of Vaughn’s abilities by interviewing 10 people who have seen him use his language skills for years and by watching him engage in conversations in 17 of his languages. When I introduced him to Richard Simcott, who organizes 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 really a story about the people it connected him to.
He learned American Sign Language from Gallaudet University students at a club called Tracks, which had a dance floor known for its vibrations.
He picked up some Japanese from the staff at a restaurant where he volunteered to clean the fish tank once a week.
When his niece liked the way the word chicken sounded in Salish, they started studying it together, befriended leaders of the language school on the Flathead Indian Reservation and road-tripped to Arlee, Montana, twice.
Vance Home Gun, who worked at the school, was stunned to hear an East Coaster speaking his language – and even more stunned that Vaughn could actually pronounce it.
“You got to remember, there are very few people left, even in our tribe, who can talk Salish,” Home Gun said. “For him to know how much he does without actually being taught in our classrooms and schools or spending time with the older people who still speak it is pretty amazing.”
Vaughn makes an effort to get to know people in the language that shaped their lives. In return, they shape his. Welcoming him. Accepting him. Appreciating him.
“We’ll be walking along, and we’ll see two people sitting, and he’ll be like, ‘I hear you have an accent, do you speak any other languages?’ And boom,” says his friend Ryan Harding, “we’re invited to their house for dinner.”
This was how Vaughn met a Paraguayan special needs teacher, who, along with taking him to her family’s New York home to learn some Guarani, talked to him about the children in her classroom who were autistic.
“I thought she was applying a New York accent to the word artistic,” Vaughn says. But when she explained the traits associated with being on the autism spectrum, they felt entirely familiar to Vaughn.
Maybe this, he thought, was why he hadn’t understood his teachers. Why some adults thought he was rude. Why people tell him he could be using his talents for all kinds of careers, but he doesn’t really know where to look or the steps he would need to take to get a more formal, professional job.
“Of course, I have tried,” he says. “But nothing has worked out.”
Some days, he doesn’t necessarily want it to. He likes dressing casually, wearing one of the same 10 T-shirts from his favorite vacation spot, Bar Harbor, Maine. He likes being able to make his own schedule, where he can spend the day talking on the phone with his girlfriend who lives in Mexico. Or painting landscapes. Or working on his model train set. Or developing film photography. Or making brisket for his friends. He wants to be free to take his mom, whom he lives with, to the doctors treating her Parkinson’s disease. He wants to sit in coffee shops, drinking quad espressos and listening for accents that might lead to a connection with someone new.
And some days, he lugs the carpet-cleaning machine into the homes of the nation’s capital, a city that places so much value on degrees and titles and statuses that have never been a part of Vaughn’s life. 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.
I am hoping it’s just the effects of another quad espresso, but I think Vaughn is nervous. He’s quiet as the doors open, and we’re ushered into a building with a sculpture of a brain hanging from the ceiling. He takes a picture of a sign on the wall: “MIT Brain + Cognitive Sciences.”
In the years Vaughn spent amassing languages, a Russian-born neuroscientist named Evelina Fedorenko was here at one of the world’s most renowned universities, studying people like him. Much of the research on how our brains process language focuses on people with developmental disorders or strokes that have impaired their speech. One interest of Fedorenko’s has been 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 of us?
When I called Fedorenko, I told her how amazed I was watching Vaughn befriending Dutch travelers in a Starbucks who couldn’t believe he’d never been to the Netherlands and spending his free time poring over books like “Finnish for Swedish Speakers.” It made me question my own brain, and why, even though I spend so much time thinking about words for my work, I’ve always found it incredibly difficult to retain any other language I’d ever tried to learn.
To a neuroscientist constantly looking for more data, the next step was obvious: Would Vaughn and I like to come to Boston to get our brains scanned?
“Vaughn,” says one of the PhD candidates leading us to the scanning room now, “I was very excited 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, thrilled to tell her about the friend who taught him Catalan 15 years before.
Saima Malik-Moraleda keeps bantering with him, noticing the precision of his accent. She, too, is a polyglot. But like most of the world’s multilingual people, she became one by necessity, rather than choice. She learned Spanish from her mother, Kashmiri and Hindi-Urdu from her father, English from them both and Catalan from school. Only her French and Arabic classes were extracurricular.
Though their reasons for learning were different, the question this lab is asking about them is the same: are their brains fundamentally different from monolingual brains like mine?
Malik-Moraleda shows Vaughn the machine that will help answer that question, with functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. It looks like a diving board surrounded by a massive plastic doughnut. Soon, Vaughn has changed from his Bar Harbor, Maine T-shirt into blue scrubs. He has headphones in his ears, foam on the side of his head, a shield over his face and a remote control in his hands.
“Can you hear us?” Malik-Moraleda asks from the other side of a glass window. “Perfect, we’re going to start.”
For two hours, 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. All the while, the machine is whirring, buzzing and banging, taking three-dimensional images of Vaughn’s brain every two seconds.
Each image essentially breaks down his entire brain into two-centimeter cubes and monitors the amount of blood oxygen in each one. Every time the language-processing areas are activated, those cells use oxygen, and blood flows in to replenish them.
By watching where those changes happen, the researchers can pinpoint exactly which parts of Vaughn’s brain are used for language.
On the screen Malik-Moraleda is watching, it all looks like unchanging shades of gray. After I overcome my unexpected claustrophobia inside the machine (“Just pretend you’re in a Japanese pod hotel!” the students soothed), my brain scan looks the same.
But after a week, the scans have been analyzed to produce two colorful maps of our brains.
I’d assumed that Vaughn’s language areas would be massive and highly active, and mine pathetically puny. But the scans showed the opposite: the parts of Vaughn’s brain used to comprehend language are far smaller and quieter than mine. 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.
This matches what the researchers have found in other hyperpolyglots they’ve scanned.
“Vaughn needs less oxygen to be sent to those regions of his brain that process language when he is speaking in his native language,” Malik-Moraleda explains. “He uses language so much, he’s become really efficient in using those areas for the production of language.”
It’s possible that Vaughn was born with his language areas being smaller and more efficient. It’s possible that his brain started out like mine, but because he learned so many languages while it was still developing, his dedication transformed 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 had the scan results back, Vaughn had what he came to MIT for.
“I got to practice Lithuanian today,” he says to a friend on the phone as we navigate Boston’s airport. “Catalan, Spanish, Russian and a little bit of Korean!”
He’s bouncing as he talks about all the connections he made in a single day with the researchers and the strangers he’d introduced himself to in a coffee shop. All the people who were, as he would say, “hit with a splash of happiness.” This is what I’d discovered getting to know Vaughn: By putting in the effort to learn someone’s language, you’re showing them that you value who they truly are.
I’m wondering if Vaughn will ever see that same value in himself.
And at that very moment, he tells his friend on the phone, “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.”
I’ve never heard him talk like that before. At our gate, I ask how he is feeling. He is thinking about the way the Harvard and MIT neuroscientists spent the day asking him questions. Not just for their research, but because they want to understand how, in their own language learning, they could be more like him.
“It’s really comforting,” Vaughn says. “I always wonder, it’s like, how do I compare on the larger scale? What if this is really nothing to be excited about?”
But they’d been excited, and now, he could be too.
“I’m not some worthless person,” he says.
Then he pulls out his phone and opens his Duolingo app. He is on a 330-day streak of practicing Welsh, and he isn’t going to break it.
Jessica Contrera , The Washington Post