Vaughn Smith is fluent in eight languages but with a beginner’s grasp of at least thirty-six (and counting). His talents are so remarkable that the Washington Post did a feature story on him and neuroscientists at MIT requested he do a brain scan for them. But for Vaughn his language skills aren’t about attracting attention or monetary gain. “Language is a key to someone’s culture, to someone’s world,” he explains. Whether it’s watching a client’s face light up when he speaks to them in their native tongue or showing Indigenous children in rural Mexico that their language is valuable and worth preserving, Vaughn views his gifts as a way of connecting with other people.
He joined Tyler to discuss how he began learning languages, the best languages for expressing humor, why he curses in Slovak, why he considers Finnish more romantic than Portugese, what makes Hungarian so difficult to learn, the best way to teach people new languages, how to combat language loss, why he’d like rural Mexicans to have more pride in their culture and way of life, his time as a roadie for a punk rock van, the most rewarding job he’s had, why he wants to visit Finland, how enjoying films from different eras is similar to learning new languages, the future of English, and more.
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VAUGHN SMITH: Thank you.
COWEN: How many different languages do you dream in?
SMITH: Dream? Let’s see. I think I’ve had dreams in about 10 languages or so.
COWEN: What would those be?
SMITH: Recently, I was dreaming in Czech. I think I had some Latvian words sprinkled in there. I dream in Nahuatl, Spanish, Russian, English of course, some others. I can’t exactly remember. It might have been a long time ago. Slovak also. Oh, yes, I did. I had a dream in Slovak. I was speaking to somebody in Slovak — in my dream, of course. That’s about all I can remember right now.
COWEN: To varying degrees, how many languages would you think you have at least a beginner’s grasp of?
SMITH: At least a beginner’s grasp of?
SMITH: That would be about 36 or so.
COWEN: And fluent in?
SMITH: Fluent in about eight.
COWEN: About eight. What’s your history with being a hyperpolyglot? Did you wake one morning, and you’re five years old, and you just start learning other languages? Or you realized in school you were good at this? How did this happen?
SMITH: Slowly, a realization. I grew up bilingual when I was very young because my —
COWEN: English and Spanish.
SMITH: English and Spanish. My mother would take us to Mexico and learn Spanish there and come back. As far as I remember, being bilingual. And then, I think when I was about, let’s say 11, I took an interest in learning French. When I was about 13 in school, I started learning German, just on my own.
COWEN: This was not directed by the school. You just did it.
SMITH: No, it was not directed by the school. It started with my mother having material in French and my mother’s fascination, herself, with the French language.
COWEN: Did they make you take language classes in school? Was that a form of torture, or you enjoyed it?
SMITH: No one made me take any classes. I didn’t take any classes. I simply studied out of my own interest.
COWEN: Was there this moment in your life where you think, “Well, I’m going to do this as a thing”? Or you just kept on going, and here you are dreaming and speaking however many languages?
SMITH: When I was about 15, leaving Alice Deal Junior High School, going to Wilson — that’s when I decided, “Okay, I want to do this. I want to learn more languages, and this is going to be my thing. This is going to be something that I’m good at. I can see that. I can learn it pretty quickly.” My peers are telling me, wow, I’ve got good pronunciation. I can memorize the words and the vocabulary pretty fast. That was the turning point.
COWEN: Which languages, of those you know, do you think are best for expressions of humor?
SMITH: Expressions of humor — definitely Spanish, Russian. Hmm, to a degree, Finnish. I think those three.
COWEN: What makes Spanish and Russian good for humor?
SMITH: Spanish — where we are from, particularly the Mexican Spanish variety that we speak, which is from Orizaba, Veracruz state — it’s a very vulgar and a very colloquial Spanish. Every other sentence that anybody says on a regular daily basis is some sort of insult or a pun on something or a metaphor. It’s a very rich language in that sense.
COWEN: And Russian?
SMITH: Russian? The Russian friends that I learned from are also very witty, and they enjoy telling jokes all the time.
COWEN: Mucha, what makes Nahuatl such a beautiful language?
SMITH: Nahuatl — I think it’s just the sound, the way it flows. It’s a very quickly spoken language. When I’m listening to it, when I speak it, it just puts me in the place. And the place where it’s spoken is a very beautiful, lush, mountainous, natural, bucolic place. I’ve never spoken Nahuatl that associates with someplace boring. There’s nothing boring about it. The people are very friendly when they speak the Nahuatl language. I think those things give me the picture of Nahuatl being beautiful.
COWEN: It also has this very rich civilization behind it, which is not in every way still there today. Unlike a lot of languages spoken only by, say, 2 million people, it was the language of an empire, right?
COWEN: Could you say something for us in Nahuatl?
SMITH: [In Nahuatl] “Since I was a young kid, I would go to Mexico, and my mother does not speak Nahuatl. Then, 20 years ago, I learned Nahuatl with a friend of mine who lives near Awilizapan (Orizaba) in a village called Rafael Delgado or San Juan del Rio.”
COWEN: Nahuatl varies a lot from village to village. How do you decide which one to learn?
SMITH: I learned the one that was closest to me.
COWEN: You mean physically closest to you?
SMITH: I’m sorry, let me back up a little bit. I forget to mention that for a part of each year, I live in Mexico in Orizaba. That’s my mother’s hometown, and just south of the city, about a 10-, 15-minute bus ride, is the village of Rafael Delgado. That’s where everybody speaks it on the street. They speak mostly Nahuatl, and then Spanish is secondary to them. That’s the proximity that gives me that, plus the fact that it’s a distant cousin of mine, who is a professor of the Nahuatl language, who taught me.
COWEN: Do you try to study written Nahuatl? That’s hard to do, right? There just isn’t that much. Or you just speak it, and that’s it?
SMITH: Now, when you say written Nahuatl, you’re talking about the phonology, that’s the Latin characters?
COWEN: That the Spaniards imposed on Nahuatl in varying forms after the conquest.
SMITH: That’s not difficult for me at all. No.
COWEN: So you could read something in Nahuatl if you —
SMITH: I could write it perfectly, yes.
COWEN: Okay, great.
SMITH: As far as the actual words that I know. If there’s some new word, I might have to find out, but usually, if I go by pronunciation, then I can write pretty much anything.
COWEN: Do you think it’s more fundamental to your learning — the written form of the language or the spoken?
COWEN: Then you move to figuring out how to read it?
COWEN: Do you feel you think different thoughts in different languages?
SMITH: Yes, I do.
COWEN: How does that operate?
SMITH: I don’t know. I think when I get angry [laughs] when somebody cuts me off or something, I’ll curse out in Slovak. I think the reason for that is because when I lived with Táňa and Dušan Pavelkovi — they were the people from Slovakia, the Eastern Slovaks — Východňária, that’s what we call them. Eastern Slovaks are known for their aggressive demeanor, just hot-blooded people. They’re always cursing and swearing. When they get upset, they always have something to say, which is pretty nasty.
I picked up on this a lot because I spent every day working with these people. I pretty much picked it up as a habit. I’m driving, someone cuts me off. It’s like — I don’t want to say it because they would be bad words, like, “I swear to God” — that sort of thing. That’s just a lighter version of what they say, but, [in Slovak] To by nerobil ani posledný úchil! [Even the last jackass would not do that!] It just stuck with me over the years.
That would be one of the examples. Yes, little fits of rage here and there — they come out in Slovak a lot. Even if I’m in Mexico, I’ll say it.
COWEN: Now, when I hear Russian — and Russian is a language spoken in my home, though not by me — it often sounds to me like the people are angry. When you speak Russian, do you sound more like you’re angry?
SMITH: When I speak Russian — I tell people this when I’m teaching them Russian or tutoring Russian — Russian is a loud language. Just taking into consideration the majority of the people that I’ve met that speak Russian, it’s always loud. [In Russian] “One must speak Russian loudly. It will not suffice to speak softly. Americans always speak softly.” It’s twice the energy output when someone’s speaking Russian, even if you’re just at a table at the house.
COWEN: Do you read much historical linguistics, or you just focus on learning languages?
SMITH: I focus on learning languages, and periodically, I’ll delve into the history of linguistics. One of my favorite books is one that was sent to me by Nijolė Skripskaitė. She’s a Lithuanian, and she sent me a book called The History of the Lithuanian Language. It’s a very fascinating read. I haven’t read the whole thing from front to back, but I’ll read little chapters here and there. When I have some free time, I look into it.
It goes into the older Baltic variants that were much closer to, well, what people will consider Sanskrit, for example, some of the loan words from Old Norse, and the other interesting little facts of how the words are put together.
COWEN: Something like Chomsky on structural linguistics — do you have an opinion on that?
SMITH: I have not read the book.
COWEN: Sapir-Whorf hypothesis?
SMITH: I’m not familiar with it.
COWEN: Do you think the Romance languages are, in fact, better for romance?
COWEN: What’s the best language for romance and why?
SMITH: I don’t think about it that way. What’s the best language for romance? I guess any language has the capacity of being romantic. If you’re thinking about romantic feelings of couples getting in love, that sort of thing, no. Even Finnish is more romantic to me than, say, Portuguese.
COWEN: That’s amazing. What makes Finnish so romantic relative to Portuguese?
SMITH: Well, I had a girlfriend who taught me Finnish.
COWEN: Ah, yes, that will do it.
Which kinds of languages are hardest for you to learn?
SMITH: What kinds of languages —
COWEN: Would it be tonal or agglutinative? Click languages?
SMITH: When I study a language, the grammar is super important to me. I don’t have a problem with pronunciation. I can learn different writing scripts — that’s fine. I think the two biggest challenges here for me would be something that’s a very complicated grammar. For example, Estonian or Finnish, Hungarian, Lithuanian, to me, are grammatically very challenging.
COWEN: What do you think has been, for you, the hardest language to learn?
SMITH: The hardest language for me to learn — I would say Hungarian.
COWEN: What makes Hungarian so hard?
SMITH: Several noun cases and a very rich vocabulary, very large vocabulary. A lot more words are in regular use to say specific things, more so than, say, any of the Germanic languages.
An opposite of that would be, for example, Norwegian, which is super easy. You just have one little word. It doesn’t change, it doesn’t inflect the verb. Let’s see, the person or the verb is the same, no matter who is it that does it. There’s simply the infinitive form. There’s the past participle, and then there’s the present, which you just put the letter r after the vowel of the infinitive. That’s grammatically, just giving an example of how easy it is for me to learn Norwegian grammar.
Everything is difficult about Hungarian, as the case is knowing what case — the singular, the plural form. The verb changes with the recipient of the verb. If it’s in the first person verb, it changes when the recipient is in second person singular. Szeretnélek instead of Szeretnék, for example. Szeretnélek: “I like you.” Or Szeretnék: “I like.” These little nuances and all these exceptions to rules and irregularities make the language grammar very difficult.
COWEN: Do you ever learn languages through music?
SMITH: Yes, I can say that.
COWEN: By singing, by listening to songs? Or how do you do it? Translating lyrics, listening?
SMITH: Listening. I started when I was back at Wilson High School. I met Сергей Кузнецов [Sergei Kuznetsov], and he loved music, and he gave me these tapes. This is the early ’90s, where everybody used cassette tapes. He gave me these cassette tapes with bands like Kino, Krematorij, Nautilus Pompilius — Russian bands. From there, I would listen, and already, some of the words I could recognize. Little words here and there, but then I started putting it together.
If I listened to the songs, if I knew about 50 percent of the vocabulary of a sentence, I could figure out the rest of it. I could guess some of the words or at least bracket down the possible meanings of certain words and later find out, oh, okay, it was this or it was that. It meant this. Certainly, a lot of other music that I’d get from Czech and Slovak — I’d decipher it the same way.
COWEN: How do you think about your own memory? Do you feel you have a good memory for all things, or just languages, or the variance of your memory is high? What‘s your own model of that?
SMITH: I have a good memory for languages, certainly, but also for numbers, words, directions, how to get places, good land navigation.
As far as things that are difficult for me to remember, it’s difficult for me to remember sometimes schedule memory. For example, someone would say, “Hey, Vaughn, at seven o’clock on Saturday, do this.” And the time would come around, I’m not thinking about it. That’s an attention-span thing. It’s not like recollection, but it’s simply not catching something at the time when it was scheduled.
Now, of course, I have a calendar. I put everything in the calendar so it’s not a problem, but that was a difficulty for me prior to that.
COWEN: I have a good memory for economic arguments, but I have a very poor episodic memory. That is, I don’t remember episodes from my life very well, and it’s hard for me to tell stories from them. Does that sound familiar to you at all?
SMITH: Not really, no.
COWEN: So, you have good episodic memory?
SMITH: I have good episodic memory, yes.
COWEN: Yes, that’s good.
The other hyperpolyglots — do you know them? You WhatsApp with them? Or you read about them once and that’s it?
COWEN: Are they fun? Are those the people you hang out with, or they’re just another group of people?
SMITH: Well, Richard Simcott — I’ve never hung out with him in person, but I really enjoyed the conversation, and I made plans to meet with him in Mexico in October for the polyglot conference that he’s hosting. Other than that, I have not met polyglots that know more than, say, eight languages or so.
The ones that know some languages — we have a meeting that we do every Sunday, the District Language Exchange, and it happens at different places, typically on Sundays at about 5:00 pm. We used to meet at Meridian Hill Park on 16th street NW, DC. We’ll meet at places such as Dacha Beer Garden. I’ll meet with some, and it’s really fun just to skip from language to language, and we’re just like, “Yes, we’re practicing.” We’re impressing all these other people that are standing around us, looking at us. It’s always fun to just, “Okay, I know this one, too,” and we’ll jump from this to that.
Not people that I hang out with on a daily basis. I don’t have a close friend that’s a polyglot, nor do I have a close friend regularly that would speak more than five languages.
COWEN: How many hyperpolyglots do you think there are?
SMITH: I have no idea.
COWEN: But we know what, a few hundred?
SMITH: A thousand, at least.
COWEN: A thousand, at least.
SMITH: A thousand, at least. That’s what I would imagine.
COWEN: Is it your intuition that everyone who has that skill learns it and does it? Or is there some expanse of people out there who could do it, but somehow have never been attuned to it?
SMITH: I agree with that second possibility. There are people that have the capacity, but they just don’t live in a place where they’re exposed to other languages, and they might not participate in active language learning to the degree that I have or that other hyperpolyglots have. They might use superior memory capabilities for other things.
COWEN: How does language retention differ from language acquisition, or is it just the same? Do you have to maintain languages, or they just stick with you?
SMITH: I’ll give an example. Recently — I think it was two weeks ago — I was in front of the Bulgarian embassy. It was a Saturday that the European Union embassies were having their open house, and we were going from embassy to embassy. I went to the Latvian embassy, had a pretty good conversation, and I realized I had not spoken Latvian for more than 15 years, but I was still able to converse.
Some of the words — they’re there, but it might take me some time to think about the words, like Saldējums [ice cream] or Jautājums [question]. Little simple words like that. Actually, those are poor examples because those are words that I know too well, but Izveicināt [to cheer up] — they would just come slowly.
It’s just a matter of putting myself in the place of the language, and it’s like a slow computer rebooting information, bringing it to the forefront, so it’s ready for use. Bulgarian was the same thing. I was in front of the Bulgarian embassy, and then someone comes up, and I had not spoken Bulgarian for about 10 years or so, and here I am, having a conversation in Bulgarian again. But it was a lot faster than, for example, the Latvian conversation for the Latvian embassy.
In answer to that, I don’t have a problem memorizing the words that I’ve studied well. Some of them — if I’m learning new words, then of course, I have to come back to it repetitively to actually commit them to long-term memory.
COWEN: You mean some technique of spaced repetition?
COWEN: Could you say something in Latvian for us?
SMITH: For example, [in Latvian] “It seems to me it will rain, but later the sun will be shining.”
COWEN: Now, you’re an atypical case, but do you have views on how we should teach languages to other people better?
SMITH: How to teach languages to other people better? Don’t cram so much vocabulary into one little session. Mix it up: some writing, some reading, but a lot of listening. People learn by listening. Humans grow up listening, doing nothing but listening, and that’s how they acquire language. That should be reflected in teaching methods.
COWEN: If you think of your own acquisitions — for most individuals, it’s relatively easy to learn a new language without an accent at a young age, and it gets progressively harder. Do you think that applies to you or not really?
SMITH: I think that it’s got a little bit more difficult, but not by much.
COWEN: But not by much. Are you willing to tell us how old you are?
SMITH: Yes, 46.
COWEN: You just think that will keep on going for some while still, and you can just keep on learning?
COWEN: Do you have particular aspirations such as, “Well, I want to learn Otomi,” or whatever the next thing is? Or it just happens?
SMITH: Otomi — it’s pretty interesting that you say that because it’s one of the ones I would like to learn somehow.
COWEN: Oh, good. Why Otomi?
SMITH: Otomi — because that is spoken also in the state of Veracruz. I’ve had some contact with some Otomi speakers, but never really sat down with them to learn anything. I have literature and music that is written in Otomi. It looks very beautiful.
COWEN: Otomi probably is dying out, or don’t you think so?
SMITH: Dying out — as far as the state of indigenous languages in Mexico, it’s pretty much the same. There are fewer and fewer speakers every year because the youngsters are not willing, or they’re just — for some reason — sticking to Spanish instead of their own indigenous language, or they’re learning English instead. As far as actual numbers, I’m not exactly certain, but I know that many indigenous communities are putting efforts into preserving their languages.
COWEN: Do you worry much about language loss as an issue?
COWEN: Is there anything we can do?
SMITH: Yes, absolutely. There are different methods I see. For example, when I’m in Orizaba, Mexico, there are two professors, Armando Alonso Limón, Miguel Torres. They’re both related. One is uncle and one is nephew.
They’re pretty much the fluent go-to people of the town. They just know all the vocabulary, the words for every plant and animal, pretty much as far as memory can go. They are actively thinking of ways, efforts that they can continue to teach the language. They teach at bilingual schools. The kids go to the school; they’re learning Spanish; they’re learning Nahuatl at the same time. And he speaks to them in Nahuatl as much as he can.
Looking at these methods, when I started to learn it — the Nahuatl language — about 25 years ago, I arrived at Armando’s house with a pen and a book to start writing things down. Then I realized, when I went into his house, that about six other kids had come, also with pens and books, to do the same thing.
I think that when the kids saw that an outsider — even though I’m half Mexican, to them I’m an outsider. I look like an American. I don’t speak 100 percent native Spanish like a typical everyday Mexican there because I don’t live there all the time. For them to see an outsider, someone coming from the United States, even though I spent my childhood in Mexico, I’m looked at as pretty much a gringo. “Here is this American coming, and he wants to learn our language. Well, wow.” All of a sudden, they realized, “Okay, people want to learn our language. Our language has value.”
I see that when I take interest in a language that’s not spoken by very many people. Sometimes my niece will be with me, and she’ll want to learn some words, too. We have this really friendly approach. “Hey, I’d like to learn some of these words. What does this mean?” It really just gives them a reminder. It’s an uplift. “This language that we know, that’s spoken by very few people, and this culture of ours is very valuable. People see it, and they appreciate it.”
COWEN: Linguistic issues aside, how do you feel rural Mexico is doing now?
SMITH: Rural Mexico. Rural Mexico struggles economically, absolutely. Oh, so many different ideas — how to put it all together? Their land is being taken away and used for commercial reasons. They’re being exploited. They’re laughed at when they come to the city, and they get a lot of discrimination, especially from the young kids. They’ll go to a school, and they’ll be made fun of because they’re indigenous. That would be like indigenous people from rural areas all over Mexico.
When I see the people, they seem very happy, and they’re smiling, and they’re going about their business. But I think there’s an underlying melancholy and this feeling of being second class. They don’t say it directly, but I can sense it.
COWEN: If you could change one thing in the parts of rural Mexico you’re familiar with — other than just more resources in every way — what would that be?
SMITH: If I could change it? Well, set up schools, prioritize the language, and make it so that rural people see themselves the way city people or urbans see themselves, and they live that. Just that same amount of pride, that value, that self-worth needs to be brought up.
COWEN: Do you think more people should leave rural Mexico, or fewer should leave?
SMITH: Leave rural Mexico?
COWEN: For the cities — not for the US, but just move to Mexico City, move to Guadalajara or Veracruz, wherever.
SMITH: That’s really not for me to say. People move for economic reasons or something that they need, to find a job here or there, or they just need work. No, I think that there’s an importance to the rural way of life. That’s for every place, even in the United States. A lot so in Mexico, too.
I think that it’s just more resources, a better economic stance, just an economic foundation for rural areas. People need to stay where they are. They move away from the rural areas, and the rural areas are missing something already.
COWEN: What’s your favorite food in rural Mexico?
SMITH: My favorite food in rural Mexico — it would be barbacoa.
COWEN: Yes, it’s amazing when they put it under the earth overnight. It’s incredible. It’s the best barbecue in the world, I think.
SMITH: I’ve seen it done, yes. Mole, of course.
COWEN: That means many things. Which mole?
SMITH: Mole — the one that is made in Orizaba is the mixture of the chocolate base and all the nuts and oil and the various kinds of pepper and seeds. When they say mole, they only mean that one thing. It’s that brown sauce. It’s usually served with turkey. Put turkey in there, it’s really good. That’s very rural. That, and the barbacoa.
As far as other things, they’ll probably just roast a chicken, but typically that’s not especially a rural thing. That could be done anywhere. I just happen to enjoy a rural barbecue here and there.
COWEN: The part of Mexico I used to go to in Guerrero, mole would mean a sauce with pepitas, and maybe white onion and herbs, but nothing like chocolate, nuts. Not at all like Pueblo or Oaxacan mole.
SMITH: No, that’s very different. Okay, I’m not familiar with that variety of mole in that case.
COWEN: And very, very hot, sometimes almost impossible for me to eat. Oaxacan mole is not really spicy, right?
SMITH: No. Mole is actually the Nahuatl word for sauce. That’s all it means.
COWEN: Yes. It’s striking to me — there’s a whole bunch of Nahuatl words in English, like tomato, coyote, right?
SMITH: Coyote, chocolate.
COWEN: Yes. Your abilities with language learning — what is it exactly that you think makes you special with those abilities? Is it memory or dedication or some combination of qualities?
SMITH: I think a combination of those — memory, the dedication, and the love of language.
COWEN: The love of language.
COWEN: So, it’s just super fun for you.
SMITH: It’s very fun for me, yes.
COWEN: It will just always be fun.
SMITH: It’ll always be fun. It’ll always be rewarding up and down the street. I’ll be at the grocery store, people are speaking, they’re saying something in Lithuanian or they’re looking for something in Russian. They don’t know where to find it. I’ll point it out and say, “Okay, cool, I just helped somebody.” Maybe there are some people that don’t speak English very well, so I’m always there to lend a hand, and that’s always rewarding.
COWEN: Duolingo apps — are they good? Do you use them?
SMITH: I used a Duolingo app to learn Welsh.
SMITH: Yes, it has been very useful to me, although it’s a very slow pace for me.
COWEN: Welsh is hard. How is your Welsh?
SMITH: I can speak Welsh. I can have a basic conversation in Welsh.
COWEN: What is Welsh —
SMITH: [In Welsh] Dw i’n siarad tipyn bach o Gymraeg nawr. [I speak a little bit of Welsh now.]
COWEN: That sounds good.
What do you think of online tutors and services such as italki?
SMITH: I am not familiar with those at all. I’ve never used them.
COWEN: You use a Zoom call or Skype and just talk to someone around the world. You might have to pay them, but they’ll talk to you for as long as you want in their languages.
SMITH: Tutoring, for someone who cannot go to the country or cannot be immersed, I think will be a very valuable tool, certainly.
COWEN: Thinking of your own life, if you were to go back to your 12- or 16-year-old self and tell that person something — advice, whatever — what would it be?
SMITH: Keep at it. [laughs]
COWEN: Keep at it. But you did keep at it, right? So, that’s not what you needed to hear.
SMITH: Not necessarily, because I wasted time in doing other stupid things. I think better words would be, “Stop doing the stupid stuff and focus on this.”
COWEN: You were a roadie for a punk rock band?
SMITH: That’s right.
COWEN: Was that a smart thing or a stupid thing?
SMITH: No, to me that was not a stupid thing. No. That is —
COWEN: Sounds like fun. What was the band?
SMITH: The Goons. Yes, I drove the van. I was pretty much the designated driver for about a year. I think it was 2000.
COWEN: That was traveling in the US?
SMITH: They might have traveled somewhere in the US, but when I went, I pretty much took them from DC to New York, Hartford, Connecticut, and all those shows. We’d stay with Gabby of Molotov Cocktail in Manhattan or stay some places in Hartford, Connecticut. We’d see Boiling Man and other shows, and a lot of other bands would come and play together at the same shows.
COWEN: That’s still what you like best in music, is punk?
SMITH: In my formative years it’s what I listened to the most — punk and hardcore. So, that’s my go-to music.
COWEN: Great. What’s the story of how you ended up in your current job as a carpet cleaner?
SMITH: Oh, it’s my brother’s business.
COWEN: You work for your brother?
COWEN: Does being a carpet cleaner make it easier to learn languages because your mind is not full, say, in the way it would be if you were a lawyer and you have to worry about memorizing parts of the law, and you’re just free to focus on language? Or that doesn’t matter?
SMITH: No, there’s nothing rewarding about carpet cleaning that’s conducive to learning languages at all. I think my most rewarding job was the caretaker at the grounds of the Central and Eastern European Art Foundation because that’s where I was speaking languages all the time, every day. That’s where I learned to speak Czech fluently, where I learned to speak Slovak fluently. It’s where I brushed up on my Bulgarian. Romanian and Serbian as well — I’d speak those languages because I worked with people from those areas.
As far as carpet cleaning, maybe I’ll have a customer, or I’ve had a customer who speaks Latvian and a customer speaks Finnish, a Norwegian customer. I had the same customer — I think three times or so — a woman from Ireland who speaks Irish Gaelic, and she was very surprised.
COWEN: Oh, I’m sure. How good is your Irish Gaelic?
SMITH: Oh, about as good as my Welsh.
COWEN: How do they react when you just speak to them?
SMITH: Wow, they get this look like they’ve got a stick in the back. It’s like, what? An bhfuil Gaeilge agat? Conas seo? [Do you speak Gaelic? How is that?]
COWEN: What do you tell them?
SMITH: What do I tell them? Bhí mé ag foghlaim Gaeilge le dé bliana anuas. At that time, it was like I’d been learning Irish for about 10 years. I’ll say, Ar mhaith leat dul thíos an staighre agus an carpet a fheiceáil? Would you like to come down and have a look at the carpet? Stuff like that, a little sentence here and there. Not much like a standard conversation and getting into details, but just some simple sentences.
COWEN: What’s the hardest stain to get out of a carpet?
SMITH: The hardest stain to get out of a carpet, I would say, wood stain, Kool-Aid, dyes.
COWEN: Kool-Aid, really? I’m surprised.
SMITH: It’s all just dye. They might’ve changed the formula, so it’s not as permanent of a color. Colors, color dyes, that sort of thing — nearly impossible. The purpose of dye is to stain. That’s what it was designed for. If you’ve stained the carpet, the dye did its job, and there’s no reversing it because it’s that good of a dye.
COWEN: Would it make sense for you to work as a translator? Or do you think being interested in so many languages is, in some way, inconsistent with that?
SMITH: I would be interested in working as a translator, yes.
COWEN: For the languages you know best?
SMITH: For the languages I know best, I would say. Yes.
COWEN: Do you still put time into learning those even better? Or it’s more like, I want to do Otomi next?
SMITH: I’m always switching it out. I’m always going from book to book, so no, certainly there’s much more to learn. Even in the languages that I speak more or less fluently, I’m still learning specific words.
I don’t know the words for makeup in a lot of those languages because it’s never a subject that I spoke about. Scientific terms — being able to speak about chemistry, physics — that’s also important. It’s something I want to learn to do in areas that I can explore to improve languages that I know.
COWEN: Are you keen to do an interlude where you just speak a few languages for us?
SMITH: Yes, I could.
COWEN: Okay. Shall we try Vietnamese?
SMITH: Vietnamese. [In Vietnamese] “Do you speak Vietnamese?” A simple question, like, do you speak Vietnamese? My Vietnamese is super elementary. It’s really not enough to have a conversation.
COWEN: How about Dutch?
SMITH: Dutch? [In Dutch] “I can speak Dutch. I had a friend from Groningen. He is from the north, and his name is Bram Staal, and we became friends. He lived with us an entire summer in Silver Spring.”
SMITH: [In Finnish] “One day I was in Mexico when I heard a man say to everyone . . . Somebody asked him where he was from. He said he was a Finn from Finland, and I suddenly said to him, ‘Yes! I also speak Finnish, nice to meet you, etc.’”
COWEN: Do you speak Sinhalese?
SMITH: Sinhalese. [In Sinhalese] “I speak some Sinhalese. What time is it?”
Again, like Vietnamese, it’s just very simple, very elementary.
SMITH: Brahas betinda! I know that one. Today is Thursday. [In Portuguese] “I can speak Portuguese because of my friends from school. I spoke with them every day. After school, we would all hang out just to enjoy the city. It is for that that I speak Portuguese.”
COWEN: And you know both Portugal Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese?
SMITH: Mostly Brazilian Portuguese. I would not know how to specifically imitate the accent of Portugal Portuguese because I don’t have enough exposure to it.
COWEN: Even in English, can you speak different ways? Could you speak the way a Scottish person would speak? Or that just doesn’t count?
SMITH: [Scottish accent] “Oh, like a Scottish person, I suppose. I met someone who’s talking about the color green. She was talking about the color green the whole time.”
I’m just mimicking her accent. I really like the way the Scottish English sounds. As far as other dialects, [Louisiana accent] “I spent a lot of time on the bayou and the water come through the house. That’s all the people talk about is, the water to come through the house.”
COWEN: How much do you travel in terms of going to these places?
SMITH: The last time I was in New Orleans was in 2007. It was post-Katrina — 2006 and then 2007. I think that was it for Louisiana. I spent a good two weeks there with the Nehlig family just outside of Chalmette, Louisiana.
As far as other places go, my father used to have this pilgrimage, where we would travel all across the US and go visit my grandparents, who lived in Santa Rosa, California. It’s in Sonoma County, about an hour north of the Bay Area. On the way, we’d stop at different places. Explore Lewis and Clark National Park, for example. Montana, the Badlands in South Dakota, or we’d stop somewhere in Kentucky.
And the accents — they change from place to place. Some are a lot deeper than others. What especially stood out to me was the English spoken in rural Kentucky, the southern tips of Indiana and Illinois, and then going into Missouri — just those rural areas. [accent] “It’s very different — there might be — ” A super-old style of speaking, a much deeper accent than what I would typically hear in the middle of West Virginia, for example.
COWEN: But say, do you want to go to the Netherlands so you can hear Dutch for two weeks?
SMITH: Oh, certainly, yes.
COWEN: You don’t have the chance to, or is it part of your program, or you think you will, you hope you will, or you have?
SMITH: I hope I will. Just looking for other employment, post-COVID, work got pretty slow, and I started doing five different jobs. I had five part-time jobs. Slowly, I’ve been doing away with those because work is getting a little bit busy, but I’m not in a financial scenario where I could do that very easily now.
COWEN: Is there a country where you think, “Well, that’s where I want to go,” if you had a number one choice?
SMITH: A number one choice?
COWEN: To go and live for a month, two months.
COWEN: What interests you about Finland, in addition to Finnish?
SMITH: In addition to Finnish, the Lapland, just the northern climate, the lakes, and the nature, and people say it mimics Minnesota. Of course, I’m familiar with Minnesota, and [In Finnish] kymmenniä järveä kaikkialla [tens of lakes everywhere]. Just hundreds of lakes all over the place. Being able to go north and see the Northern Lights, the reindeer, the flora and fauna of the country, and visiting friends.
COWEN: It’s one of the very best countries for architecture, I think, and oddly, for Russian food. Russian food in Finland is much better than Russian food in Russia, which is generally not that good.
SMITH: [laughs] [In Finnish] Tosi mielenkiintoista! [pretty interesting]. That’s pretty interesting.
COWEN: Well, the ingredients are better. It’s more of a market economy. This is all pre-sanctions, of course. I’ve only been to Finland once, but I really quite liked it. I want to go back. I was only in Helsinki, but I thought it was quite an underrated city.
SMITH: That’s what I hear from other people as well. It’s a place I’ve got to go and visit.
COWEN: There are just no hassles to being there. Not an issue for you, but you can just speak English to people if you want, right?
SMITH: Of course.
COWEN: What’s your favorite movie?
SMITH: My favorite movie. The Thing, the original The Thing with Kurt Russell.
COWEN: The original The Thing. What do you think of the remake?
SMITH: They made a prequel to it. It’s not exactly a remake. No, actually, there is an original The Thing that’s prior to the Kurt Russell —
COWEN: With James Arness, and then there’s what? The 1982 one.
SMITH: The 1982 one is the one that’s my favorite.
COWEN: That’s excellent. I think that the earlier one is also good though. It’s scary only by, say, 1950 standards, but if you can get yourself into that mindset, it’s quite a good movie.
SMITH: That’s the key to enjoying a film from different eras, getting yourself into the mindset.
COWEN: That’s right.
SMITH: I’m glad that you mentioned that.
COWEN: A lot of people can’t do that. It’s not unrelated to linguistic issues. It’s like you have to crack the cultural code of some era.
SMITH: Yes, that’s very true.
COWEN: Most remakes of movies are much worse, but with The Thing, it wasn’t worse. They understood what was good about the original, but still improved on it.
COWEN: Is it the horror element or the science fiction element that draws you more to The Thing?
SMITH: I think it’s a combination of both. I do like science fiction as long as it’s not too far-fetched and it’s like, “Come on, this doesn’t make sense,” but certainly fathomable in what goes on in The Thing. And I really like the creepy aspect of it, not knowing that someone’s infected before the person’s infected, that mystery that is like a surprise later. It’s “Oh, this person was one of them this whole time.” That really brings out that scary element.
COWEN: What are the open tabs on your browser right now?
SMITH: Open tabs on my browser — I don’t know.
COWEN: Language learning? There are different languages, or that’s all up in your head?
SMITH: That’s just all up in my head. Tabs on my browser. I guess the phone browser, just things that I’ve been looking up.
COWEN: Like I have an open browser tab, the Washington Post article about you because that’s what I’m working on, for instance.
SMITH: I see. No, I just don’t keep open tabs like that.
COWEN: I have a lot of open tabs at the moment about other hyperpolyglots because I read up on them to talk with you.
SMITH: Yes, that’s a good example, but I don’t really keep the open tabs in that manner. I’m more of an old-fashioned person. I carry books around with me. I read books, paper books. They’re in my car. I have 10 or so books in there.
But open tabs on my browser — I think maybe I’d see YouTube. I’m trying to put more YouTube channels up, so it’s something that I’m looking into.
COWEN: You might reopen your YouTube channel?
SMITH: Well, the YouTube channel — it’s active, but I want to upload more videos. Yes, I’m going to upload more videos on the YouTube channel.
COWEN: How many videos are on it now?
SMITH: Probably only three. There were more. I took some of them off because I simply didn’t like the quality of them.
COWEN: Some of those were open tabs on my browser until I finished listening to them last night. What’s your goal with the YouTube channel?
SMITH: To promote language, talk more about language, give lessons in languages here and there, give some cultural advice along with it, have little snippets of conversations with other people. Just giving an example, “Hey, this can be done. This is something that’s not impossible. If you want to visit this country, here are some important words and phrases to know.” Things of this manner.
Also, I’d like to focus on indigenous language as well — Nahuatl and other languages that are found throughout the North American continent.
COWEN: Being a hyperpolyglot, what do you think would be something — other than the languages themselves — but something that you’ve learned that the rest of the world should know better than they do?
SMITH: Language is a key to someone’s culture, to someone’s world, even if you do not happen to be in that person’s country at that time. It’s very sacred, and it’s very private for some people. Not everyone will be very open to immediately speaking to you in their own language, but the majority of the people that I approach or I’ll ask about — they have this very pleasant reaction to it.
Then when you get into learning the language, you start to think in a different way. You realize every language works differently. It makes people think differently. There are the nuances of how the words work when you put them together, but then, when you learn the language, you realize there’s more to it.
There’s a soul to the language. It’s like you’re starting to become this new miniature other-person version of yourself when you use that language. It comes with the native speaker’s sense of home, sense of belonging, sense of identity. Language is identity for many people, and it’s much more than just mimicking words. It’s knowing what phrases to use, being sensitive to another language speaker’s cultural needs, and you find out it’s like you’re going into a different world.
COWEN: Recent immigrants aside, as you know, most Americans speak only American English. Do you foresee that changing in the future? Do you think they will find persuasive what, to me, are quite significant reasons to learn other languages? Most people don’t do it, don’t even really try very hard.
SMITH: No. When you say most people don’t try really hard —
COWEN: In America. Europe can be different, other parts of the world different. But if you’re not connected to the language through your parents or where you were born . . . Some people learn Spanish, fewer yet learn French, a tiny number try Chinese, but not much happens here, right?
COWEN: Is that going to change?
SMITH: Yes and no. I think that in places where it’s a requirement to know a second language in order to get a job somewhere, of course, a lot of people are going to seek that out. I’ve noticed a difference between the generations. Me, being in my early 20s and mid-20s, I met people from Louisville, Kentucky, or from some city in Indiana that are learning Russian.
That really was not so much the case when my father was in his 20s. There were immigration people. Italians would come to the house, they’d get a place. They’d just speak English. It’s like, “No, it’s America, it’s time to be American. We need to forget Italian.” It’s just English, English, English. I see this sentiment repeated when I meet others. I’ll go to New York, and I’ll see Italians, and they’re a generation older than myself, and they’ll say, “No, when my parents came from Italy, they spoke only English because they wanted us to learn only English.”
There was already a big difference between the 1940s, 1950s and that time would be, I’d say, the 1990s, where it’s like, “No, globalization is happening. There’s more business, there’s more incentive to learn another language.” They’re teaching foreign language in high school. They are starting to come up with immersion schools, where the kids — they’re taught bilingually starting with even kindergarten or first grade.
I see that trend. That’s already a very big difference there. Will it continue? Yes, I think it will continue more as you have more immigration. You have much more trade, open markets between nations. And certainly, there is a potential for the increase of interest in language learning, especially in the urban areas, people looking for IT, lawyers, jobs such as these, this kind of employment, or it’s white-collar work — then, yes.
There’s still always going to be that population that is not exposed to it. They’ll just simply continue with English only, and that will continue as it is.
COWEN: What do you think of media coverage of hyperpolyglots? Is it accurate, off base, fair, balanced?
SMITH: I really haven’t seen enough media coverage to —
COWEN: There’s an article about you. Probably you read it, right?
COWEN: Did it capture the essence of you?
SMITH: I think it was a very well-put-together story. It was a little bit different from what I expected because it was . . . I thought that the story was going to concentrate on just me being a polyglot and languages and such. But no, the way the story was told — it was a very pleasant surprise, I would say. A very beautifully written piece. It was just a lot larger than I thought it would be, a very nicely put together story.
But I haven’t seen other articles on other hyperpolyglots or polyglots that would give me any sort of comparison.
COWEN: How do people in Mexico respond differently to you being a hyperpolyglot than people in America? Are they more shocked, or they just take it in stride?
SMITH: I think it’s a toss-up. It’s all of them. There are people that are very shocked. There are people that just take it in stride. If I’m in Mexico City, I think that’s where I get the most surprise, or if I am in any of the touristy areas where there are hostels.
I could go to Orizaba. I could go to the south, to the village, and say, “Oh, I know all these languages.” They get this wide-eyed look on their face, and they would think, “Oh, wow, that’s pretty impressive.” But then, that’s the end of it.
In contrast to that, I’ll be in the city of Oaxaca, where you have visitors from all over the world come through, and I’m at the hostel, and I’m speaking Irish Gaelic — funny enough, the most instances where I speak Irish Gaelic are in Oaxaca because people from Ireland will go to Mexico instead of going to the US, and a lot of them speak Gaelic. They’ll hear me speak that language. I’ll speak Russian. I’ll turn around and speak Czech to someone. I’ve met people from Poland, from Serbia, from Croatia.
When I’m switching from language to language, then the Mexicans themselves — they really see it happening. It’s a live show, and number one and number two, the Mexicans in Oaxaca — they’re in a place where they’re surrounded by languages, and it’s in their face. It’s like, “Okay, there are these many languages. There isn’t only French, German, Spanish.”
COWEN: But there’s Mixtec, there’s Zapotec, Nahuatl. There must be at least 15 languages in Oaxaca.
SMITH: In Oaxaca, I think there are — yes, I think that’s about right. Fifteen, yes.
When I’m talking about the Mexicans living in Oaxaca that are there — they look at these European languages and they think, “Okay, well, that’s what a real language is.” They still have this prejudicial downplay on their own indigenous languages.
The linguistic diversity in the state of Oaxaca is phenomenal, and the language is different, one from the other, much more so than the Germanic languages, for example, or the Romance languages. That’s very easily overlooked by the majority of the urban population of Mexico.
COWEN: Where do you still want to see in Mexico?
SMITH: I would like to see el Cañón de Cobre [the Copper Canyon]. I’ll take that train ride.
COWEN: I’ve never done that. I’ve been to Chihuahua, but I didn’t have time, so that’s on my list as well.
SMITH: Yes, definitely go there. I want to explore more of Chiapas. I want to meet up with my friend, Juan, who periodically teaches me. He gives me little lessons in Tzotzil. And spend more time in San Cristóbal de las Casas. Yes, those are some places I would like to spend some more time in, and see the north of Mexico as well.
COWEN: Central America?
SMITH: Central America. I’ve been to Belize already, but I would like to go back, of course. I would like to go to Guatemala.
COWEN: There are countries where I cannot understand the people speaking English, and northern Scotland sometimes counts as that. Do you have that issue? Or you just hear through it somehow?
SMITH: It’s interesting. I think that recently —
COWEN: The Caribbean also can be hard for me when people speak English. Yes, it is English, but maybe I understand a third of it.
SMITH: Yes, I’ve met people from the Caribbean that I couldn’t tell if they were speaking English, a very heavy accented English, or it was a Creole.
COWEN: Or a mix sometimes. Yes, they’ll blend the two.
SMITH: They were saying staya, instead of stay. “He gon’ staya.” Really just very altered speech, but I could tell the base words were English, or at least part of it was. The conversation that I heard on the bus — I could make out what they were saying, but not live. I’d listen to the whole sentence, put it together and say, “Oh, that’s what she said.”
As far as an example with Scottish English, I know how the islands, the land breaks up the further north you go. It’s my idea that the further north you go, the more distant the accent is, and the more difficult it is to understand.
COWEN: Have you ever studied Singlish, the Singaporean? It used to be slang and a dialect. Now it’s almost becoming a language.
SMITH: I don’t know of it, no.
COWEN: Very hard for me to understand. How about Indian English? Hinglish. Is that the future of English?
SMITH: Is that the future of English? Well, it’s the present of English in India. That’s for certain.
COWEN: Sure. Say 80 years from now, as possibly our birth rates fall — Indian birth rates are falling as well — but what will English be, do you think? Most of the speakers won’t be North Americans, right? It’s already the case.
SMITH: Oh, I suppose each variant of English, where it is spoken, will — just going by the natural law of language — it’ll change, but I don’t see it becoming a big mush just yet, where it’s all uniform.
English used to be uniform, and it went in the direction where, now, there are many different variations of English, many different accents. I don’t see it coming back together. As long as there are different areas where English is spoken, it’ll keep evolving in its own natural direction.
COWEN: If you meet a young person who has polyglot talent, and they ask you for advice, what do you tell them?
SMITH: Advice on what? Advice on learning or —
COWEN: They’ll say, “Well, you’ve done it.” Let’s say I’m 18. I’m a polyglot, a potential polyglot. I see I have this talent. What is it I should know? You would just say stick with it?
SMITH: Yes, stick with it. I’m assuming that if this person’s a polyglot, he or she already has developed a system for himself or herself as to the most effective way to learn. I don’t need to give this person any learning advice.
COWEN: So, the systems are different in your view?
SMITH: Well, they could be different, but if someone’s a polyglot, that means that person came up with a system that was effective for himself or herself. Then I wouldn’t give any linguistic advice. I would probably ask them, “What is it you want to do?” I would concentrate on having that person maybe focus on a very useful language, at least one. At least one very useful language that would give that person an advantage in academia. For example, learn Russian, learn Spanish — one of these big languages.
SMITH: Mandarin Chinese, French.
COWEN: Last question. In young people — if they show some inclination, do you think you can spot polyglot talent? And if so, what is it you look for that a person might become someone like you, or they might stop at a mere seven languages and just call it a day?
SMITH: Children that I’ve met that have special abilities — some of them being autistic — I would spend a few minutes each meeting, showing them something, quizzing them. Some of these kids were very inclined to . . . they were a math genius or they were good at science or good at physics. I’d ask them, “Okay, why is tungsten used as a filament in a bulb?” for example. Most of the time, it was scientific quizzing.
Then after that, I would test them with language. “Can you memorize this word? What’s this called?” I’d start with English, of course. I’d point out 10 different things. “What are these called?” Then I’ll say, “Do you know any Spanish?” I’ll test them in Spanish, or I’ll test them in something else.
A lot of these are children of my friends, and my friends, knowing me, would like their children to learn Spanish, Portuguese, whatever it is that they think is useful for their child to learn, so I would go in and test them. Some of them — actually, they pick up very quickly on the words. I think that part of it is the fact that they’re young. They’re still at this age where they can absorb language very quickly. After that, I would speak to my friends, the kids’ parents, and say, “Hey, this is a good way to go about it. Do this.”
I’ve met customers that speak German, but they only speak English to their kid. I’d say, “Hey, teach your child your language.” They’ll say “Oh, really?” It’s like, why is this carpet cleaner telling them? I would tell them, “Look, it’s important. Teach your child your language. Speak to her in only German. Don’t worry, she will learn. There’s plenty of English all around. There will be no problem with her learning English.”
Some older people worry that if they teach their own language to their kids, it’ll somehow replace English. They won’t learn English at all. That’s simply not realistic because we live in a country where English is spoken.
COWEN: Vaughn Smith, a real pleasure. Thank you very much.
SMITH: Thank you very much.