M.I.T. scans the brain of hyperpolyglot Vaughn Smith
April 5, 2022 10:09 AM   Subscribe

Oh, PS: archive link for

The remarkable brain of a carpet cleaner who speaks 24 languages
posted by y2karl at 10:16 AM on April 5, 2022 [5 favorites]

A counselor encouraged him to apply to a trade school for medical assistants, but he didn’t get in.

MOTHERFUCKER. How many other genius kids from non-rich, not quite white enough backgrounds end up like this? The wasted potential not just for them, but for the world itself is maddening. This guy could be teaching thousands.
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 10:28 AM on April 5, 2022 [26 favorites]

A few weeks ago I heard somebody refer to a person who speaks only one language as a "monoglot", and I've thought about it every day since.
posted by mhoye at 10:49 AM on April 5, 2022 [11 favorites]

MOTHERFUCKER. How many other genius kids from non-rich, not quite white enough backgrounds end up like this? The wasted potential not just for them, but for the world itself is maddening. This guy could be teaching thousands.

Seconded. We live in a badly run world.

People who are language geniuses should be allowed to do jobs that utilize that ability. People who are good at stain removal should also be able to that as a job with respect and dignity.
posted by starfishprime at 11:14 AM on April 5, 2022 [35 favorites]

Somewhere there is an intersection between potential and desire. Not everyone wants to maximize potential. What is maximizing potential and by whose definition? The other part of the equation is confidence. If you don't know or don't believe in your own abilities/potential, then reaching the max is near impossible.

What is Vaughn's potential? Seems pretty darn high. He knows so many languages. But, it seems that he get the most reward out of putting a smile on someone else's face and meeting new people through language.

One of the smartest people I know, a true genius, works as a mail carrier. He goes to work, comes home at 5, never brings his work home, reads books every night with the rare watching of a baseball game on a friend's tv, and is one of the happiest people I know. What is his potential? From my point of view he could probably come up with solutions to some really difficult public policy issues. But who am I to say?

Getting back to Vaughn, it seems to me that he says that he does not know how to go about finding a job that uses his language skills. He is in the DC area. Someone, one of his carpet clients maybe could help him get a translator gig?

Really interesting article and I hope Vaughn finds whatever it is he wants.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 11:23 AM on April 5, 2022 [39 favorites]

A few weeks ago I heard somebody refer to a person who speaks only one language as a "monoglot", and I've thought about it every day since.

It's like the old joke.

"What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual.

"What do you call someone who speaks three or more languages? A polyglot.

"What do you call someone who only speaks one language? An American."

(Only a joke, folks. There are multiple languages spoken by the Americans in my own house.)
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:24 AM on April 5, 2022 [14 favorites]

I loved the story though. I understand the desire to see Vaughn recognized with a more "fitting" job. But he doesn't seem unhappy. Blowing off conventional forms of career ambition is underrated as a coping strategy for anxiety.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:28 AM on April 5, 2022 [19 favorites]

I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein's brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.
--Stephen Jay Gould
posted by Schmucko at 11:31 AM on April 5, 2022 [71 favorites]

Yep, let me update my comment. I'm not against Vaughn doing exactly and totally what he wishes to do. He absolutely should do whatever he wants to, and believe me I don't think people should be forced into maximum productivity.

But I feel like he didn't get the opportunity to just spend a few years in college studying languages to his heart's content. The guidance counselor didn't seem to be hunting for scholarships to give him that chance.
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 11:33 AM on April 5, 2022 [8 favorites]

I don’t know — how many asks and comments on the blue have we seen from people who got what should have been their dream job in academia, only to have it turn into a nightmare which destroyed their self esteem, their passion for their field, and which they had no idea how to wake up from?
posted by jamjam at 11:47 AM on April 5, 2022 [13 favorites]

They had the opportunity though. And to hopefully make something positive out of my complaint: Closing The Opportunity Gap.

Also, I'm not going all in on the guidance counselor either. They likely had zero resources to assist kids with difficult situations. But that ain't necessarily so for the kids going to private schools in the DC area.
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 11:50 AM on April 5, 2022

this is a gorgeous and deeply frustrating story. so much brilliant human potential!! not that he has wasted it, because he seems to bring joy everywhere he goes. but he could have more joy himself, more awareness of his own self-worth. it's tragic. (not self-worth derived from money or status, but from the trust that he is worthy of love, stability, confidence. the self-worth to see how delightful his passion for languages can be.)

but I love that he is studying Welsh!!!
posted by supermedusa at 11:58 AM on April 5, 2022 [2 favorites]

It also seems like one of those skills where the best jobs go to "Good Will Hunting"monologue types -military translators blowing up his kindred - if a DC-adjacent executive finds you.

So maybe it is for the best that he went 'undiscovered' for a while.

I had a co-worker do 10 different languages worth of the most popular karaoke songs in each country in a 15 minute for-fun presentation. It makes you feel small, both the number of languages and the amount of music style she was exposed to - to be able to pull that off. The co-worker's day job had nothing to do with singing or translating languages.
posted by The_Vegetables at 12:01 PM on April 5, 2022 [5 favorites]

My spouse (Comrade Doll on MeFi) speaks five languages fluently and is conversant in several more. She looked into translating jobs but found they mostly either don't pay well, require fluency in particular technical terms, and/or often go to people with soft skills that may or may not be teachable. Being a polyglot is something people really seem to believe should pay well, but neither CD nor her polyglot friends have found this to be the case.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 12:12 PM on April 5, 2022 [22 favorites]

but I love that he is studying Welsh!!!

I've always wondered -- do they have an analog to the US TV game show Jeopardy in Welsh in Cardiff? And, could you buy a double consonant rather than a vowel if you played it?
posted by y2karl at 12:15 PM on April 5, 2022 [1 favorite]

I think you mean Wheel of Fortune? But yes: Welsh Wheel of Fortune would be a treat. That didn't happen, but there is Hungarian Wheel of Fortune, Szerencsekerék. Here's an entire episode in two parts from 1993, including that weird thing where they used to have to spend the money on prizes. 1 of 2, 2 of 2. K, Z, and V are good letters on that one.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 12:31 PM on April 5, 2022 [2 favorites]

As DirtyOldTown noted, speaking more than one language doesn't necessarily qualify someone to be a translator. Translation and interpretation are additional, difficult skills that layer on top of speaking more than one language. One of my friends is an interpreter and she was first fluent in her two languages from having been, then took an undergraduate degree in translation, a master's degree in interpretation, and then went through a rigorous, highly competitive in-house training program before she was finally qualified as an interpreter for the Canadian government.

None of that means he couldn't learn those skills or that more rudimentary interpretation skills can't be useful, but to do it professionally isn't an easy leap.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:51 PM on April 5, 2022 [2 favorites]

I think you mean Wheel of Fortune?

In D'oh! I do.
posted by y2karl at 1:03 PM on April 5, 2022

There is also some discussion/speculation in the article that Vaughn may be an undiagnosed autistic. The notion of the socially inept autistic person is reductive, ableist bullshit. Even so, though, reading social cues and interpreting and explaining intent from strangers all day might not be his dream job for a variety of reasons.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 1:07 PM on April 5, 2022 [4 favorites]

I can appreciate Vaughn Smith and his approach to his astonishing gifts ("for Vaughn, every language is really a story about the people it connected him to"), while finding this WaPo profile kinda weird.

[...] 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. Emphasis mine; Smith is 46, and his formal schooling ended nearly 30 years ago.

The journalist, Jessica Contrera, had never heard of the word polyglot before meeting her interview subject, Vaughn Smith, though "He agreed to let me spend time with him after one of his friends mentioned him to another Washington Post reporter." Smith's referred to by his first name throughout, and his mom, Sandra Vargas, is just Sandra. (Vargas mentions her son's long-ago school issues and enduring, heightened emotional sensitivity, which brought to mind Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria.) Smith's carpet-cleaning clients are first-name only, likely for privacy reasons; same goes for "Vaughn's brother," owner of the cleaning business. The use of the first name is too casual, almost infantilizing, given that all others, after their full-name introduction, are referred to by surname. Smith's lifelong professional difficulties are detailed, as are his mom's recollections and his own autism-spectrum speculation, and the testing he receives as part of the profile is... a 2-hour brain MRI, to help MIT researchers. Smith enjoys the experience, and is happy to help, but earlier the reader learns a bit about the professional trajectory of hyperpolyglot Tim Doner, profiled (in his teens) by the NYT in 2012: Doner now works as a national security researcher.

In the airport after the Boston lab visit, Contrera overhears Smith tell a friend, “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 hope that part of 'doing something' is tapping into the large network he happened to build by being a genuinely curious, gregarious, talented person, to help with the steps involved in forging his new path. I hope things get better for Vaughn Smith.
posted by Iris Gambol at 1:08 PM on April 5, 2022 [13 favorites]

I wonder what he would like to do. The conventional suggestions for careers for polyglots (translator, customer service, flight attendant, tour guide, etc.) don't sound up his alley at all.

I know plenty of polyglots, but I only know one hyperpolyglot. She went into Natural Language Processing for a tech training firm. That took a fair bit of study in linguistics first.

Maybe it's his amazing memory that is the key to his next career and the language piece isn't the key at all.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 1:18 PM on April 5, 2022 [1 favorite]

Are all the Welsh language learners coming in to say s'mae in this thread??? I was also very happy to see he's one of us (among many other things). I haven't had a long Welsh duolingo streak in a while but at one point I was up to 500 days.

This article made me think about what having a gift actually means for you. I have always felt under pressure to "do something" with whatever abilities I have, but isn't making other people happy and being happy "doing something"?
posted by Tesseractive at 1:50 PM on April 5, 2022 [5 favorites]

Somewhere there is an intersection between potential and desire. Not everyone wants to maximize potential. What is maximizing potential and by whose definition?
posted by JohnnyGunn

The avatar of a hyperintelligent AI Mind, capable of containing galaxies of information:

'I could try composing wonderful musical works, or day-long entertainment epics, but what would that do? Give people pleasure? My wiping this table gives me pleasure. And people come to a clean table, which gives them pleasure. And anyway” – the man laughed – “people die; stars die; universes die. What is any achievement, however great it was, once time itself is dead? Of course, if all I did was wipe tables, then of course it would seem a mean and despicable waste of my huge intellectual potential. But because I choose to do it, it gives me pleasure. And,” the man said with a smile, “it’s a good way of meeting people. So where are you from, anyway?'

― Iain M. Banks, Use of Weapons
posted by lalochezia at 2:07 PM on April 5, 2022 [12 favorites]

If I could be granted a superpower of my choice, it would be to speak every language in the world fluently. I’m almost painfully envious of polyglots like Mr. Smith because they’re so much closer to that superpower than I’ll ever be.

I speak Spanish at an advanced-enough level that a native speaker tested me and certified me as bilingual, capable of speaking informally with Spanish-speaking patients in their preferred language and able to translate between English and Spanish in emergencies when a professional interpreter isn’t immediately available. I’m mostly self-taught and pretty proud of that achievement.

All the same I’m deeply aware of the nuances I overlook, the subtleties of diction I misuse, that immediately identify me as a non-native speaker. The more I learn, the more I’m aware of how much I have left to learn. In that way, each new thing I learn as I refine my Spanish gives me both great joy and a tiny jolt of despair.

I also wish Mr. Smith had been given the opportunities that white people are given—access to education, leisure time to spend as one chooses, societal connections to likeminded people—not so that his talent could be commodified and monetized as an occupation but so that he might have had the opportunity to give himself over completely to the words that bring him so much joy.
posted by jesourie at 2:09 PM on April 5, 2022 [12 favorites]

He’s a carpet cleaning man, and the whole world understands him but his woman

Vaughn Smith!

I can dig it
posted by condour75 at 2:51 PM on April 5, 2022 [3 favorites]

Being a polyglot is something people really seem to believe should pay well, but neither CD nor her polyglot friends have found this to be the case.

True also in my finding. There was a time when my customer service job saw me helping people in maybe eight or nine languages every day, but we are closing in on two decades since I left that and I can feel the atrophy. I try to knock the rust off now and again, but it is never going to be what it once was.

TL;dr -- if you think polyglot is a field that pays much worse than it should, you should look at former polyglot.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 3:23 PM on April 5, 2022 [11 favorites]

A relative of mine knows (or knew at one point) some large number of languages, over 10, and it was not a ticket to a well-paid job, but it seems like it’s given many years of rewarding opportunities for meaningful service, like volunteering at election polling places.
posted by mubba at 3:36 PM on April 5, 2022 [4 favorites]

many years of rewarding opportunities for meaningful service, like volunteering at election polling places.

Heh. I worked the second-most-recent Canadian federal election as a deputy returning officer (wasn’t up for working the most recent one during pandemic). I duly checked the box for being bilingual, and the day of, noticed that of the ~30 people working at my polling place, I was the only one with the little ENGLISH/FRANCAIS sign up at their spot. Mildly alarming.

I was initially a little concerned that I would have to solve problems in French all day, but I was working in a very Anglo neighbourhood of a very Anglo city. I spoke more Russian and Finnish with voters than French that day.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 4:56 PM on April 5, 2022 [2 favorites]

Really interesting article!

I married into a family in which someone (now deceased) had a formal military certification in more than 30 languages. He genuinely spoke fluent English, Polish, German, and Russian. I believe him when he said he spoke Armenian but didn't see it myself. That's a hell of a lot more than the 1 + .7 + .1*3 languages I speak. But, his ability in the Romance languages was pretty laughable, even compared to me, despite having taught classes in them. Once he got to like me, he bragged about some of the tricks that he learned to pass tests in order to get a pay bump. I'm not sure that's a bad thing. But, it's also true his grandkid has become fluent in two very different new languages in 6 years as an adult, while I've been struggling to really get a second for 30 years.
"What do you call someone who only speaks one language? An American."
The extended, perhaps somewhat mean version I've heard a few times ends with, "what to you call someone who speaks only one language?" "Japanese/French." "What do you call someone who speaks no language at all?" "American." I suspect the US would be a very different place if everyone had to genuinely learn a second language in school.
posted by eotvos at 1:31 AM on April 6, 2022

I found the sidebar about autism gratifying. From early in the article I’d been wondering.
posted by eirias at 4:10 AM on April 6, 2022

One thing I noticed with living in continental Europe is that most educated people speak 2 or 3 languages. And in major European cities (not necessarily true of the countrysides) multiple languages are spoken readily. This is especially true of immigrants. They will be fluent in NativeLanguage + LanguageofNewCountry + English.

The guys who run the Italian deli down the street here in Amsterdam for example. I've seen them talk to each other in Italian, then have a long Dutch conversation with a friend and then another long conversation with some Americans who stepped into the store. So, fluent in three languages at least. I think its a myth that language acquisition is hard. But it is a bit like a muscle. That is, if you have no place to use it then it quickly withers and when it withers some people then attempt it again, thinking it is just that the task is too difficult.

Still, Vaughn Smith is pretty amazing.
posted by vacapinta at 6:10 AM on April 6, 2022 [7 favorites]

My hyperpolyglot friend noted when we were in college that yes, most of the people in town (we were in Memphis) only spoke one language. But we were twelve hours away from the nearest international border. "America is huge," she said. "I know people who have traveled several times as far in any direction as my father ever made it in his entire life, but never crossed a border. My father never made it more than five or six hours from home but saw a dozen countries. No, people here don't usually learn several languages. But they may have limited opportunities to use them. I grew up in Macedonia. So yes, I speak Macedonian. But I also had to learn German to watch cartoons. I learned Serbian to shop at the market. I learned Croatian at the beach. It's not the same thing."
posted by DirtyOldTown at 6:45 AM on April 6, 2022 [8 favorites]

FTA: “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.”

Oh, wow, that felt like a punch in the gut. Growing up the way I grew up, this was me until I escaped my family and struck out into the world, and even then it's been like rock-climbing blindfolded, always fumbling, always discovering the next finger-hold quite by accident, always having to stop and figure out which muscles I need to train more before I can attempt to swing for it.

But at least I found my rock. The sensation I remember most strongly about my twenties and even early thirties is this utter frustration of wanting a rock to climb but not knowing how to find any. This is a frustration common to those of us who only hear of the existence of rock climbing as a sport, but have never even seen a rock climber actually do it live - let alone been given our chance to try a practice rock first hand, let alone having had a personal trainer who has been coaching us since childhood.

The world out there is so much weirder for those of us who come from "other" backgrounds. No, we do not know that a hyperpolyglot can end up doing something useful in national security. FFS. I speak 8 languages reasonably fluently and read/write in 4 separate alphabets. I've never done a single goddamn thing with it, didn't even know there was anything TO do with it until this second when I read this article, and even in the days of my peak frustration when I used to wish and wish I could do *something* with my talents, it would not have occurred to me to count languages as one of those talents.

> Somewhere there is an intersection between potential and desire.

No, there really isn't! Not yet and not by far. You only have the ability to decide that this rock is for you and that rock is not for you once you have tried a sufficient number of rocks to understand your desires. And in the case of Vaughn Smith, he doesn't even know the way to a single rock yet. It is extremely premature to say things like, "But he only seems to want to make people happy in his own small way, he seems content" - well, that's just the mark of a well-adjusted mind, to make peace with one's circumstances and limitations. It is insulting, almost, to confuse it for his actual desires - the desires he's never even had a chance to discover.
posted by MiraK at 7:50 AM on April 6, 2022 [9 favorites]

....I heard somebody refer to a person who speaks only one language as an "American."

posted by mule98J at 7:59 AM on April 6, 2022

Being a polyglot is something people really seem to believe should pay well, but neither CD nor her polyglot friends have found this to be the case.

Profit potential, from my observations, seems highly localised, language-specific, and tightly connected to global inequality, racism and class issues, most distinctively (but far from only) in relation to migration patterns over time and the prosperity of diaporan communities.

It also seems like being able to consistently make money from this skill is often very dependent on having a fair amount of time and money to invest in getting various accreditations. I can understand this: businesses want someone with professional indemnity insurance, but it does mean that profits from these skills are (as ever) largely monopolised by those who start off with the greatest advantage.
posted by howfar at 9:27 AM on April 6, 2022 [2 favorites]

This was a great article, thank you OP.

The one part of this story that really resonated with me was the idea that Vaughn just had no conceptual framework in which to place himself relative to the rest of the world. No frame of reference for what was possible, much less how to go about achieving it.

To people who have never been in this situation, it must seem very strange. Maybe hard to understand. Surely you would pick all this up watching television and going to school and talking to your friends and such?

But for someone like me, who grew up in fairly non-ideal conditions (many, many, many people have it way worse than I did, I don't deserve anyone's sympathy), there were concepts that I was vaguely aware of, but had no modeling or thought of how they would apply to me.

Here's one: it never occurred to me that I could get a job that would make a lot of money. Even after 4 years of college at a school that always places in the top 10 Universities, it still didn't occur to me. I just got a job and plugged away, because that's what people do-- at least, in my world. I've been very fortunate to make a good living and have some stock options turn out well, but it was not the result of any plan. If I had just thought about it for 10 minutes, I very possibly would have decided that I'd try my best to make a shit-ton of money in 10-15 years, and then retire for the rest of my life. But it was never even an option that I thought about and discarded; normal people like me didn't get rich, or get high paying jobs. It wasn't in my world-view.

I've got other examples, but my point is, I feel a lot of empathy for Vaughn never having found a way that's lucrative, or fun, or at least comfortable, to leverage his language skills. When he says, "I'm not worthless", that hit me hard. I know what he experienced, and it's not a matter of being unintelligent, or even necessarily of being ignorant. It's about your worldview, how you make sense of the people and relationships and institutions around you, and where you fit in. I think most middle class people in America probably have a pretty good idea of their possibilities; I'm much less sure that we can say the same about poor people, and people who come from troubled homes.
posted by andrewgr at 1:59 PM on April 6, 2022 [9 favorites]


Shouldn't that be TFIMY?
posted by y2karl at 5:01 PM on April 11, 2022

I have a very good friend who is a translator, and she's essentially pivoting to machine translation, because the career trajectory of a translator is small and shrinking. Translation programs have helped alot of that, but the opportunites were not that huge beforehand:

-Books: very small number of opportunities
-Live translation: very specific skill set, not necessarily something someone can walk into
-Customer service: going to be very location specific and also depends on the languages you know
-Government/Business: usually requires technical knowledge in a specific field, which may cause you to end up siloed into one industry.

I, like all you here, assumed that translators must be in very high demand, but actually not when compared to all the people that exist that could translate (i.e. people who already speak more than one language). According to my translator friend, the translator jobs were already pretty fully stocked before, and now technology is shrinking that job pool even more.
posted by LizBoBiz at 6:14 AM on April 12, 2022

The Mystery of People Who Speak Dozens of Languages - "An extreme language learner has a more-than-random chance of being a gay, left-handed male on the autism spectrum, with an autoimmune disorder, such as asthma or allergies."
posted by kliuless at 12:55 AM on April 13, 2022 [2 favorites]

Learning a second language improves brain structures in MS:
Researchers in Austria recruited 11 people with early stage relapsing remitting MS and 12 people who did not have MS for comparison. Both groups took part in an eight-week English language course. MRI scans before and after the course were used to measure changes in the volume of grey matter in the brain. Participants also completed questionnaires to assess quality of life relating to physical and mental health and completed tests to measure their improvement in speaking and understanding English.

Both groups improved their proficiency in English. Mental health quality of life improved in the MS group. MRI scans taken before the course showed a significantly lower grey matter volume in several regions of the brain in people with MS when compared to those who did not have MS. After completing the course, the scans showed an increase in grey matter volume in areas of the brain responsible for short-term memory, learning and environment recognition.
posted by jamjam at 10:14 PM on April 13, 2022

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