Living abroad in Cyprus, I’ve spent the last 10 years trying to master Greek, with limited success. I can reserve a table or chit chat with the cashier at the grocery store, but give me a nuanced newspaper article or ask me to write an official letter, and I am lost.
So imagine my surprise (and frustration) when like many others I stumbled across Jessica Contrera’s amazing profile of Vaughn Smith in the Washington Post recently. From the outside, Smith seems like a shy, normal guy. He works at his brother’s carpet cleaning business outside Washington, D.C. and has earned no particular awards or distinctions in his 46 years.
A real-life hyperpolyglot.
But Smith has an amazing hidden talent–he can speak no less than 24 foreign languages, eight fluently, and many more far better than I can speak Greek. And what a range of languages too. Smith is conversational in everything from the native American tongue Salish to Bulgarian to the notoriously weird and difficult Finnish. Even more impressively, he’s picked up most of these languages not through intensive, formal study but by hanging out with native speakers, random books, and the app Duolingo.
This, of course, makes me slightly ashamed of the pace of my own language learning. But I don’t feel too bad. Vaughn is clearly not a typical guy, and his gifts are inborn and extraordinary. The ability to quickly pick up Salish as a side hobby is clearly something you’re born with or you’re not. (I am not.)
Lessons for the rest of us.
But that doesn’t make Smith just an exotic story to marvel at and then forget. Contrera’s tender, complex portrait of the how’s and why’s of Smith’s language learning reminded me of all the research on the benefits of learning foreign languages and exposing yourself to foreign cultures I have covered in this column over the years.
“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,” Contrera writes, continuing:
“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.”
Smith’s ability to pick up languages from casual social interaction is a testament to his talent. It’s also a real-life example of one of the biggest, research-backed benefits of studying foreign languages. It exposes us to cultures other than our own, broadening our thinking and expanding the circle of our empathy and understanding.
This can happen on a word-by-word level. Simply knowing foreign words for concepts that have exact translations in English can give you new ways to understand and handle challenges. Exposing yourself to other cultures more deeply offers even greater benefits.
Research out of INSEAD, for example, shows so-called ‘global cosmopolitans,’ or those who have spent significant time abroad, are more adaptable, creative, and flexible in their thinking. They also tend to be fast learners with the ability to understand others’ perspectives. (In my experience living abroad is also an often painful crash course in self-knowledge.). Companies should consider making special efforts to hire them, the professor behind the research concluded.
Another branch of research shows studying a foriegn language, whether or not you ever become proficient, can help you think more rationally, find innovative solutions to problems, handle the unpredictable, be more empathetic, and possibly even slow brain aging. Another study, which may be of particular interest to Inc. readers, found living abroad was tied to entrepreneurship. Certainly, immigrants are over-represented among both business owners and top executives.
All of this is not an argument for aiming to be anything like the amazing Vaughn Smith. That is not going to happen for nearly all of us. But it is an argument for making room in your life for cross-cultural experiences of all kinds. Maybe that’s a Monday night Spanish class. Maybe it’s more international travel. Maybe it’s a trip to that new Japanese art exhibit at the local museum or hanging out with new immigrant friends. Maybe it’s saying yes to that foreign posting.
Whatever way you find to experience foreign languages or cultures, it’s almost certain to make you a smarter, more empathetic, more knowledgeable, and more successful person.