Vaughn Smith, a carpet cleaner in the DC area, speaks at least 37 languages…so far. This is well above the 11 needed to be called a hyperpolyglot. He is intrigued by the accents he hears and the people he meets who speak a language he does not know. Alone, he studies these languages. Unlike most people, he learns them effortlessly.
My first experience with a foreign language was in my freshman year at Altavista High School, when I started studying Latin in Alma Rountrey’s class. For the next three years, my classmates and I learned verb cases and conjugations and translated excerpts from Julius Caesar’s military campaigns in the Gallic Wars, Virgil’s Aeneid, Cicero’s speeches, the story of Livy and the poetry of Ovid.
These courses put some of us on the path to other languages such as Spanish, French, Italian and German. Some of us continued to use Latin in our careers. Steve Hubbard was, he told me modestly, the top Latin student in his class and won a Latin tournament with Becky Bohannon. “As a chemistry major at VMI, my Latin came in handy for translating chemical abstracts,” he said. Linda Mays went on to study Latin in college, as did Deborah Mason, both eventually teaching it.
Connie Lane told me she liked to read and that Latin helped her understand words she didn’t know. “When I was training for the Episcopal ministry,” she says, “much of what I studied referred to what we had translated in Mrs. Rountrey’s class.” The story of the Roman Empire’s violent spread and Roman treatment of Christians strengthened her faith, she said.
Latin legal terminology was indispensable to Trisha Frazier in her career as a professional mediator. “It also helped me in real estate,” she told me. All her children have learned foreign languages. One of her daughters speaks Chinese, Italian, French, Spanish and German. Another girl is fluent in Spanish. Her son was educated in France and speaks the language well.
Lynn Andrew told me how fascinated she was with Latin. She said she bought the textbook before our first class and walked around her yard raving about the military exploits of Julius Caesar. She said: “I shouted his famous line, ‘Veni, Vedi, Vici’. The next day in class, I was horrified to learn that the ‘v’ was pronounced like a ‘w’. Despite her faux pas, she said it was magical to speak in another language. English words often have Latin roots, so she improved her standardized test scores by guessing the meaning of words. “Latin helped me in French in college,” she said, “as well as in Spanish when I was living in Los Angeles.” She also studied a non-Romance language – Hebrew – and used it while living in Israel.
I too was drawn to languages at university. I tried German first, but couldn’t keep up with the students from New York who had been studying the language for years. I switched to Spanish, both because it is a Romance language and, more importantly, the language spoken by my future husband Paco, a native speaker. After a specialization in Spanish, I obtained a master’s degree in linguistics. I have spent most of my professional life teaching English to speakers of other languages. Now retired, I teach Spanish at the CVCC. Our daughters are fluent in Spanish. One of them teaches it in California.
What I didn’t experience in my Latin classes in high school, since the language is no longer spoken, was the thrill of getting to know people from other cultures by speaking their language. This is the main reason Vaughn Smith learns foreign languages. When he speaks the language of a new acquaintance, the latter accepts him, appreciates him and welcomes him. This has always been my experience, although all I can do is say please and thank you.
“By making the effort to learn someone’s language,” says Jessica Contrera, the Washington Post reporter who wrote about Smith, “you show them that you appreciate who they really are.” (April 5, 2022)
Besides the many practical benefits of learning a foreign language, recent studies show that bilingualism slows the onset of age-related neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease. (Neuroscience, “Foreign Languages Slow Brain Aging,” April 11, 2022) Now may be the time for us to learn another language or brush up on one we know. Carpe Diem!