How Cardinal Mezzofanti Learned Languages

  • Donovan Nagel
    Written byDonovan Nagel
    Donovan NagelTeacher, translator, polyglot
    🎓 B.A., Theology, Australian College of Theology, NSW
    🎓 M.A., Applied Linguistics, University of New England, NSW

    Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator. Founder of The Mezzofanti Guild and Talk In Arabic.
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How Cardinal Mezzofanti Learned Languages

Something hit me recently.

I’ve been running The Mezzofanti Guild now for about 13 years, and although this site’s named in honor of the famous Italian hyperpolyglot, Cardinal Guiseppe Mezzofanti, I realized I’ve barely gone into much detail about his actual language learning methodology (or what we know of it).

The Mezzofanti method deserves expounding.

So today, I’m going to do just that.

If you have no idea who Mezzofanti is/was, start here.

I’ll also share some key action points with you and how this can work to your benefit.

What we know about the Mezzofanti method

The only comprehensive biography we have of Cardinal Guiseppe Mezzofanti is The Life of Cardinal Mezzofanti by Charles William Russell.

You can order a copy through that link or read it for free on Project Gutenberg.

This was written in the mid-1800’s by Russell, himself an Irish clergyman, who was born toward the later part of Mezzofanti’s life (Mezzofanti died in 1849). I’m not sure if Russell ever personally met Mezzofanti, but he certainly had direct contact with other clergymen who did.

The biographical account definitely comes across as embellished (Russell at times writes like a raving fan), but that doesn’t necessarily rule out its factual reliability.

Today, I want to hone in on this specific part of the text from the 2nd chapter:

The process to him [Cardinal Mezzofanti] was simple enough.

If the stranger [foreign pilgrim passing through Bologna] was able to repeat for him the Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, or any one of those familiar prayers which are the common property of all Christian countries, or even to supply the names of a few of the leading ideas of Christian theology, as God, sin, virtue, earth, heaven, hell, &c., it was sufficient for Mezzofanti.

In many cases he proceeded to build, upon a foundation not a whit more substantial than this, the whole fabric of the grammar, and to a great extent even of the vocabulary, of a language.

The Life of Cardinal Mezzofanti (Charles William Russell) - Ch. 2

What can we deduce from this?

There’s actually a lot that can be extrapolated from this short account on Mezzofanti’s “process” for learning languages.

The advantage of textual familiarity

The key here first of all is the word “familiar”.

Mezzofanti was a cardinal priest (a priest who takes part in papal election), and therefore had intimate knowledge and familiarity with the various prayers and creeds that he would have read, spoken and listened to daily.

He knew them by heart.

Importantly, because these were biblical and theological texts, they had to remain very close to the original language for doctrinal consistency, which is important because less literal translations were very unlikely.

This is why Russell’s account mentions the usefulness of theological concepts as a starting point for Mezzofanti.

These were reliable, quite literal translations.

What’s the advantage of using very familiar learning material over material you’ve never encountered before?

Well… as a learner, this means you’re already well acquainted with the original meaning of the text. You have a feel for it. There’s no semantic guesswork involved on your part.

You’re far better off using a translation of a text you know thoroughly well (e.g. the Bible) than some random short story you found on Amazon, for example.

As a new learner, you should always seek out a familiar starting point and proceed from there.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t be challenged by unknown material.

But unfamiliar material comes later.

I believe one of the primary reasons Cardinal Mezzofanti was able to acquire so many languages in such a short time was his repeated use of the same material in different languages.

Melodic familiarity

Mezzofanti didn’t just have a textual and semantic familiarity with common prayers and creeds.

He had a melodic familiarity as well.

What does that mean?

I’ll explain.

Think of the song “Happy Birthday” - there’s a version of it in pretty much every language.

Same melody, same rhythm.

When you hear a group of foreigners singing happy birthday, you know exactly what they’re doing even if you don’t know a single word.

The melody is universally recognizable.

For me personally, when I hear speakers of another language praying the Lord’s prayer, it’s identifiable to me in much the same way, even if I don’t know the language.

There’s a rhythm to this, no matter what the language is.

The starts and stops of the sentences are known and predictable.

Pattern acquisition

Here’s where we get to the meat of Mezzofanti’s method.

What does it mean when the biographer says this?

In many cases he proceeded to build, upon a foundation not a whit more substantial than this, the whole fabric of the grammar, and to a great extent even of the vocabulary, of a language.

How could Mezzofanti build “the whole fabric of the grammar” and vocabulary using a handful of prayers and creeds?

To answer that, we should look at a sample.

Here’s the Lord’s prayer (NASB and Italian):

Listen to audio

Padre Nostro, che sei nei cieli,

Our Father, who is in heaven,
Listen to audio

Sia santificato il tuo nome.

Hallowed be Your name.
Listen to audio

Venga il tuo regno,

Your kingdom come.
Listen to audio

Sia fatta la tua volontá,

Your will be done,
Listen to audio

Come in cielo, così in terra.

On earth as it is in heaven.
Listen to audio

Dacci oggi il nostro pane quotidiano,

Give us this day our daily bread.
Listen to audio

E rimetti a noi i nostri debiti

And forgive us our debts,
Listen to audio

Come noi li rimettiamo ai nostri debitori.

as we also have forgiven our debtors.
Listen to audio

E non ci indurre in tentazione,

And do not lead us into temptation,
Listen to audio

Ma liberaci dal male.

but deliver us from evil.

This short text is far more extensive that it may appear.

These are some of the grammatical parts of speech it covers for example:

  • Possessive pronouns (our, your / nostro, nostri, tuo, tua)
  • Conjunctions (and, but / e, ma)
  • Prepositions (in, on / in)
  • Negative particle (non)
  • Relative pronouns (who / che)
  • Singular nouns (heaven, will / volontá, cielo)
  • Plural nouns (debtors / debitori)

More importantly than grammatical rules are the patterns you can notice.

For example, let’s look at this pattern in the last line:

…liberaci d… (…deliver us from…)

Without even getting into the grammar, this is a pattern you can learn on its own and use immediately. You could substitute il male for any other noun you want to be delivered from.

Another pattern from the text can be used in its place. Use ai nostri debitori (our debtors) for instance:

liberaci dai nostri debitori

Or la tentazione (temptation):

liberaci dalla tentazione

You might be thinking (yes, but the text doesn’t give enough to know the correct gender here). Two things:

  1. It doesn’t matter at this stage. You’d still get your point across and refine your grammar through what’s called negotiation.
  2. Other texts (e.g. the creeds and other prayers) would likely clarify this further.

The point I’m trying to make here is that Mezzofanti was able to use these familiar texts to build a foundational grammar and repertoire of useable patterns in any language he came across.

If you want to understand more about how we learn languages naturally using patterns, I talked more about it here.

Mezzofanti’s ministry

People often overlook the motivational power behind Mezzofanti’s ministry.

His priestly role and love of people took precedence over his love of languages.

Charles William Russell gives an account of his ministry and passion for human souls which should give you an idea of the true motivation behind his pursuit of languages:

All the accounts which have been preserved of the early years of his ministry, concur in extolling his remarkable piety, his devotedness to the duties of the confessional, and above all his active and tender charity. He had a share in every work of benevolence. He loved to organize little plans for the education of the poor. Notwithstanding his numerous and pressing occupations, he was a constant visitant of the numerous charitable institutions for which Bologna, even among the munificent cities of Italy, has long been celebrated. He was particularly devoted to the sick;—not only to the class who are called in Italy “the bashful poor,” whom he loved to seek out and visit at their own houses, and to whom, poor as he was in worldly wealth, his active benevolence enabled him to render services which money could not have procured…

…even before Mezzofanti was ordained priest, he had begun to act as interpreter to the wounded or dying in the hospitals, whether of their temporal or their spiritual wants and wishes.

In another section of the biography, Russell shares an account of Mezzofanti learning the Sardinian dialect so he can hear confession:

A remarkable instance of this faculty I shall have to relate in the later years of his life. Another, which belongs to the present period, has been communicated to me by Cardinal Wiseman. “Mezzofanti told me,” says his Eminence, “that a lady from the island of Sardinia once came to Bologna, bringing with her a maid who could speak nothing but the Sardinian dialect, a soft patois composed of Latin, Italian, and Spanish (e.g., Mezzofanti told me that columba mia is Sardinian for “my wife.”) As Easter approached the girl became anxious and unhappy about confession, despairing of finding a confessor to whom she should be able to make herself understood. The lady sent for Mezzofanti; but at that time he had never thought of learning the language. He told the lady, nevertheless, that, in a fortnight, he would be prepared to hear her maid’s confession. She laughed at the idea; but Mezzofanti persisted, and came to the house every evening for about an hour. When Easter arrived, he was able to speak Sardinian fluently, and heard the girl’s confession!”

Ministry is one of the most powerful motivators for language learning, which is why Christian missionaries even today are reputed to be some of the most successful language learners.

They’re not just learning a language out of interest or so they can go on vacation - they’re learning it because they love and value the people group they’re speaking to.

Their goal is to communicate on the heart level.

Mezzofanti saw eternal consequences in his language learning endeavors and that is why centuries later, he remains one of the most impressive hyperpolyglots of all time.

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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek
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