I recently watched a whole night of Italian language TV and felt pretty good that I’d followed more than enough of it to know what was going on. While I might not have understood word for word, I wasn’t struggling and really having to listen intently to it all.
My Dutch never got to that level, though I can read Dutch better than I can understand it being spoken. And I can’t speak either language all that easily at the moment. I get tongue tied and stumble and come out with endings and conjugations that I know are wrong as soon as they come out of my mouth. I also find myself speaking a hybrid of Dutch and Italian sometimes, especially when chatting to my dog, Charlie. He’s Dutch, after all, and knows his commands in Dutch, so I’m obliged to still speak some Dutch.
All of this is my way of saying that while I’m making some headway again with the Italian language, I will never be a strong polyglot. I definitely won’t be a hyperpolyglot like Giuseppe Mezzofanti.
A Way With Words
Mezzofanti (1774 – 1849) was born here in Bologna to a family of humble origins. He became a cardinal, but was perhaps best known for being a hyperpolyglot, in that he was said to have spoken around 38 languages fluently and had a basic knowledge of dozens more.
In 1797, he became a professor of Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, and Asian languages at the University of Bologna, and in 1803 he was appointed assistant librarian of the Institute of Bologna. Not bad for a carpenter’s son.
Misfits and Malcontents
It does seem that there is some disagreement nowadays that Mezzofanti would have truly been fluent in so many languages. There is talk that the requirements were primarily in reading and writing, and that his ability and need to speak was typically limited to basic chit chat. No matter what the actual story may be, he seems to have been truly gifted when it came to languages. I remember only a little from the five and a half years of French I studied at school — though it has helped me some with Italian — and my attempts at learning Russian were a complete disaster. Even if Mezzofanti could only hold the most basic of conversations in 38 languages, I’m still impressed!
So how did I learn about this linguistic dynamo? I was wandering around town and found myself on Via Malcontenti. I’m easily amused and I couldn’t help but wonder about the malcontents that gave the street its name. In pausing to photograph the street name I happened to spot a memorial plaque, though I couldn’t really read it clearly at the time. Thank goodness for zoom lenses!
With a bit of zooming and Googling, I learned about Giuseppe Mezzofanti and the fact that he was born and raised there on Via Malcontenti. There’s more to his story, including becoming the Custodian-in-Chief at the Vatican Library. You should check out this site if you’d like to learn more.
It’s amazing the bits of history you can stumble across, just by taking a few extra photos while wandering around a city. Even if you don’t understand the Italian language — or the language of whatever country you’re in — take a few extra zoom shots of these kinds of markers and then go back and get what you can from Google and Google Translate (or your search/translator of preference). Sometimes they’re older plaques like this and sometimes they’re modern ones with more information. Either way, it’s a fun way to expand your knowledge. I’m sure Mezzofanti would approve of that.