|LIFE OF CARDINAL MEZZOFANTI|
Home > Mezzofanti > Biography > 1798 to 1802 > Foreigners
Mezzofanti receives tips from hotels in his home town Bologna whenever a new foreigner is in town, so that he can go and ask the visitor questions about his language. In this page Mezzofanti explains how he goes about learning a new language.
The reputation which he was thus gradually establishing, of itself served to extend his opportunities of exercise in languages. Every foreigner who visited Bologna sought his society for the purpose of testing personally the truth of the marvelous reports which had been circulation. In these days Bologna was the high road to Rome, and few visitors to that capital failed to tarry for a short time at Bologna, to examine the many objects of interest which it contains.
To all of these Mezzofanti found a ready and welcome access. There were few with whom his fertile vocabulary did not supply some medium of communication ; but, even when the stranger could not speak any except the unknown tongue, Mezzofanti's ready ingenuity soon enabled him, as with the patients in the hospital, to establish a system for the interchange of thought. A very small number of leading words sufficed as a foundation; and the almost instinctive facility with which, by a single effort, he grasped all the principal peculiarities of the structure of each new language, speedily enabled him to acquire enough of the essential inflections of each to enter on the preliminaries of conversation. For his marvelous instinct of acquisitiveness this was enough. The iron tenacity of his memory never let go a word, a phrase, an idiom, or even a sound, which it once had mastered.
In his zeal for the extension of the circle of his knowledge of languages, too, he pushed to the utmost the valuable opportunities derivable from the converse of foreigners. The hotel-keepers , he told M. Manavit,* Note 1 were in the habit of apprising me of the arrival of all strangers at Bologna. I made no difficulty when anything was to be learned, about calling on them, interrogating them, making notes of their communications, and taking instructions from them in the pronunciation of their respective languages. A few learned Jesuits, and several Spaniards, Portuguese, and Mexicans, who resided at Bologna, afforded me valuable aid in learning both the ancient languages, and those of their own countries.
I made it a rule to learn every new grammar, and to apply myself to every strange dictionary that came within my reach. I was constantly filling my head with new words ; and, whenever any new strangers, whether of high or low degree, passed through Bologna, I endeavored to turn them to account, using the one for the purpose of perfecting my pronunciation, and the other for that of learning the familiar words and turns of expression. I must confess, too, that it cost me but little trouble; for, in addition to an excellent memory, God had blessed me with an incredible flexibility of the organs of speech .
Occasionally, too, he received applications from merchants, bankers, and even private individuals, to translate for them portions of their foreign correspondence which chanced to be written in some of the languages of less ordinary occurrence. In all such cases, Dr. Santagata Note 2 says, Mezzofanti was the unfailing resource ; and his good nature was as ready as his knowledge was universal. He cheerfully rendered to every applicant every such assistance ; and it was his invariable rule never to accept any remuneration whatsoever for this or any similar service. Note 3
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