Mezzofanti, or Giuseppe Caspar Mezzofanti, was an old Italian Cardinal and famed polyglot who spoke around 38 languages with fluency. He was born in 1774 and died in 1849. He had no access to any of the technology we have today, and still managed to learn more languages than *99.9% of people ever have in history. He never even left Italy either. How did he do this? Was he extraordinarily gifted? When I found out about him, I had to learn more about the guy. I did a little research and figured out how he did it, and it wasn't because he was different in the brain.
*There are a couple people who spoke more than he did such as Emil Krebs (68 languages) and Harold Williams (58 languages).
He Read a Lot of Books
Mezzofanti read a huge amount of books in the language he was learning. He read books that he already knew in another language and could translate them over. He also made use of dictionaries, grammar books, and polyglot bibles. Today, we have software like Learning with Texts and LingQ that makes reading foreign texts much quicker and more efficient.
I have been using this technique of reading books and I can say that I remember far more words just because of the context. I also get to see grammar being properly used. It's much better than drilling yourself with flashcards all day. If it's an interesting book, you will be hard pressed to forget the words you learn.
Spoke with Native Speakers
Any chance he got to speak with a native speaker in the language he was learning, he took it. Living in Rome, the capital of Catholicism at the time, there was an abundant amount of foreign speakers. Even speakers of more rare languages, you could find them. There's accounts where he would speak to Hungarian soldiers or help the wounded foreigners in hospitals so he could pick up the language and learn from them. He did this kind of thing a lot and had a huge factor on his language acquisition.
Nowadays, even if you can't find native speakers in your town, you can always use sites like italki.com to find language partners in the target language. You could also use sites like meetup.com to find local language clubs and practice with other learners or natives.
Too many of us are afraid to speak with natives when first starting off, because we fear we will sound silly or not make any sense. I'm not saying I don't do this, because I do. The reality of the matter though, from my experience, is that natives will actually be thrilled that you are speaking to them in their language and will be glad to help you out. I have a couple Mexican friends who I always practice my Spanish with and they don't mind at all that I'm not perfect at the language. They love helping me out.
We must get past this fear and be more like Mezzofanti if we really want to pick up the language the best we can.
Had a Love for Languages
You may or may not have a love for languages, but he sure did. Mezzofanti's main pursuit in life was the study and acquisition of languages. This guy was absolutely "addicted to languages." Having such a love of languages definitely gave him constant motivation. It also gave him more pleasure of learning new languages, than the average person. If you can develop your love of languages a little more, maybe you can find more success as well.
There is no reason why you can't be the next Mezzofanti, we have it easier. Make it happen.
Did you know about him before this article?