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120 TOPIK #19 – On Hyperpolyglot Cardinal Mezzofanti & Reading Familiar Texts in a Foreign Language



Cardinal Mezzofanti was an 18th/19th century (1774-1849) hyperpolyglot who spoke 39 different languages “with rare excellence”. Here’s a list:

And he learned them ALL without ever leaving his native Italy! So, how did he do it?

When learning a new language, one of the first things the Cardinal would do is have a native speaker translate the Lord’s Prayer or the Apostle’s Creed for him into their own language. These texts were incredibly familiar texts to him and contained a wealth of simple and complex grammar as well as key vocabulary words. This study of “familiar texts” became his anchor point for getting started in any new language.

And it can also do wonders for us too if we can read some texts in another language that we are already quite familiar with. It helps us to more quickly and easily pick up on new vocabulary and grammar structures because we already know the flow and content of the stories, so we don’t need to go about looking up all the new words in a dictionary immediately. We’ll actually be better able to pick up new words IN CONTEXT through the reading if we read familiar stories like this.

An Example with The Lord’s Prayer

Matthew 6:9-13
마태복음 6장 9절부터 13절 말씀
Matthew-gospel 6-chapter 9-verse-from 13-verse speech

Our Father which art in heaven,
하늘에 계신 우리 아버지여,
Heaven-in dwelling our Father

Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come.
이름이 거룩히 여김을 받으시오며, 나라이 입하옵시며,
name divinely regards receive, country enter-come-and

Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
뜻이 하늘에서 이룬 것같이 땅에서도 이루어지이다.
goal heaven-in accomplish things-the-same land-in-also accomplish

Give us this day our daily bread.
오늘날 우리에게 일용할 양식을 주옵시고,
today-day us-to daily-use food give-and,

And forgive us our debts,
우리가 우리에게 죄 지은 자를 사하여 준 거같이 (reversed in Korean)
we us-to sins owe people forgive give thing-the-same

as we forgive our debtors,
우리 죄를 사하여 주옵시고, (this part = “forgive us our debts”)
our sin forgive give-and,

And lead us not into temptation,
우리를 시험에 들게 하지 마옵시고,
us test-in enter not lead,

but deliver us from evil;
다만 악에서 구하옵소서.
only evil-in save.

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.
대개 나라와 권세와 영광이 아버지께 영원히 있사옵나이다.
generally country-and power-and glory Father-to forever is


One Step Further with Religious Texts

Regardless of your current religious beliefs, religious texts are some of the most widely translated books in the world – and many are freely available online (including MP3 recordings of the passages). And of all the religious texts in the world, the Bible is probably the most widely available in nearly any language so it is a perfect way to use something familiar (for some people) to read more extensively in Korean.

Many of us from Western backgrounds are at least familiar with some of the main stories and characters enough that we should be able to follow along in Korean even if we don’t know all the words. And even if you aren’t religious, but know the some of the stories and characters, you might find this “Bible as literature” lesson can help you learn Korean more quickly .

I’ve recently found a full online Bible and MP3 audio recordings of each chapter. I’ve started using the gospel of Matthew for extensive reading with Learning With Texts because it contains many familiar stories. I can also link to the MP3 audio directly in LWT.

Here are the links:

  1. Online Korean Bible
  2. MP3 audio recordings of every chapter

Alternatively, use Disney

Source: Daum blog
Source: Daum blog

On the other hand, for those that don’t wish to use religious texts, or who aren’t familiar with any stories contained within them, there is probably no better alternative than Disney stories. Disney stories are probably the most widely spread, translated, and well-known stories in the world apart from religious texts, so they make a great second option.

Recently, I’ve been reading my son 70-page picture book Disney stories in Korean every night before bed (I just read the one above about 2 days ago). I’d say I probably understand 70% of the vocabulary and grammar, but the fact that I already KNOW the stories makes it MUCH easier to follow along and keep up the flow of my reading. My son seems to enjoy it too.


Find a set of stories – either online or in print – that you ALREADY know well and start reading those extensively. There’s probably no better way to pick up new vocabulary than IN CONTEXT as you’re reading.

Over to you:

Which texts are most familiar to you? Can you find them translated into your target language? Perhaps you can use graded readers – starting at a low level and increasing in difficulty over time. Let me know what you think in the Comments below or with #120TOPIK on social media.

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