Born on 23 December 1790, at Figeac in France, Jean François was the younger son of Jacques Champollion and his wife, Jeanne Françoise.
His early education was at Figeac by his elder brother, Jacques Joseph (1778-1867), but when he was ten, in 1801, he went to study at the Lyceum in Grenoble, where at the rather precocious age of 16 he read a paper before the Grenoble Academy, proposing that the language of the Copts in contemporary Egypt was, in fact, the same language spoken by the ancient Egyptians.
As a boy, he also taught himself to read Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, Chaldean and Chinese, and he would later add Coptic, Ethiopic, Sanskrit, Zend, Pahlevi and Persian.
His unbelievable translation of The Rosetta Stone was not a sudden revelation, as is often mistakenly written, but the result of a long process of self-education which had begun in the days of his childhood fascination with arcane languages.
Champollion's first step towards his goal of rendering ancient Egyptian readable came in 1808, when he determined that 15 signs of the demotic script corresponded with alphabetic letters in the Coptic language, and concluded that this modern tongue was the surviving last stage of the ancient Egyptian one.