Famous Language Learner: Emil Krebs, the Hyperpolyglot

If you are reading this, you might be bilingual. Perhaps you studied a language in high school, through SLE, or heard one growing up. Maybe you know someone who speaks three, even four languages. It isn’t unheard of for one to be able to converse in five languages. Or six. Zdeno Chára, star hockey player for the Boston Bruins can speak seven. Well… how about sixty?

Emil_Krebs_portretEmil Krebs, a nineteenth century German diplomat, reputedly spoke this many languages. Krebs was born in the Silesia region of Germany in 1867, the son of a carpenter. As a child he became fluent in the language of Paris two weeks after being given a French dictionary. By the end of his high school years he was fluent in ten modern languages: German, English, French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Polish, Arabic, Turkish, and Greek.

After law school, when he entered the school for interpreters in Berlin, he attempted the hardest language he had attempted yet—Mandarin. Beginning his studies in 1887, he attained full fluency in 1893, achieving the rank of a diplomatic interpreter. By the turn of the century, he was translating documents from Mongolian to Mandarin for the Chinese authorities.

Krebs was able to master so many languages because of the speed by which he learned them. Werner Otto von Hentig, a German diplomat to Iran and Afghanistan, noted that Krebs mastered Armenian, a language only distantly related to any he had learned before, in a mere nine weeks. He studied modern languages such as Japanese and Finnish, and ancient ones like Latin and Sumerian.

Krebs died suddenly in 1930, but he would go on to be immortalized in two ways. Firstly, Krebs amassed a tremendous collection of books in scores of languages.This collection was preserved in China and later ended up in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Secondly, another of Krebs possession has been kept well preserved—his brain. Twentieth century brain anatomist Oskar Vogt convinced Krebs’ family to donate the polyglot’s brain to scientific research. A 2003 study of his brain showed that the Krebs’ brain’s speech center differed from that of most monolinguals.

But for those of us who don’t have a Krebs brain between the ears, destined to be sitting in a jar for scientists to ogle at, there’s SLE.

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