Emil Krebs: biography of this prodigious polyglot

There are many who claim to know dozens of languages, but very few actually manage to master these languages.

While there is evidence from several people who have demonstrated knowledge of up to ten languages, one of the few known cases of polyglots of up to half a hundred languages ​​is that of German Emil Krebs. It was said that he had mastered 68 languages, and even took the trouble to learn up to 120 dialect varieties.

His life is not at all boring, being a great example for those who want to be able to break free from the barriers of monolingualism to the point that he is considered a scholar. We know his interesting life and what he did to speak so many languages, through it. short biography of Emil Krebs.

    Brief biography of Emil Krebs

    While mastering German, their mother tongue, is considered by many to be a real milestone given the difficulty of this Germanic language, having an in-depth knowledge of up to half a hundred languages ​​of all kinds is already something that takes your breath away. a way.

    His life began like that of any other German child of the 19th centuryBut little by little, having contacts with many languages, it became the story of an excellent Sinologist, that is to say one who knows Chinese culture.

    First life and first contact with multilingualism

    Emil Krebs was born in Freiburg im Breises, today Świebodzice, Poland, November 15, 1867, while this city was still in German territory. Her family was not upper class, her father being a carpenter and her mother a housewife.

    In 1870 he moved with his parents to Esdorf, where he attended elementary school. Between 1878 and 1880 he attended the Freiburger Realschule, a high school, and in the period from 1880 to 1887 he attended the Lycée Schweidnitz.

    The education he received in these centers was quite comprehensive, having in his educational program the learning of several languages ​​apart from German, among which classical Latin and Greek, French and Hebrew.

    However, the desire to learn more languages ​​led Krebs to study modern languages ​​on your own, Which included modern Greek, English, Italian and, a little later, Spanish, Russian, Turkish, Polish and Arabic.

    When he finished high school, he enrolled at the University of Wroclaw to study the summer a one-semester theology course. At that time, he already had an advanced command of twelve languages.

    later he moved to the University of Berlin, where he studied law. It was in this city that the newly founded Oriental Seminary caught his attention, where Asian language courses were offered.

    The first Asian language he studied was Mandarin Chinese. The choice of this language was not accidental, as it was striking to know that it was known to be the most difficult language to learn, taking it as a challenge to master it.

    Having started studying Chinese in 1887, in 1890 he was able to take the examn obtain a diploma in interpreting this language, with very good qualifications.

    During the next two years, Emil Krebs was able to acquire the level of Mandarin Chinese comparable to that of a native with a careful education in his mother tongue.

    However, although studying foreign languages ​​was his biggest hobby, they did not take him away from studying law, Pass university exams also with good grades.

    After completing his university studies, he was accepted as a student lawyer at the Gottesberg court and later in Berlin.

    In 1893, he was accepted as an interpreter to go to Beijing, China, thus beginning an important period of his life as a specialist in oriental cultures and in training as a Sinologist.

      Travel to china

      In 1893, Emil Krebs first set foot in China, working for Germany in the eastern country until German-Chinese relations ended with the outbreak of World War I.

      Meanwhile, Krebs he worked as a diplomatic translator for the interests of Germany in Beijing and Qingdao. Due to his fluency in Mandarin, the polyglot acquires greater fame among German colleagues as well as Chinese origin.

      In 1897, two German missionaries were assassinated in Qingdao, which led the German Reich to interpret this as a perfect excuse to invade the region. So Krebs, for a year and the next, joined the occupying forces of Kiau Chiau.

      Later, after the occupation, the polyglot has become the main performer of the region, Become a very intimate confidant of Empress Zishí, because the aristocrat was impressed with the way Krebs wrote Chinese. In fact, Emil Krebs has been invited to the palace on several occasions for tea with the Empress.

      However, and although his passion for Mandarin was very great, also took advantage of his stay in Asia to learn other oriental languages, including Mongolian, Manchurian and Tibetan, And even took charge of teaching Chinese officials themselves languages ​​from other parts of their own Empire.

      In 1913, in Shanghai, Emil Krebs married another German citizen in China, Mani Heyne.

      Years later and after acquiring a great deal of knowledge about Chinese language and culture, Krebs had to leave the country due to the end of Sino-German relations, starting in 1917. World War I.

      In conflict, China sided with the Triple Entente (France, United Kingdom and Russia), while Germany was part of the opposing camp, the central powers. It was for this reason that the Germans began to be harassed by the Chinese.

      Back to berlin

      In 1917 Emil Krebs was forced to return to his native Germany. He was accepted as part of German intelligence in Asian affairs, In charge of coding the language of the enemies during the war.

      After the end of World War I, the polyglot continued to work on works related to the language, translating and performing several of them by German authorities.

      In his spare time he continued to study languages ​​and also chatted about dialect varieties of them.

      After a life where he focused on mastering dozens of languages, come and speak neither more nor less than 68 languages and, if one takes into account the dialectal varieties, about 111, Emil Krebs died on March 31, 1930 in Berlin, at the age of 62.

      Study your brain

      After the death of this polyglot, scientists did not want to pass up the opportunity to study the brain of one who had come to master more than a hundred different forms of language. His brain was sent to the Kaiser Wilhelm Society in Berlin, an institution which, several years later, at the end of World War II, would be renamed the Max Planck Society.

      Already more recently, in particular in 2004, three scientists, Katrin Amunts, Karl Zilles and Axel Schleiche published a study on Emil Krebs’ brain, in which certain differences were revealed in his region of Broca, Which could be at the origin of their great capacity to learn to speak new languages.

      Currently, Krebs’ brain is at the University of Düsseldorf.


        Emil Krebs’ life is full of curiosities which, although they have not been confirmed, if they are true are a clear example of his abilities and personality when he lived.

        The first notable anecdote in the life of this polyglot was when he was still young. At that time he received a form to attend the Oriental Languages ​​Seminar in Berlin. In this he had to indicate which particular language he wished to study, but he, instead of specifying an answer just with an “all there is”.

        The form was not accepted at first, as they understood from the seminar that Emil Krebs did not understand the instructions. It had to be advanced up to ten times for the seminary to finally accept it and be invited to come to Berlin.

        Years later, while traveling in China, he received a letter from the Mongols, which he was able to translate without problem. later, Mongolian tribe asked him to translate documents written in ancient Mongolian language, And Krebs knew how to complete the task immediately.

        Also in Asia, Krebs made contact with people who spoke Chinese dialect varieties which, to this day, were hardly known to Europeans. Although he didn’t have much information, Krebs knew how to understand some of these unfamiliar dialects.

        Another curiosity, Emil Krebs received one day one of the issues of Argia magazine, a Basque publication. In this issue, he made sure that an American teacher with a command of 53 languages ​​had died.

        After that, Krebs he learned the four main dialects of the Basque language in a few weeks, And sent a response to Argia. On this basis, the same magazine decided to publish an article in honor of the polyglot, entitled “Young Basques! Take the example of Emil Krebs”.

        Finally, and like an unpleasant curiosity, there is a language learning method called the Krebs method, Which pays homage to the multilingual protagonist of this article. This method, in reality, was not invented by Emil Krebs, but rather is a reinterpretation of the way he studied and acquired fluency in foreign languages.

        It has been said that by this method one is able to master a language in just ten days, which has not really been shown with sufficient empirical evidence.

        Bibliographical references:

        • Amunts, K., Schleicher, A. and Zilles, K. (2004). Exceptional linguistic competence and cytoarchitecture in the Broca language region. Brain and Language, 89 (2). 346-353.

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