King of the Hyperpolyglots

On a quest to find the person who speaks the most languages on Earth, our correspondent encountered Emil Krebs, a German diplomat who knew, by some accounts, 65 of them—and happily swore in dozens.

Emil Krebs. Image courtesy of the C. and O. Vogt Brain Research Institute.

On my search since 2005 to find who might be credibly called “the person who speaks the most languages,” I encountered many fascinating historical characters who had learned and used dozens of languages. I was interested in finding the upper limits of the ability to speak, learn, and use languages, a question that hadn’t been asked by linguists. The outer limits of what was possible may have been reached by Giuseppe Mezzofanti, a 19th-century Italian cardinal who was said to speak 72 languages across 11 language families and could read and write in six alphabets. I had visited his archive in Bologna, Italy, to ascertain what might be true about him, which turned out to be more than my initial skepticism allowed me. Closer to home was a born-and-bred Connecticut Yankee named Elihu Burritt, who came to public prominence claiming to have taught himself to read in 50 languages (his biographer says it was more like 30), all while he was spending 12 hours a day pounding out garden hoes and cowbells at the forge. His nickname was “The Learned Blacksmith.” His forgotten but wonderfully random language library I discovered in the public library in New Britain, Conn. It contained, among other things, a Hindustani New Testament, a Tamil grammar, a Portuguese dictionary, and a tiny, brittle-paged copy of The Odyssey in Greek, wrapped in oilcloth and tied with stiff red cord.

Then there was Emil Krebs, a German diplomat who lived from 1867 to 1930 and who knew, by some accounts, 65 languages. I was especially interested in Krebs because his brain had been analyzed by German neuroscientists Karl Zilles and Katrin Amunts in 2002 using a cutting-edge technique to measure cellular densities in the cerebral cortex. They reported that Krebs’s brain was indeed different from normal brains, although in fully unexpected ways.

Before going to Düsseldorf to meet Zilles and Amunts, I pieced together Krebs’s biography from a variety of accounts, some of which I had to have translated from German (I’m not a polyglot myself). As a child, Krebs had bent toward foreign languages like a sunflower leans toward the sun. Like Mezzofanti, Krebs was a carpenter’s son. His passion for languages was launched when he found an old French newspaper, and two weeks after a teacher gave him a French dictionary, he showed up at the teacher’s desk speaking the language.

By the end of high school, he is said to have spoken 12 languages. After law school, he went to Berlin’s Foreign Office school for interpreters and was asked which language he wanted to study. By that point, he had studied Latin, Greek, French, and Hebrew in school, and Modern Greek, English, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Polish, Arabic, and Turkish on his own. I want to learn all of them, he replied.

You can’t learn them all, he was told.

OK, Krebs reportedly said. “I want to learn the hardest one.”

That was Mandarin Chinese. He began Chinese courses in 1887 and took (and passed) his first exam in 1890. In 1893, he became a diplomatic translator for the growing German presence in the Chinese cities of Tsingtao and Beijing, and took two further exams in 1894 and 1895, receiving the rating of “good.” By 1901, he’d risen to the rank of Chief Interpreter. There his language abilities brought him literally to the seat of Chinese imperial power.

One day, an exacting Chinese imperial official inquired who in the German legation was writing such elegant Chinese documents. It was Krebs. From then on, the Empress Dowager Cixi often invited him for tea, which they drank out of translucent porcelain cups. She “preferred to converse with him as the most careful and best Chinese speaker among the foreigners.” Chinese authorities asked him questions about the languages in their realm (Chinese, Mongolian, Manchurian, Tibetan)—because they had no tradition of multilingualism, they wouldn’t have learned these languages themselves. One story told about Krebs is that Chinese officials, unable to read a letter sent from a rebel Mongolian tribe, asked Krebs to transcribe it.

One observer said that Krebs never learned the “technique of life.” He was someone who could tell you off in dozens of languages. He once translated the phrase “kiss my ass” (known as “the Swabian salute”) into 40 languages.

In 1913, at the age of 45, Krebs married Amande, a German divorcee. On a honeymoon tour, at a stop at the tomb of Confucius, he read the inscriptions, which were written in Mandarin, Manchurian, Mongolian, Kalmuck, and Turkish. Frail and perpetually underpaid, Krebs (or “Krebsy,” as his wife called him) sat down the following year and wrote a list of what languages he could use—he could, for instance, translate in to and out of German in 32 languages. Later he would be said to “know” 60 or 65 languages. His stepdaughter appended her own note to the list: “It is a great difference between whether one can speak, write, and master a language, or whether one is able to finish correct translations as a proven interpreter.” Be that as it may, during his lifetime he passed government tests in Chinese, Turkish, Japanese, and Finnish, and possibly more.

Similar to other hyperpolyglots I had met or read about, one of Krebs’s most stunning traits lay in how quickly he could learn a new language. Werner Otto Von Hentig, a young German attaché in China, described how Krebs had jumped up in the middle of breakfast to find out from two strangers what language, “foreign to him, had been battering his ear.” Armenian, he discovered. After ordering books, he spent two weeks on the grammar, three on old Armenian, and four on the spoken language. “Then he was a master of them, too,” Hentig wrote.

Rude impatience was his calling card. Once, in order to satisfy a bureaucratic requirement, he had to take a test in both Finnish and Japanese. Krebs intimidated the examiner with his knowledge, scaring the man from the room. In China, Krebs made it perfectly clear that he wanted to study languages rather than do his job (especially since he was often sleeping during the day, having stayed up all night studying). In a revealing anecdote, Hentig described having to fetch Krebs for a meeting.

“His Excellence wants to see you!” Hentig shouted over the walls of Krebs’s compound. There was no answer. “Herr Krebs, the legate needs you!” No answer. “The Herr Minister is asking for you!” Finally Hentig heard a grumble.

“The legate knows me; leave me in peace,” Krebs grumbled.

“May I help you get dressed?”

“Go to hell!”

“They really need you.”

“They always say that,” Krebs muttered. One observer said that Krebs never learned the “technique of life.” He was someone who could tell you off in dozens of languages. He once translated the phrase “kiss my ass” (known as “the Swabian salute”) into 40 languages. 

Krebs reviewed his languages in strict rotation: assigning Turkish to Monday, Chinese to Tuesday, Greek to Wednesday, and so on. With a book in hand, he walked around and around the dining room table from midnight to four in the morning, naked, smoking a cigar, drunk on German beer. His library was organized by language and language group. For each book he wrote a summary, which he regularly reviewed. At his desk, he stood. He refused to eat anything but meat, and sought out social interaction only if he could use one of his languages. “He knew 32 languages, not in the way we often see with polyglots, but elegantly and well-spoken in Arabic as well as Russian or Italian,” Hentig wrote. His Tuscan dialect was so good, the Italian ambassador in Beijing offered to cut Krebs’s hair, just to be able to hear Tuscan.

In 1917, Krebs and his family fled China as China and Germany declared war. They ended up in San Francisco, just as Germany and the U.S. had declared war, and they navigated the diplomatic sensitivities by traveling via sealed train to the East Coast, where they boarded a ship for Europe. Krebs’s extensive library had to be left behind and was eventually sold to the Library of Congress.

Back in Germany, Krebs turned to languages with full force, “surrendering to his great ambition for language study,” as one German biographer put it. The Foreign Office was offering 90 deutschmarks for every language that someone could speak. You’ll be a millionaire!, Krebs’s friends told him. But officials informed Krebs that he would be restricted to testing in two languages. He made no more money for being able to read the cuneiform writings of Assyrian, Babylonian, and Sumerian.

One afternoon in March 1930, when he was translating something (what isn’t known), Krebs collapsed and died soon afterward. The news spread quickly, and later that day, his wife received a chilling call: Would the family donate his brain to science? The request came from Oskar Vogt, a pugnacious specialist in brain anatomy and the director of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute for Brain Research. The brain would be a fine addition to Vogt’s collection of elite brains, and the only brain of a Sprachgenie, or a “language genius.”

Vogt met Krebs’s wife’s sister and his stepdaughter in the church where the funeral was to be held; by law, brain extraction required family members to be present. Toni and Charlotte-Luise, who had stepped away because they couldn’t bear to watch, could hear Vogt’s hammering and sawing. The mood must have been one of Frankensteinian gloom: the dark church; the flickering gaslight; and Vogt walking away with Krebs’s brain, jiggling in a glass jar.

I resolved to see this brain and hoped it would have something to say for itself. What did the neuroscientists conclude about his brain, and what might it say about a talent for learning foreign languages?

This excerpt is adapted from BABEL NO MORE: The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners, by Michael Erard. Copyright © 2012 by Michael Erard. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Read more at babelnomore.com

TMN Contributing Writer Michael Erard lives in Portland, Maine, with his wife and son. His book about the science of polyglots, Babel No More, is now out in stores. More by Michael Erard