15. Emil Krebs was fluent in 12 languages by the age of 17, and his unique skills helped him become a top German diplomat
For the residents of Freiburg, a small city in Silesia, Germany (though now in Poland), the sight of Emil Krebs walking around talking to himself was nothing unusual. In fact, it was a daily occurrence. Even as a young boy in the 1870s, the carpenter’s son would regularly walk through the town with a book under his arm muttering to himself. Far from being crazy, however, he was actually mastering his foreign language skills. And the method obviously worked: when, in 1887, he enrolled at the University of Breslau at the age of 17, Krebs was already fluent in 12 languages – and he was just getting started.
Within a year, Krebs had ditched his plans to study law and instead focused his entire attention on learning new languages. He mastered Chinese and then Turkish before starting a career as a diplomat. Inevitably, the German government put his language skills to good use and Krebs was sent to China. Before long, he was the chief interpreter between the Germans and the Chinese, though he didn’t really care about his job. Instead, he just wanted to learn more languages. While the First World War raged, Krebs taught himself Mongolian, Manchurian and Tibetan, among other tongues.
Krebs’ method was simple but effective. He would forego all pleasures and social events and spend his evenings and nights learning languages (even if this meant sleeping on the job during the day). He learned several at a time, dedicating a different day of the week to each one. According to some contemporary accounts, Krebs could go from no knowledge of a language to a native-speaker level in just nine weeks. Sadly for him, when the war ended, relations between China and Germany broke down and he was sent back to Berlin.
From 1918 onwards, Krebs worked in the Foreign Office. Again, however, his passion remained for languages. In all, he is said to have mastered an incredible 68 languages and had a knowledge of 111 more. When he died in 1930, at home, in bed and in the middle of translating something, his brain was removed and taken away for research. It remains in the collection of the Vogt institute for Brain research to this day.