At the Everland Zoo in South Korea, there is a young male elephant that can speak Korean.
His vocabulary includes “annyong" (hello), “anja" (sit down), “aniya" (no), “nuo" (lie down) and “choah" (good). Researchers say the elephant, whose name is Koshik, vocalizes in a novel way: He puts his trunk in his mouth.
The findings appear in the journal Current Biology.
“We asked native Korean speakers to write down what they heard, and they understood him," said Angela Stoeger, a biologist at the University of Vienna and one of the study’s authors. “We also compared his imitative vocalizations with that of other elephants, and it was very different."
In fact, Koshik seems to imitate the pitch and timbre of human speech, and of his trainers in particular.
The researchers think that Koshik started imitating human speech out of a need to socialize. For seven years when he was a juvenile and at a critical stage in his development, he was the only elephant at the Everland Zoo.
“He adapted vocalizations to his human companions, the only social contact he had," Stoeger said.
It is not clear, however, how much Koshik understands, or whether he is capable of learning more. While he seems to know the meaning of “sit," for instance, he does not expect his trainers to sit when he says the word himself.
“He’s basically using this as a social function, but not really to communicate with the keepers," Stoeger said.