Koshik the 'Korean-speaking' elephant. Photo YouTube
An Asian elephant named Koshik can imitate human speech,
saying words in Korean that can be understood by speakers of
the language, researchers from the University of Vienna say.
It is unclear why Koshik started mimicking human speech but
cognitive biologists Angela Stoeger and Tecumseh Fitch
suggest in research published in the journal Current Biology
that it might be related to his experiences as a juvenile.
Koshik was the only elephant living at the Everland Zoo in
South Korea for about five years in his youth, with only
people for company during an important phase for bonding and
"We suggest that Koshik started to adapt his vocalizations to
his human companions to strengthen his social affiliation
with them, something that is also seen in other
vocal-learning species and in very special cases, even across
species," said Stoeger.
There have been reports of elephants imitating the sound of
truck engines, and a male elephant living in a zoo in
Kazakhstan has been reported to say words in Russian and
Kazakh, but that case was never investigated by scientists.
Koshik made headlines a few years ago by attracting tourists
with his unusual ability, but the researchers have now run
tests where they asked native Korean speakers to write down
what they heard when listening to recordings of the elephant.
They found that by sticking his trunk in his mouth to help
form the sounds, he has a vocabulary of the five Korean words
for 'hello', 'sit down', 'no', 'lie down' and 'good'.
Unfortunately, there is no evidence that Koshik understands
the meaning of the words he is using.