The male Asian elephant, Koshik, can speak words in Korean that Korean-speakers have no problem understanding.
An Asian elephant male named Koshik can imitate human speech, speaking words in Korean that others who know the language can understand.
The elephant's vocabulary at present consists of five words: annyong (hello), anja (sit down), aniya (no), nuo (lie down), and choah (good).
"Some of the words were commands that Koshik learned to perform, such as "lie down" and "sit down," or were given as feedback, and we have every reason to believe he understands the meaning of these words," said Tecumseh Fitch, a professor of cognitive biology at the University of Vienna, who co-authored a study on the elephant in Current Biology.
"It's just that when he utters them, he doesn't seem to intend them as commands -- or at least when he says 'lie down,' he doesn't seem to get upset if you don't lie down!" Fitch added.
He and his colleagues used a few different ways to confirm that Koshik was imitating Korean. The researchers first asked native Korean speakers to write down what they heard when listening to playbacks of the elephant's sounds. The listeners basically all had no trouble understanding what the elephant was saying.