Koshik the Elephant Can Speak Korean


Becky Crew in Scientific American:

Upstaged spectacularly by a young Beluga whale that can sort of speak human, an Asian elephant named Koshik can also imitate human speech, but in Korean, using his trunk.

Captive-born in 1990 and transferred to South Korea’s Everland Zoo three years later, Koshik lived with two female Asian elephants for a couple of years before being kept completely alone for the following seven years. During this time, he showed a keen interest in learning several spoken commands, and by August 2004, when he was 14 years old and about to reach sexual maturity, his trainers noticed that he was attempting to imitate their speech.

It’s not known if this was the first time Koshik imitated human speech, or if he’d started doing it earlier and his trainers hadn’t noticed, but there’s a good chance the reason he had started was because, for a long period of time during his formative years, the only social interaction he had was with humans.

Isolation from conspecifics has led to speech intimation in a number of unlikely animals, such as Hoover the harbour seal (Phoca vitulina) from Maine, who in 1976 showed an ability to imitate human speech. Hoover was found as an orphaned cub, and was hand-reared by locals before being transferred at three months old to the New England Aquarium. Here he shared an exhibit pool with other harbour seals, but he was the oldest male for most of his life.