It's said that for native English speakers, Korean ranks among the top-five most difficult language to learn -- but to the surprise of animal researchers, one Asian elephant named Koshik seems well on his way to mastering the basics.
In 2006, video clips first began appearing on YouTube of Koshik, a captive elephant from South Korea's Everland Zoo, mimicking human speech with remarkable clarity -- responding to his keeper's greetings with a polite, well-spoken reply: "annyong", hello in Korean. At the time, no one was really sure how an animal whose normal vocalizations (sounding more like low rumbling) could so intelligibly replicate a human voice. But recently a team from the University of Vienna met with Koshik to learn more about his special speaking skills.
Here he is in action:
According the researchers, lead by Dr. Angela Stoeger, Koshik was capable of speaking at least five different Korean words well enough for local humans to understand -- not enough to wax poetic -- but perhaps sufficient to break the ice with a cute new conversation partner: "annyeong" (hello); "anja" (sit down); "aniya" (no); "nuwo" (lie down) and "choah" (good).
To be fair, Koshik most certainly has no idea what these words really mean, or how forward he would seem, but that's besides the point. What Stoeger is most interested in is how he's making these sounds despite lacking human vocal chords. As it turns out, the secret's in his trunk.
"He always puts his trunk tip into his mouth and then modulates the oral chamber," Dr. Stoeger told the BBC. "We don't have X-rays, so we don't really know what is going on inside his mouth, but he's invented a new way way of sound production to match his vocalizations with his human companions."
Stoeger believes that because Koshik grew up in captivity, hearing more humans speak than fellow elephants, he developed the ability to ape Korean in order to form social bonds with our species that were lacking amongst his own.
Although there are already other animals known to be capable of mimicking human speech, like those occasionally fowl-mouthed parrots (pun intended), this may be a first for our pachyderm counterparts. Heck, even whales are getting in on the act.
Unfortunately, Koshik has yet to respond to my request for comment on all this -- but in truth, he may have crushed the computer as he tried to send the email.