So far he has yet to master the phrases ‘Please may I have another bun?’ and ‘Eek, a mouse!’
But Koshik the elephant has made a start, by learning how to speak five words in a human-like voice.
The 22-year-old male, housed in a South Korean zoo, places the end of his trunk in his mouth and, rather than coming out as a low rumble, the sound matches human speech in pitch and tone.
Koshik has been chatting away in Korean since August 2004, when he was 14.
Sometimes he speaks when prompted, other times without any encouragement, the journal Current Biology reports.
Researcher Angela Stoeger, an expert in elephant communication, said, “Human speech has two important aspects, pitch and timbre. Intriguingly, Koshik is capable of matching both. This is remarkable considering the anatomical differences between an elephant and a human.”
Stoeger and her colleagues played recordings of Koshik’s calls to native Korean speakers to see if they could understand what he was saying.
“We found a high agreement concerning the overall meaning, and even the Korean spelling of Koshik’s imitations,” Stoeger said.
It is thought that Koshik, an Asian elephant, learned to mimic human speech to bond with his trainers when he was kept alone for five years as a young animal. His five words spelt phonetically are ‘annyong, anja, aniya, nuo and choah’. They mean: hello, sit down, no, lie down and good.
Despite Koshik’s apparent ingenuity, scientists don’t think that he actually means what he says.
Californian researchers told of a white whale that liked to tell divers to get out of his pool. NoC, as he was called, was also fond of holding burbling ‘conversations’ with himself.