In A Nutshell
When you think of animals that can speak like humans, parrots and similar birds are the first to come to mind. Elephants are slowly revealing that they, too, are capable of human speech—with some creative positioning of their trunks. They’ve also been found to be able to mimic sounds common to their environments, like the drone of traffic. And still other animals are showing signs of trying to speak—a beluga whale was recorded attempting human speech patterns.
The Whole Bushel
It’s been well documented that parrots and other birds can mimic human speech, with many learning not just to say words but how to use them correctly. They’re not the only animals that have learned how to speak, though.
An elephant named Koshik lives in the Everland Zoo in South Korea, and his keepers realized that the sounds he was making were very, very familiar. The shape of an elephant’s mouth isn’t naturally conducive to being able to form human words, but Koshik began using his trunk to shape his mouth in order to form human words, beginning with the words for “hello,” “sit down,” “no,” “lie down,” and “good.”
In order to determine whether the elephant was actually speaking or keepers were simply getting familiar with his communication, native Korean speakers were asked to listen to recordings of the dialogue to see if they could understand it. And they could.
Koshik hasn’t just figured out how to make words, but he’s also matching pitch and timbre of conversational speech, and that’s not a small accomplishment for an elephant. Elephants have an incredibly wide pitch range when it comes to communicating, and they’re capable of making sounds that we can’t even hear.
Elephants in Kenya have been found to mimic other sounds, especially including the sound of traffic. In fact, they’re so good at it that zoologists working with them took a while to catch on that some of the sounds were coming from elephants and that they weren’t actually being made by nearby cars. Asian and African elephants have distinctly different ways of communicating as well, but they’re also so good at mimicry (and picking up other kinds of communication) that an African elephant living with Asian elephants in a Switzerland zoo has all but abandoned his “native language” in favor of the chirps of an Asian elephant.
The researchers involved with the Korean-speaking Koshik aren’t really sure what he’s doing to get his mouth to form the words, but they’re pretty sure he doesn’t actually understand what he’s saying. It’s thought that he began speaking as a way to bond with his trainers and his keepers, in part because for seven years he was the zoo’s only elephant, and his human companions were the only ones that he had to talk to.
And Koshik isn’t the first example of an animal mimicking speech in order to attempt communication with the humans around them.
A beluga whale named NOC was a lifelong resident at the US National Marine Mammal Foundation, where he lived from 1977 until his death in 2007. By 1984, recordings taken underwater were capturing what sounded like a few people talking from some distance away. A diver who was swimming with NOC until he heard someone telling him to get out raised the question of where these words were coming from.
They were coming from the whale, who had figured out how to manipulate the skin around his blowhole and regulate the pressure in his nasal cavity to mimic human speech. His attempts at communication—which were also interpreted as reaching out to try to form a bond with the humans around him—only lasted for about four years, until he apparently decided it wasn’t worth the effort and went back to more whale-like sounds.
Show Me The Proof
BBC News: Elephant mimics Korean with help of his trunk
The Independent: ‘Who told me to get out?’: NOC the talking whale learns to imitate human speech in attempt to ‘reach out’ to human captors
Elephants Can Mimic Traffic, Other Noises, Study Says