Think you can’t learn a new language? Well you might just change your mind when you find out a talking elephant named Koshik has taught itself Korean.

When a video of the 22-year-old elephant was posted on YouTube, Dr Angela Stoeger, from the University of Vienna in Austria, was astounded at the noises coming out of the mammal’s mouth. She contacted Everland Zoo in South Korea where Koshik lives and asked if she would be able to record him.

Dr Stoeger, the lead author on the study published in the journal Current Biology, was shocked to hear that Koshik appeared to be saying Korean words. Even more surprising was the fact he was using his trunk to alter the shape of his mouth, allowing him to make the utterances.

Super elephant

Think about it – an elephant has a completely different anatomy to us, not only being so much larger but also having a trunk in place of a top lip. An elephant’s voice box is far, far bigger than a human’s, and this allows elephants to emit deep sounds that travel long distances. Sometimes these noises are so low a human can’t even hear them.

These are just some of the obstacles that prevent most animals speaking a human language – a feat only witnessed in a handful of creatures in the past. Among them are cats and dogs – just head to YouTube and you’ll find countless videos of talking pets – as well as certain birds like parrots and hill mynas, seals and a whale. One other elephant known to be able to imitate human speech was Batyr, who lived in a zoo in Kazakhstan and could say more than 20 phrases. Batyr also used his trunk to alter the shape of his mouth.

Scientists believe Koshik gained the ability to mimic human speech between the ages of five and 12, when he was the only elephant at the zoo. This is one of the most crucial periods in an elephant’s development and it coincided with a time when his keepers and trainers were his only company.

The Korean phrases Koshik says are “hello”, “good”, “no”, “sit down” and “lie down”. And while Batyr almost whispered his words and phrases at an ultrasonic pitch, Koshik is able to mimic the pitch and timbre of a human voice.

Monkey business

It is not known how much of human language animals actually understand and it is generally believed creatures simply mimic certain sounds and phrases. When a human listener reacts positively to this, it prompts the animal to do it again, reinforcing the process.

There have been extensive studies conducted on the ability of animals to speak in the past. One of the most famous subjects was the chimpanzee Nim Chimpsky, who was separated from his mother at just two weeks old and raised with a human family who treated him like a son and taught him sign language. A similar project was conducted a few years earlier on a chimp called Washoe, who learnt more than 300 words of American Sign Language and even taught some to her son.

However, whether or not Nim, Washoe or any of the other talking animals understand what they are saying is another matter. Yet the fact they have managed to form and say words from a language of an entirely different species shows that if you put your mind to it you really can accomplish anything. So, if you have been putting off booking those French or Spanish lessons, why not follow Koshik’s lead and take your first step towards learning a new language today?