Why am I constantly surprised by non-human animals?
I heard this on NPR yesterday. The trainer had been working with the elephant and it now says 5 words in Korean. The question is is this parroting or does the animal really know what the words really mean? The reporter also stated that the animal only had contact with humans and may be trying to relate to them somehow. Similar to dolphins making human speech sounds.
The interesting thing to me is 1) an elephant can reproduce some explicit human vocalizations, and 2) the elephant may find the social interactions of the trainer appealing enough to do so.
But remember, the various components of verbal behavior are learned due to their function.
Of the 5 words that the elephant mimics, none would seem to be particularly functional for the elephant to learn to use to speak to humans (other than to generally get more attention) except, possibly the word “no” (if he were often presented with things or situations that he did not want). And, also, perhaps the elephant could learn to use the word “good” (another of the 5 words that he can mimic) to show his trainer when something meets his (the elephant’s) approval.
As far as understanding, we could only know by his listener responding behavior. e.g., If someone told him to lie down, and he did.
But for an elephant, to give the command “lie down” (which is one of the words he can mimic) is not a very useful communication to use, because there is no reason for him to want a human to lie down, and no human would likely lie down when an elephant told them to anyway.