News / Asia

Researchers Verify Elephant Mimics Human Speech

Angela Stoeger and Daniel Mietchen record Koshik's vocalizations at the Everland Zoo in South Korea. (Credit: Current Biology, Stoeger et al.)
Angela Stoeger and Daniel Mietchen record Koshik's vocalizations at the Everland Zoo in South Korea. (Credit: Current Biology, Stoeger et al.)
TEXT SIZE - +
— A scientific investigation has concluded one elephant has learned to speak at least six words of Korean.

He is Koshik, a 22-year-old resident of South Korea's largest theme park in Yongin, who can repeat with startling clarity - and matching both pitch and timbre patterns - what his trainer says, including "annhyeong," the Korean word for "hello" and "joah" - meaning "good."

"We found that Koshik's imitations were very similar in the acoustic structure with the human vocalizations and very different from the ones that natural Asian elephants do produce," said cognitive biologist Angela Stoeger of the University of Vienna.

Stoeger is the lead author of a research article about Koshik appearing November 1 in Current Biology.

Video of South Korea Talking Elephant i
|| 0:00:00
X
Steve Herman
November 01, 2012
Even a small child would probably ridicule the notion of a talking elephant. But scientists say there is such an elephant residing in South Korea.

The researchers had native Korean speakers living in Germany, who were not aware of Koshik, listen to excerpts from 25 hours of audio tape of the elephant's voice recorded during October, 2010. The Korean speakers were able to write down precisely what Koshik was saying in their native language.

Stoeger said this is the first scientific evidence of vocal imitation for elephants and remarkable because his species usually does not make sounds at such relatively high frequencies.

"He's basically trying to match his vocalizations with his human trainers to be in social contact with them. It's a way of bonding with his people rather than using these vocalizations for their meaning," she explained.

In other words, Koshik likely does not actually mean what he utters.

Rather he is just imitating what he hears humans say.

Koshik's trainers first reported eight years ago that he was imitating speech.

There was anecdotal evidence of another, now deceased, male Asian elephant in a zoo in Kazakhstan who vocalized in Russian and Kazakh, but he was never scientifically investigated.

To create very accurate imitations of speech format frequencies, Koshik, according to the report in Current Biology  “places his trunk inside his mouth, modulating the shape of the vocal tract during controlled phonation.”

The researchers assert this is a “wholly novel method of vocal production and formant control” never before seen in elephants or any other species.

Animal behaviorists said Koshik might have adopted his unusual vocal behavior because his only social contact for five years as a juvenile was with people.

Elephants in the wild are highly social. And, they do make sounds, including at very low frequencies which humans cannot hear, to communicate over distances.

Some researchers believe elephants may have distinct voices their kin can recognize.

"That's basically what I really now want to investigate," Stoeger said. "What we now saw, for example, in Koshik, how do they really use it for the natural communication system.”

Koshik is currently out of the public eye as his permanent home, 50 kilometers southeast of the South Korean capital, is closed to the public while it undergoes a renovation through next April.

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steven L Herman is the Voice of America Asia correspondent.

You May Like

Multimedia Relatives of South Korean Ferry Victims Fire at Authorities

36 people are confirmed dead, but some 270 remain trapped on board More

War Legacy Haunts Vietnam, US Relations

$84 million project aims to clean up soil contaminated by Agent Orange More

Wikipedia Proves Useful for Tracking Flu

Technique gave better results than Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Google’s Flu Trends More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Ukraine, Russia, United in Faith, Divided in Politicsi
X
Michael Eckels
April 19, 2014
There is a strong historical religious connection between Russia and Ukraine. But what role is religion playing in the current conflict? In the run-up to Easter, Michael Eckels in Moscow reports for VOA.
Video

Video Ukraine, Russia, United in Faith, Divided in Politics

There is a strong historical religious connection between Russia and Ukraine. But what role is religion playing in the current conflict? In the run-up to Easter, Michael Eckels in Moscow reports for VOA.
Video

Video Face of American Farmer is Changing

The average American farmer is now 58 years old, and farmers 65 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population. It’s a troubling trend signaling big changes ahead for American agriculture as aging farmers retire. Reporter Mike Osborne says a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau is suggesting what some of those changes might look like... and why they might not be so troubling.
Video

Video Donetsk Governor: Ukraine Military Assault 'Delicate But Necessary'

Around a dozen state buildings in eastern Ukraine remain in the hands of pro-Russian protesters who are demanding a referendum on self-rule. The governor of the whole Donetsk region is among those forced out by the protesters. He spoke to VOA's Henry Ridgwell from his temporary new office in Donetsk city.
Video

Video Drones May Soon Send Data From High Seas

Drones are usually associated with unmanned flying vehicles, but autonomous watercraft are also becoming useful tools for jobs ranging from scientific exploration to law enforcement to searching for a missing airliner in the Indian Ocean. VOA’s George Putic reports on sea-faring drones.
Video

Video New Earth-Size Planet Found

Not too big, not too small. Not too hot, not too cold. A newly discovered planet looks just right for life as we know it, according to an international group of astronomers. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Copts in Diaspora Worry About Future in Egypt

Around 10 percent of Egypt’s population belong to the Coptic faith, making them the largest Christian minority in the Middle East. But they have become targets of violence since the revolution three years ago. With elections scheduled for May and the struggle between the Egyptian military and Islamists continuing, many Copts abroad are deeply worried about the future of their ancient church. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky visited a Coptic church outside Washington DC.
Video

Video Critics Say Venezuelan Protests Test Limits of Military's Support

During the two months of deadly anti-government protests that have rocked the oil-rich nation of Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro has accused the opposition of trying to initiate a coup. Though a small number of military officers have been arrested for allegedly plotting against the government, VOA’s Brian Padden reports the leadership of the armed forces continues to support the president, at least for now.
Video

Video More Millenials Unplug to Embrace Board Games

A big new trend in the U.S. toy industry has more consumers switching off their high-tech gadgets to play with classic toys, like board games. This is especially true among the so-called millenial generation - those born in the 1980's and 90's. Elizabeth Lee has more from an unusual café in Los Angeles, where the new trend is popular and business is booming.
Video

Video Google Buys Drone Company

In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
AppleAndroid