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

Algerians Vote in Presidential Election

There were few media reports of protests and clashes around the country, but so far no significant violence More

Sharks More Evolved than Previously Thought

The discovery could “profoundly affect our understanding of evolutionary history” More

Pakistan Military Asked to Protect Polio Workers

Request comes as authorities say a Taliban ban on vaccinations in 2012 and deadly attacks on anti-polio teams have prevented thousands of children from getting inoculated More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Google Buys Drone Companyi
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X
George Putic
April 15, 2014
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.
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.
Video

Video Ray Bonneville Sings the Blues and More on New CD

Singer/songwriter Ray Bonneville has released a new CD called “Easy Gone” with music that reflects his musical and personal journey from French-speaking Canada to his current home in Austin,Texas. The eclectic artist’s fan base extends from Texas to various parts of North America and Europe. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Austin.
Video

Video Millions Labor in Pakistan's Informal Economy

The World Bank says that in Pakistan, roughly 70 percent work in the so-called informal sector, a part of the economy that is unregulated and untaxed. VOA's Sharon Behn reports from Islamabad on how the informal sector impact's the Pakistani economy.
Video

Video Passover Celebrates Liberation from Bondage

Jewish people around the world are celebrating Passover, a commemoration of their liberation from slavery in Egypt more than 3,300 years ago. According to scripture, God helped the Jews, led by Moses, escape bondage in Egypt and cross the Red Sea into the desert. Zlatica Hoke reports that the story of the Jewish Exodus resonates with other people trying to escape slave-like conditions.
Video

Video Police Pursue Hate Crime Charges Against Kansas Shooting Suspect

Prosecutors are sifting through the evidence in the wake of Sunday’s shootings in a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri that left three people dead. A suspect in the shootings taken into custody is a white supremacist. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, he was well-known to law enforcement agencies and human rights groups alike.
Video

Video In Eastern Ukraine, Pro-unity Activists Emerge from Shadows

Amid the pro-Russian uprisings in eastern Ukraine, there is a large body of activists who support Ukrainian unity and reject Russian intervention. Their activities have remained largely underground, but they are preparing to take on their pro-Moscow opponents, as Henry Ridgwell reports from the eastern city of Donetsk.
Video

Video Basket Maker’s Skills Have World Reach

A prestigious craft show in the U.S. capital offers one-of-a-kind creations by more than 120 artists working in a variety of media. As VOA’s Julie Taboh reports from Washington, one artist lucky enough to be selected says sharing her skills with women overseas is just as significant.
Video

Video UN Report Urges Speedier Action to Avoid Climate Disaster

A new United Nations report says the world must switch from fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources to control the effects of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the report (Sunday) following a meeting of scientists and government representatives in Berlin. The comprehensive review follows two recent IPCC reports that detail the certainty of climate change, its impacts and in this most recent report what to do about it. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble has the details.
AppleAndroid