Seoul, South Korea — An elephant in a South Korean zoo is said to be able to imitate human speech and speak Korean, a new study claims.
Koshik, the talking elephant, can vocalize words in Korean by inserting his trunk into his mouth to modulate human speaking sounds (see video below). According to Discovery News, “The elephant’s vocabulary at present consists of five words: annyong (hello), anja (sit down), aniya (no), nuo (lie down), and choah (good).”
Koshik, who is now age 22, apparently mimics humans as a way to bond with them, but there is no firm evidence as yet that he understands what the words actually mean.
Dr. Tecumseh Fitch, one of the study’s several co-authors, confirmed with native Korean speakers that Koshik was articulating these words. “The listeners basically all had no trouble understanding what the elephant was saying.” The researchers also applied computer analysis to Koshik and found that “the sounds turned out to perfectly match his human trainers’ voices.”
Scientists theorize that Koshik developed his ability to reproduce Korean words because at a young age, he had no elephant companionship in the Everland Zoo in South Korea but instead had a lot of interaction with trainers, vets, and others. During this time, trainers taught him human commands, and Koshik now responds to commands to sit down and lie down.
Toronto’s Globe and Mail quotes a veterinary professor at Seoul National University that “In Koshik’s case, the level of intimacy between him and his trainer was the key factor that made the elephant want to sound like a human.”
The study about Koshik the talking elephant was published in the Current Biology journal.