Elephant learns to speak Korean

Posted by Emma Woollacott

What are they trying to tell us? Just a week after the news that a white whale was mimicking human speech comes a report of an elephant in Korea doing the same thing.

Asian elephant Koshik has come up with a technique for producing human sounds by vocalizing with his trunk in his mouth. In this way, he can imitate human speech, speaking words clearly in Korean.

He's learned to say five words: 'annyong', or 'hello'; 'anja' ('sit down'); 'aniya' ('no'); 'nuo' ('lie down') and 'choah' ('good'). He doesn't, though, appear to understand their meaning.

A structural analysis of Koshik's speech showed not just clear similarities to human voices, but also clear differences from the usual calls of elephants.

"Human speech basically has two important aspects, pitch and timbre," says Angela Stoeger of the University of Vienna.

"Intriguingly, the elephant Koshik is capable of matching both pitch and timbre patterns: he accurately imitates human formants as well as the voice pitch of his trainers. This is remarkable considering the huge size, the long vocal tract, and other anatomical differences between an elephant and a human."

It's not the first time elephants have been observed mimicking sounds. African elephants have been known to imitate the sound of truck engines, and a male Asian elephant living in a zoo in Kazakhstan was said to produce utterances in both Russian and Kazakh, although that case was never scientifically investigated.

It's not completely clear why Koshik adopted his unusual vocal behavior, but the researchers suggest that it might go back to his days as a juvenile. Koshik was the only elephant living at the Everland Zoo in South Korea for about five years, during an important period for elephant bonding and development. Humans were his only social contacts.

"We suggest that Koshik started to adapt his vocalizations to his human companions to strengthen social affiliation, something that is also seen in other vocal-learning species - and in very special cases, also across species," says Stoeger.

Just last week a report was published into a white whale called NOC, which was also observed mimicking human speech. Where's Doctor Doolittle when you need him?