Koshik, the Elephant Who Speaks Korean

Further proof of the intelligence of elephants: scientists from the
University of Vienna have found that Koshik,
an Asian elephant, can not only imitate human speech, but speak a few words of

More precisely, Koshik can say
five Korean words: “annyong” (“hello”), “anja” (“sit down”), “aniya” (“no”),
“nuo” (“lie down”), and “choah” (“good”) as Angela Stoeger, Daniel Mietchen,
Tecumseh Fitch and their colleagues report in Current Biology. You can hear a clip of Koshik talking via Eureka

As a juvenile elephant — a period
when elephants are developing and forming bonds — it seems that Koshik was
trying to connect with those around him. During the first give years of Koshik’s
life at the Everland Zoo in South Korea, humans were his only social

To confirm that Koshik was indeed
speaking some words of Korean, Stoeger and the other scientists employed a
number of methods, such as instructing native Korean speakers to write down what
they heard while listening to recordings of Koshik speaking. “We found a high
agreement concerning the overall meaning, and even the Korean spelling of
Koshik’s imitations,” says Stoeger.

The clarity of the elephant’s
utterance of Korean words is all the more remarkable when you consider that he
is not, of course, using lips and the other anatomical apparatus that we humans
use to speak, but a trunk.  Koshik produces the sounds by placing his trunk
in his mouth.

As Stoeger emphasizes, Koshik does
not just produce sounds recalling the Korean words, but is able to imitate the
two main aspects of human speech, pitch and timber. With his large larynx,
Koshik can produce low-pitched sounds. Stoeger has found his imitating to be
quite exactly that of his human trainers and to be clearly different from the
sort of sounds elephants usually make.

However, Stoeger does not think
that Koshik actually means what he is saying. As she tells the New York Times, while Koshik understands to “sit”
when his keepers say that word (“anja”), when the elephant says “anja,” he does
not seem to expect them to sit down. That is, he does not seem to be connecting
his receptive understanding of human words with his own expressive utterance of
them. It is also not certain if Koshik might be able to learn to say more

Vocation imitation across species
is indeed rare. As Stoeger and her colleagues write, mockingbirds and other birds have been known to imitate other
species; parrots and mynahs can mimic human speech;
white whale sought to talk in
human speech. Science Daily also cites earlier reports of Asian
and African elephants engaging in vocal mimicry. In addition, African elephans
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, but that case was never scientifically investigated.”

As Stoeger and her colleagues
conclude,  the “social circumstances under which Koshiks speech
imitations developed suggest that one function of vocal learning might be to
cement social bonds and, in unusual cases, social bonds across species.” Does it
not seem only right that we humans ought to do our best to lend a closer ear and
learn what other species are saying?


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