Elephant Learns To Speak Korean
November 1, 2012

Elephant Speaking Korean Documented By Researchers

[ Watch the Video: An Elephant that Speaks Korean ]

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

What is cooler than a monkey that can do sign language? An Asian elephant that can speak Korean, which is exactly what one elephant named Koshik has learned to do.

Researchers wrote in the journal Current Biology that they have confirmed that Koshik has learned how to speak Korean by vocalizing it with his trunk in his mouth.

Koshik currently knows how to say hello, sit down, no, lie down, and good in Korean. These language skills could provide insights into the biology and evolution of vocal learning, the researchers said.

"Human speech basically has two important aspects, pitch and timbre," said 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."

An elephant's large larynx is able to produce very low-pitched sounds, and Stoeger said the animals have a trunk to use instead of lips for talking.

Koshik is able to copy the pitch and other characteristics of his human trainers' voices. An analysis of the elephant's speech showed not only clear similarities to human voices, but also differences from the typical elephant call.

African elephants have been known to imitate the sound of truck engines, and a male Asian elephant living in Kazakhstan has been able to allegedly produce Russian utterances. However, these cases were never scientifically proven.

The researchers working on Koshik's capabilities confirmed that the elephant was speaking Korean in several ways.

At first, they asked native Korean speakers to write down what they heard when listening to playbacks of the elephant's sounds.

"We found a high agreement concerning the overall meaning, and even the Korean spelling of Koshik's imitations," Stoeger said.

The scientists aren't exactly sure what prompted Koshik to start speaking Korean, but they suggest Koshik's unique abilities go back to when he was just a juvenile, and was the only elephant living at the Everland Zoo in South Korea for about five years. During this period, elephant bonding and development is crucial, and 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," Stoeger said.

Although Koshik's abilities are very unique, and help to prove his intelligence, the scientists do not believe the elephant actually understands what he is saying.

Koshik isn't the only animal making waves by imitating human speech. We also reported recently on a beluga whale that was able to reproduce sounds similar to those of a human.