An elephant has learnt to speak Korean. The Asian elephant, called Koshik, lives at the Everland Zoo in South Korea and can imitate human speech that can be easily understood by people who know the language.
Koshik’s vocabulary only exists of 5 words at the moment but the elephant’s language skills may provide vital insight into language and vocal development.
Koshik the asian elephant manages to copy human words by putting his truck in his mouth. Elephants don’t have lips – only a trunk. Their large larynx can produce very low-pitched sounds, but incredibly Koshik’s speech mimicry exactly copies the pitch of his human trainers’ voices.
“Human speech basically has two important aspects, pitch and timbre,” says Angela Stoeger of the University of Vienna who has conducted a study of Koshik. “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.”
The elephant’s five word vocabulary is – “annyong” (“hello”), “anja” (“sit down”), “aniya” (“no”), “nuo” (“lie down”), and “choah” (“good”) – according to a report on November 1 in the science journal Current Biology.
In the past there have been reports of both Asaian and African elephants 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, but that case was never scientifically investigated.
Listen to a recording of Koshik imitating human speech: Trainer (first) and Koshik (second) producing “annyong”(hello)