Elephant mimics speech, researchers have concluded

A scientific investigation has concluded one elephant has learned to speak at least six words of Korean.

He is Koshik, a 22-year-old resident of South Korea’s largest theme park in Yongin, who can repeat with startling clarity and matching both pitch and timbre patterns what his trainer says, including annhyeong, the Korean word for “hello” and joah, meaning “good.”

“We found that Koshik’s imitations were very similar in the acoustic structure with the human vocalizations and very different from the ones that natural Asian elephants do produce,” said cognitive biologist Angela Stoeger of the University of Vienna.

Ms. Stoeger is the lead author of a research article about Koshik appearing in Current Biology.
The researchers had native Korean speakers living in Germany, who were not aware of Koshik, listen to excerpts from 25 hours of audio tape of the elephant’s voice recorded during October 2010. The Korean speakers were able to write down precisely what Koshik was saying in their native language.

Ms. Stoeger said this is the first scientific evidence of vocal imitation for elephants and remarkable because his species usually does not make sounds at such relatively high frequencies.

“He’s basically trying to match his vocalizations with his human trainers to be in social contact with them. It’s a way of bonding with his people rather than using these vocalizations for their meaning,” she explained.

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