asian elephant speaks korean
November 2, 2012

Elephant Speaks Korean

redOrbit and BBC just released the news that an Asian elephant can speak Korean.  Honestly, come on, what kind of hoax is this supposed to be?  Then I suppose you are going to tell me that elephants can fly by flapping their ears. Next you are going to tell me that a gorilla can use sign language.  Hold the phone, what?  A gorilla can learn to use sign language?  Well I guess I should do some more research on this subject before blowing it off.

The elephant in question is named Koshik, and he lives in Everland Zoo in South Korea.  Everland is the largest theme park in Korea: it also has a water park and a zoo for patrons to enjoy.  I have heard that Everland is a great place to visit and it is on my list of places to see before I finish my trip in Korea.  The theme park is owned by Samsung, and is one of the biggest non-historical sites in South Korea.

Koshik, was the only elephant at the zoo for seven years, from age five to age twelve.  The researchers said that this time is very important for a young elephant.  This is when an elephant learns to socialize and interact with other elephants.  It is believed that because he was alone at Everland Zoo, he tried to bond with his keepers, and learned to imitate the human voice. Dr Stoeger, the lead researcher explained to the BBC: “Humans were his only social contact – and we believe Koshik is using these vocalizations as a function to strengthen the socials bonds with his companions, which are humans in this case.”

The thing is that he can only mimic human sounds. According to redOrbit Koshik’s calls sound like five specific Korean words: “annyeong” (hello); “anja” (sit down); “aniya” (no); “nuwo” (lie down) and “choah” (good).  It’s a little sad that an elephant knows essentially one-third of my Korean vocabulary.  It also sums up about 95% of my Korean conversations as well.

It is strongly believed that he does not comprehend what he is saying in Korean.  It’s ok Koshik, most times I don’t comprehend what I am saying in Korean either.  Dr. Angela Stoeger heard about Koshik after finding YouTube videos of him.  Dr. Stoeger came from the University of Vienna in Austria just so she could study and interact with Koshik in Korea.  Dr. Stoeger said: “We asked native Korean speakers, who had never experienced the elephant before, to write down what they understood when we played back recordings from Koshik.”  Many of the native Korean speakers agreed overall that he was mimicking what sounded like the mentioned Korean words.

The fact that he can make such believable sounds truly is amazing.  The capability of an animal that is so physically different from humans to change how it would normally make noises to sound like its keepers is really astonishing.

The sheer size of the elephant’s larynx and vocal tract, not to mention the lack of a human mouth, should make it impossible for an elephant to imitate a human.  However, none of those things is slowing this elephant down at all: he uses his trunk to help simulate human sounds.

The Weird:  An elephant that speaks Korean as a result of only interacting with his Korean keepers when he was very young.  This is both weird and amazing to me.

Stock Image Credit: Maxim Tupikov/Shutterstock

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Plusone Digg Reddit Stumbleupon Email