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Elephant 'speaks' Korean

By China Daily | October 4th 2013

Adapted from China Daily

Children talk to animals at the zoo all the time, but one gregarious Asian elephant talks back.

Koshik, a 22-year-old male elephant, can imitate Korean words, according to a report published in the online edition of science journal Current Biology.

"Koshik is capable of matching both pitch and timbre patterns (in human speech)" said Angela Stoeger-Horwath of Austria's University of Vienna, who led the study on the "talking elephant." Koshik currently lives at the Everland zoo in Yongin, 50 kilometres south of Seoul.

According to Stoeger-Horwath's team, Koshik is able to "speak" five words: "annyeong" (hello), "anja" (sit down), "aniya" (no), "nuo" (lie down) and "joah" (good), although the zoo claims he can say two more words, "ajik" (not yet) and "ye" (yes).

Stoeger-Horwath's team conducted an experiment where 16 native Korean speakers listened to 47 recordings of Koshik, and were asked to identify what he was saying. The participants were not told about Koshik's ability.

The results "largely confirmed" the claims about Koshik's talent for Korean.

Stoeger-Horwath said that while elephants have been known to mimic sounds, it is the first case where an elephant used its trunk to modify the sound.

The researchers suggested that Koshik may have learned to mimic words in order to strengthen social bonds with surrounding humans. Mya Thompson, an elephant vocalization expert who did not participate in the study, said Koshik's ability seems to have been driven by a social connection with the trainer.


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