60-Second Science

Elephant Never Forgets to Say "Hi"

An elephant in a Korean zoo has developed a way to vocalize a handful of recognizable words in the Korean language. Sophie Bushwick reports

In a recent podcast, we heard the beluga whale NOC change his voice's rhythm and pitch to imitate human speech. (NOC sound) Pretty impressive—but you ain't heard nothing yet. Meet Koshik, an Asian elephant that appears to form actual words. (Koshik sound) That’s annyong, Korean for “hello.”

His trainers claim to have taught Koshik six Korean words. But how accurate is he? Researchers recorded the elephant at his home, the Everland Zoo in South Korea, and then played the recordings for 16 native Korean speakers.

When the subjects transcribed Koshik's noises, they generally recognized five of the six words, including “annyong.” It turns out that Koshik can produce correct-sounding vowels 67 percent of the time, but his consonant pronunciation was only recognizable 21 percent of the time. The work is in the journal Current Biology. [Angela S. Stoeger et al., An Asian Elephant Imitates Human Speech]

To achieve his remarkable feat, Koshik sticks his trunk in his mouth, which changes the shape of his vocal tract so he can reproduce human sounds and pitch. However he learned this technique, it’s a good bet the elephant won’t forget it.

—Sophie Bushwick

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

[Koshik audio courtesy of Stoeger et al., Current Biology]

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