Lonely Elephant Learns to Speak Korean, Netizens Saddened

Talking elephant Koshik talks through trunk

From Hankyoreh:

Elephant can say ‘Like, no, lie down, not yet, foot, sit, yes’ in Korean

The scientific research on Koshik, the talking elephant in Samsung Everland Zoo, was published in Current Biology. Current Biology is one of the top ten journals in citation in the world.

The 22 year old Asian elephant, weighing 5.5 tonnes, can imitate a common set of Korean speech such as ‘like, no, lie down, not yet, foot, sit down, yes’ often uttered by his caretaker. A team of German zoologist Daniel Mietchen and the elephant vocal communication specialist Angela Stoeger conducted the joint research at Everland Zoo since 2010.

Vocal frequency analysis for formants reveals identical pattern between Koshik and his trainerKoshik is with the research time recording his Korean speech

The focus of the research was to prove whether it was possible for Koshik to imitate vocal speech which is considered physiologically impossible for non-human species. In order to conduct this research, Stoeger-Herbst teamed up with the veterinarians at Samsung Everland Zoo to collect the elephant’s audio and video recordings and cross-examined with other Asian elephants. The research concluded that Koshik used frequencies very different from the usual range used by other Asian elephants, and this frequencies matched with his caretaker’s vocal frequency range.


In addition, Koshik developed this speech ability in order to strengthen social bonds across species with his caretakers, the study revealed. Dr. Herbt said ‘Koshik’s ability to imitate speech formants and fundamental frequency suggests the strong evidence for speech acquisition favoured on evolutionary and biological grounds.’ He added that ‘further research is required to confirm whether Koshik will be able to improve on his phonation and vocabulary acquisition.’ This is the first recorded case in which a mammal is known to not only understand but talk back in such high fidelity that scientific research community is keen to conduct more research, explained Everland Zoo.

So why did Koshik start to ‘speak’? The research team found the crucial clue in his earlier life. Koshik was captive-born in 1990 and translocated to Everland in 1993, where two female Asian elephants accompanied him until he was five years old. From 1995 to 2002, Koshik was the only elephant in Everland, and was exposed to human speech intensively by his trainers, veterinarians, guides, and tourists. In August 2004, his trainers first noticed that Koshik imitated speech. The research team believes that the determining factors for speech imitation in Koshik may be social deprivation from conspecifics during an important period of bonding and development when humans were the only social contact available. From this, the team is led to believe that vocal imitation might be to facilitate vocal recognition by heightening the similarity between related or socially affiliated individuals.

Comments from Daum:


Koshik, I hope you live long and healthy~!


Hoel… Koshik must have been so lonely


So loneliness is the best thing for language acquisition… If you wish to learn foreign language, go alone by yourself.


I feel so bad. Captive-born elephants are sometimes chained or separated from mom under the pretext of safety, that is really really sad.


Please give Koshik a friend or two so that he does not have to speak our language.


Get rid of zoos


Koshik, how lonely you must have been that you learned human language. If experts say that it’d be better for him to be with female elephants, can we let him join a bigger group??


… I am saddened……


Ah…. I am so sorry ㅠㅠ He learned because he was so lonely


Elephants are such social animals. Captive-born elephants without social peers sometime hurt people, but if paired up with adult elephants they are often calmed down, I watched in a documentary.


I read this in a Canadian newspaper, but there most of the opinions expressed pity for the elephant (how sad and lonely he must have been, etc) but here in Korea it’s mostly about how cute it is?


Hell, we even got a talking and cheating rat ……..[referring to President Lee Myung-bak]

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  • x1sfg

    Agree with the last comment about ROK President Lee

  • ShawnaKM

    How sweet and sad ㅠ_ㅠ

  • Ruaraidh

    I saw this on the bbc news website a few days ago and knew it’d be on koreaBANG.

  • Paul M

    Not a big fan of zoos. I doubt I would ever want to see a sad and shameful spectacle as this.

  • Fire蓝日

    it may mean that animal cognition can be just as complex as human to the point that they are able to learn a language that are foreign and able to understand it. So those sound animal make (meow, roar etc) could give rise to complex thinking, they are just not able to present those thought like human can with many speech sound or writing, anatomy differences may be the caused or some other factor that limits it. This may mean that their language is dependent on the physical properties (such as tone frequency) and not so much on the symbol/characters, to represent certain meaning or- hm sentences. OR only certain animals have the capabilities to store and understand those information, like elephants in comparison to a gold fish.

    it can also mean that this elephant actually understand much more but just unable to produce the sound for it.

    • G$

      That’s possible, or, it could be something similar (but of course not quite the same) to the case of the horse that was said to be able to understand human speech (I think about 100 years ago. Turned out the horse was responding to cues and no one realized it not even the so-called teacher. Not trying to refute your case, just playing devil’s advocate to help promote the development of ideas.

      • Fire蓝日

        you mean Pavlov conditioning? just like that species of bird learning to speak? or a dog learning new tricks?! that will disappoint me!! There must be some animal that are capable of complex cognition, for example in their behaviour of hunting in a pack/school, those require some planning especially among killer whale. Their hunting strategy is intelligent, they live in some form of community just like elephant and they also teach their young. They must have complex cognition, their own train of thoughts that are not similar to human but may be capable to understand and emulate us… just like we learn a third or fourth language, the only problem is their ability to communicate the way we do. To express this its like… hm its like we human trying to communicate with dolphin while under the sea with diving suit. We are just not naturally equip to communicate with them, just like they are with us.

  • lonetrey / Dan

    D’awwwwW!!! That little elephant… I would love to see him with elephant friends too! Or at least more human friends :(

  • Zoos are bad. Elephants live less than half their lifespan (of the wild) when in zoos. They are also extremely social animals who need to be in large groups.

    • 3ayo

      Agreed, but how safer are they out in the wild? At the rate that Asian and African elephants are being poached, reserves/zoos may be the only place they remain in a generation. :(

      • Im pretty sure poaching would be included in most lifespan stats for elephants

  • Kate

    When I lived in Korea, my school did a field trip to a zoo called Zoo Zoo and all the foreign teachers were really excited to see a zoo but after getting there it turned horrendously sad for all of us. The animals were being really mistreated and their cages were really small. They kept 6 alligators in a 15 ft enclosure, snakes were kept in tanks so small they were pressed up against the glass because of no room, the monkeys were kept in about 10 ft cages with no vegetation…..not one animal had suitable, humane living conditions and all of them looked depressed. The place would of been shut down if it were in the us because of how they were treating the animals. This was a small zoo not in the city, I’ve heard Seoul Zoo is great and animals aren’t treated like that.

    Zoos all in all are pretty sad places for wild animals anyway, they should be allowed to roam free in nature like they were intended.

  • Your Sexy Cousin Rex

    Ronery erephant

  • Jang

    CNN reported that THE guy/zookeeper who first claimed the elephant could speak Korean had a senior who said You are crazy.” Whatever happened to that guy/senior?

  • vanyuelding

    The fuck is an elephant language specialist ?! wanker create titles for each and anything… pfffff

  • Lovely

    lol talking and cheating rat ha. THat was funny! But yes, I don’t know why humans are so genuinely surprised when animals show and express intelligence. They are just like us in many ways, that’s why wehave no business eating animals and ignoring their desire to live and be happy.

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