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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