Video: Zoo elephant 'learns to speak Korean'

Ruth Doherty

Visitors to Everland Zoo in South Korea are now being given the chance to talk to the elephants - quite literally.

Koshik the elephant has stunned keepers after learning how to imitate at least five words in their native language, including "hello" and "good".

A study by researchers from the University of Vienna established that the elephant could mimic five words: "annyong" ("hello"), "anja" ("sit down"), "aniya" ("no"), "nuo" ("lie down"), and "choah" ("good").

Sixteen native Korean speakers were asked to listen to 47 recordings of the elephant "speaking" and spell out what they thought they had heard.

According to the Daily Telegraph, 56 per cent of people provided the correct spelling for "annyong", 44 per cent agreed on "aniya" and 33 per cent identified "nuo".

Mammals that can make human-like sounds are very rare, as most, even chimpanzees, do not have the vocal control to do so.

But Koshik managed to mimic human sounds by putting his trunk in his mouth and massaging his vocal tract into a different shape.

According to the Mirror, elephant communication expert Angela Stoeger, of the University of Vienna, Austria, said: "Human speech basically has two important aspects: pitch and timbre.

"Intriguingly, the elephant Koshik is capable of matching both pitch and timbre patterns. He accurately imitates human formants as well as the voice pitch of his trainers.

"This is remarkable considering the huge size, the long vocal tract, and other anatomical differences between an elephant and a human."

Koshik's human mimicry started back in 2004 when he was 14, and researchers believed it probably developed as a result of him trying to communicate with his keepers when he was the only elephant at the zoo for five years.

Meanwhile, just last month, the first known case of a whale trying to talk like a human was documented in Current Biology.

A white whale called NOC, who lived at the National Marine Mammal Foundation in San Diego, began speaking in the 1980s after spending seven years in close contact with researchers at the facility. His "speech" reduced after four years and stopped altogether once he reached adulthood.

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