This Elephant Speaks Korean

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There’s no doubt that elephants are intelligent. Aristotle once called them “”The animal which surpasses all others in wit and mind.” They have the largest brains of any land mammal, and have exhibited such human-like behaviors as holding funerals for their dead, painting, playing music and counting. They’ve even outsmarted human researchers in some intelligence tests!

Now, scientists have confirmed that a male Asian elephant at a Korean zoo has learned to “speak” Korean. Well, 5 words of it, at least. The elephant, called Koshik, has a spoken vocabulary that consists of the following words: “annyeong” (hello), “anja” (sit down), “aniya” (no), “nuwo” (lie down) and “joa” (good).

When it comes to communicating with other intelligent species, the main limitation is in their ability to vocalize human words. That’s why apes have to be taught sign language or how to use a computer. So how does Koshik do it? According to a paper published by the scientists:

“To create these very accurate imitations of speech formant frequencies, this elephant (named Koshik) places his trunk inside his mouth, modulating the shape of the vocal tract during controlled phonation. This represents a wholly novel method of vocal production and formant control in this or any other species.”

His method works- Korean speakers can readily understand what he is saying. Scientists believe that he learned to vocalize Korean words because he spent much of his youth as the only elephant in the zoo.

Researcher Angela Stoeger-Horwath told Live Science,

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Koshik’s drive to share vocalizations with his human companions was so strong that he invented a whole new way of making sounds to achieve it.”

However, researchers don’t believe that Koshik actually understands the words. It seems he’s just using his talent to bond with his trainers, rather than to communicate.