Lonely elephant tries to “talk”

Koshik the elephant mimics human speech.  Zookeeper Kim looks at the Asian elephant at South Korea's largest amusement park Everland in Yongin. Photo by Kim Hong-Ji, Reuters

Koshik the elephant mimics human speech. Zookeeper Kim looks at the Asian elephant at South Korea’s largest amusement park Everland in Yongin.
Photo by Kim Hong-Ji, Reuters

Adapted from The Vancouver Sun

Level 3

Koshik is an Asian elephant.
He can imitate or copy human speech.
He puts his trunk in his mouth.
Then he mimics the sounds he hears.
These words are in the Korean language.
Koshik lives in a park in Korea.
And Koshik’s trainer is Korean.


Koshik’s vocabulary
Koshik can make the sound of exactly five words.
These words are “annyong” (“hello”),”anja” (“sit down”),
“aniya” (“no”), “nuo” (“lie down”), and “choah” (“good”).
Scientists say Koshik does not understand what he says.

Koshik’s sounds
Elephants have a trunk instead of lips.
And these animals have a huge voice-box in their throats.
So, they can easily make very low sounds.
But Koshik’s sounds are higher, like his trainer’s voice.
These sounds are very different from elephant calls.

Asian elephant, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Asian elephant
Photo:  Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

A study of sounds
Three scientists studied Koshik’s sounds.
With special machines, they recorded Koshik.
They also asked Korean speakers to listen to the recording.
The listeners wrote down what they heard.
Most people clearly heard the five words.

A reason for imitating
For five years Koshik, age 22, was the only elephant
living in the South Korean zoo.
Humans were the only company for him.
The scientists think Koshik started his vocal behaviour at that time.
This helped him feel close to the humans.

Reports of vocal learning
There are reports of elephants imitating other sounds.
But these reports have not been studied.
African elephants have imitated the sound of truck engines.
And a male Asian elephant in Kazakhstan made sounds in two languages.
This elephant could mimic Russian and Kazakh words.

Map of Kazakhstan World Atlas, Public Domain

Map of Kazakhstan
World Atlas, Public Domain

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