Friday, November 2, 2012

Yongin zoo elephant mimics Korean: study

Angela Stoeger (left) and Daniel Mietchen record the vocalization of Koshik, an elephant at the Everland Zoo, which mimics Korean. (Yonhap News)

Children talk to animals at the zoo all the time, but one gregarious Asian elephant talks back.

Koshik, a 22-year-old male elephant, can imitate at least five Korean words and does so in a very creative way: by sticking his trunk inside his mouth.

“Koshik is capable of matching both pitch and timbre patterns (in human speech),” said Angela Stoeger of Austria’s University of Vienna, who led the study on the “talking elephant.” The study was published Friday in the online edition of science journal Current Biology. Koshik currently lives at the Everland Zoo in Yongin, 50 kilometers south of Seoul.

According to Stoeger’s team, Koshik is able to “speak” five words: “annyeong” (hello), “anja” (sit down), “aniya” (no), “nuo” (lie down) and “joah” (good). The zoo claims he can say two more words, “ajik” (not yet) and “ye” (yes).

By sticking his trunk in his mouth, the animal imitates the words “in such detail that Korean native speakers can readily understand and transcribe,” researchers said.

The team conducted an experiment where 16 native Korean speakers listened to 47 recordings of Koshik, and were asked to identify what he was saying. The participants were not told about Koshik’s ability. The results “largely confirmed” the claims about Koshik’s talent for Korean.

The researchers found no evidence, however, that he understands the meaning of the words.

Elephants have been known to mimic sounds. African elephants have been known to imitate the sound of truck engines, and a male Asian elephant living in a zoo in Kazakhstan was said to speak words in Russian and Kazakh, but those cases were never scientifically investigated.

The researchers suggested that Koshik may have learned to mimic words in order to strengthen social bonds with surrounding humans.

Mya Thompson, an elephant vocalization expert who did not participate in the study, said Koshik’s ability seems to have been driven by a social connection with the trainer.

Koshik was the only elephant living at the zoo for about five years in his youth, with only people for company during an important phase for bonding and development.

By Yoon Min-sik

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