Asian Elephant Imitates Human Speech: Speaks Korean [VIDEO]


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Asian elephants – Photo by Lesley Lanir

Are They Just Elephant Sounds?

The researchers used structural analysis in order to eliminate the variable that Koshik’s sounds were just variations of natural Asian elephant calls and found that Koshik’s imitations were very different from the 187 calls of 22 Asian elephants of both genders and various ages recorded in five different zoos and in the Udawalawe National Park, Sri Lanka.

On the contrary, they matched  closely the utterances  modeled by  Koshik’s trainers.
Under normal circumstances, elephants living in human care, even when exposed frequently to human speech, do not imitate human sounds.

However, Koshik, born in 1990, was 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.

The researchers hypothesise that the determining factors for speech imitation in Koshik may be social deprivation from his species during an important period of bonding and development when humans were the only social contact available. From the above research is it possible to claim that elephants held in captivity  are capable of learning the basics of a communication system, apart from their own?

Decoded Science discussed the results with Angela Stoeger and Tecumseh Fitch, the main researchers from the University of Vienna:

DS: Overall, some of the results are reasonably significant but at the same time not so convincing. The transcribers only interpreted 67% of the vowel sounds accurately and 27% of the consonants.

Angela Stoeger: Koshik is definitely better in producing vowels; he does have difficulties with the consonants. However, since we did not tell the transcribers at all what they were going to hear, the agreement that we found is still fair and convincing.

DS: So overall, Koshik can accurately produce only certain vowel sounds?

Angela Stoeger:  “Accurately” would imply some ground truth, but we don’t know what (if anything) Koshik was intending to communicate by uttering those sounds.

DS: Were there specific vowel sounds that he reproduced 100% of the time? It seems that overall not many whole words were transcribed correctly? Is that true?

Angela Stoeger: The correspondence between sounds and spelling is difficult in many languages. Some English examples: “look” and “put” share the same
vowel, and so do “beetles” and “Beatles.” The Korean language has ten letters representing vowels, and these can be combined in various ways (akin to “ee” and “ea” in English). So having people transcribe the same sound in the same way is actually not all that easy.

DS: Could it be that the trainers have got used to Koshik’s utterances and understand them in context?

Angela Stoeger: The trainers are of course used to Koshik’s utterance since they are working with him for several years. But still, Koshik is not using these imitations to communicate meaning.

Tecumseh Fitch: It’s actually not that simple.  Some of these word were commands that Koshik learned to perform (“lie down”, “sit down”) or were given as feedback (‘good”, “no”) and we have every reason to believe he understands the meaning of these words. It’s just that when he utters them, he doesn’t seem to intend them as commands (or at least, when he says “lie down” he doesn’t seem to get upset if you don’t lie down!).”

DS: If other people besides his trainers heard those words would they understand what Koshik was ‘saying’?

Angela Stoeger: Yes, we did not do the questionnaire with his trainers, but with Korean native speakers that have never experienced Koshik before.

DS: Could Koshik use these words out of context – in a different environment or are they produced from immediate environment stimuli?

Angela Stoeger: That question is difficult to answer. But probably as long as his social environment remains the same (particularly his keepers), he would continue imitating
speech sounds.

DS: From the above research is it possible to claim that elephants held in captivity are capable of learning the basics of a communication system, apart from their own?

Angela Stoeger: It is important to state that speech is not the same as language. What Koshik shows clearly is that Asian elephants have the ability to imitate speech sounds.  What it DOESN’T mean is that “Koshik has language.” He mainly seems to be using these vocalizations as a way of bonding with people, rather than for true communication and for their meaning. Koshik’s imitations do have a social function, but not a referential one. Koshik mainly seems to be using these vocalizations as a way of bonding with people, rather than for their meaning.

Elephant Speaks Korean?

There you have it – Koshik can imitate several human words, but doesn’t appear to apply real meanings to them, other than as a means to grow closer to humans.


Fromkin, V. & Rodman, R. An Introduction to Language. (1993). Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch.

Stoeger et al., An Asian Elephant Imitates Human Speech. (2012). Current Biology. 10.1016/j.cub.2012.09.022. Accessed November 1, 2012.

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