Elephant speaks human language (Korean)

Back in 2006, trainer Kim Jong-gap at the Everland Zoo watches as his charge, Kosik, makes audible sounds that resemble short commands.

I was so surprised to see an article in article in the NYT (Nov. 2, 2012) about Koshik (Kosik), the talking elephant in Korea. I had actually written a long feature article about Koshik in 2006 in the JoongAng Daily. At the time, a professor at Seoul National University was trying to get scholars who had done previous studies on elephants to collaborate with their research on Kosik- I see that it actually happened!

Here is a link to a Korean news page that has a video of Kosik. The sounds he makes are obviously not the same as humans, but are fairly articulate. Moreover, the sounds aren’t just coincidence. When elephants communicate among themselves, the frequencies are extremely low, which are impossible for humans to hear. Here is a link to the scholarly article, published in Current Biology. I love this section in their abstract:

“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. One hypothesized role for vocal imitation is to facilitate vocal recognition by heightening the similarity between related or socially affiliated individuals. The social circumstances under which Koshik’s speech imitations developed suggest that one function of vocal learning might be to cement social bonds and, in unusual cases, social bonds across species.”

Vocal imitation as a result of social bonds across species!!

I really must say that I admire his trainer, Mr. Jong-gap Kim, who is unbelievably dedicated to the animal. I remember talking with Mr. Kim who, for a time, was considered crazy by his coworkers because no one would believe that an elephant could produce human sounds.

Below, I’ve added the article that I wrote in 2006, because sometimes Korean websites are difficult to access outside of Korea.

Elephant seems to speak Korean (link to article here)
Scientists suspect animal is mimicking trainer’s voice commands

Published in JoongAng Daily, Oct 08,2006

On today’s Hangul (the Korean script) Day, an elephant has become the talk of the town. Kosik, an elephant at Everland Resort’s zoo in Gyeonggi province, seems able to speak ― and in Korean at that.
By putting the end of its trunk in its mouth, the 15-year old Indian elephant can mimic short Korean words such as “bal” (foot), “joa” (good), and “anja” (sit). Scientists have finished preliminary research on the animal’s speaking abilities, and plan to continue studies concentrating on how Kosik came to develop this unusual behavior.
Two years ago, while working late one night in his office, Kosik’s trainer Kim Jong-gap heard what he believed to be a human voice coming from the elephant stall. The tone of the voice was resolute, as if giving a command. Fearing that someone was trying to harm the animals, he went out to see what was going on, but could not see anyone, only Kosik. Mr. Kim stared at the elephant, which seemed to look back at him.
“Did you hear something, Kosik?” he asked.
Of course, he didn’t expect an answer, and none came. That’s strange, he thought, and went back to his office. Some time later, Mr. Kim heard the sounds again, but this time, he saw for himself where they were coming from and could not believe his eyes ― or ears, in this case.
“Nu-eo” (lie down), Kosik appeared to have said. The sounds definitely seemed to be coming from the elephant’s mouth.
Mr. Kim raced to his coworkers and excitedly told them that Kosik was speaking Korean. His fellow animal trainers laughed and called him crazy.
Mr. Kim subsequently thought he heard Kosik talking on several occasions, but only when nobody else was present.
But then, Kosik’s vocal activities became more frequent, and other people began hearing him “talk” as well.
“When Kim told me that the elephant was talking I didn’t believe him, but when I saw him talking with my own eyes, I knew it was no joke,” said Sohn Myeong-seong, another trainer at the zoo.
“It was all very fascinating,” said Lee Sang-gyu, also a zoo employee. “Fascinating and yet scary at the same time.”
For Kosik’s trainer, Kosik’s speaking has sentimental, rather than scientific value. Mr. Kim said that if he had known the elephant was able to talk, he would have paid more attention to what the animal was saying.
“I had no idea he was going to mimic me. If I had known, I would have used nicer, prettier words instead of short commands. Or maybe I could have taught him my name,” Mr. Kim said with regret. “At least from now on, I will be careful and try to speak in more proper language in front of Kosik.”
After Kosik’s story was broadcast locally on a zoo show, some people applied its lesson to their own lives. “After I saw that elephant mimicking its trainer, it reminded me how important education is and how children who look up to adults as role models try to copy everything they say without really knowing the meaning,” said Woo Sung-gyu, an office worker in his mid-30s.
“Adults blame children for not using Korean properly, but before blaming them, they should be careful about what they say in front of children. Although many people are concerned that people’s manner of speech is changing to a casual tone with no grammatical form because of the Internet, I believe that adults can set an example of what is proper. It is amazing what children unconsciously learn.”
As time passed, more zoo staff began hearing the elephant’s apparent speech, which led the zoo to conduct a joint research project with local sound engineers and veterinary scientists to determine whether or not Kosik was talking or just making random sounds. The zoo authorities then decided to conduct some scientific tests to see whether the sounds Kosik was making were coincidental, and just how much of a “big deal” it was.
Bae Myung-sik, a professor of sound communications at Soongsil University, recorded the sounds that Kosik made and analyzed the animal’s vocal patterns. Recordings of Kosik’s sounds were also played to people in test groups, who were asked to identify the sounds. Most of them identified the sounds as short words. The test group was reportedly very surprised when told that the sounds were made by an elephant and not a human being.
Mr. Bae said that Kosik’s vocal activities should be perceived as a variation of human speech.
“Although the pronunciation of the words was not entirely accurate, all of the people who listened to the sounds during a blindfolded test thought the sounds were human, which means that communication was achieved. Also, the elephant spoke several words in a row instead of repeating the same words, as if they formed a sentence,” Mr. Bae said.
While parrots have been commonly known to mimic human sounds, Kosik’s case is rarer. For one thing, elephants don’t make usually sounds that the human ear can hear unless they are angry.

▶ Trainer Kim Jong-gap shows a computer display comparing his and Kosik’s vocal patterns. Provided by Everland

“When elephants communicate among themselves, it is in frequencies below 20 Hz, which are not audible to the human ear. [Humans only hear sounds between 20 and 20,000 Hz.] During the Asian tsunami, elephants escaped to the mountains well before the tidal waves arrived,” said Kim Yang-bum, a veterinary doctor at Everland. “The trumpeting sounds which we associate with elephants are only made when they are agitated, which is not the case with Kosik.”

Elephants create sounds through their trunk, which serves as a kind of windpipe. Although scientists yet have to conduct further research to find out the exact mechanism that Kosik uses to make his sounds, they believe he does so by placing the tip of his trunk on his molars, tongue, and inner tusk, to vary the friction of the air when it is released into his mouth. When Kosik talks, he always places the tip of his trunk into his mouth, as if he is chewing it.
Scientists concluded that Kosik’s odd behavior was caused because he was trying to mimic his trainer.
Study results showed that Kosik and his trainer have similar vibration and resonance development patterns in the frequency range of 200 Hz and a similar tone of voice.
Dr. Kim showed computer data that had waves moving up and down, recording the trainer’s vocal patterns. The data of his voice and that of Kosik’s were almost identical.
The Korean scientists said they plan to conduct further studies in connection with elephant behavior to find out why Kosik may have started to mimic his trainer in the first place.
They believe, however, that it is because elephants are very group-oriented.
“There have been studies that show that elephants are very considerate of those that they consider their family. Perhaps this implies that Kosik had a very strong relationship with his trainer. We wouldn’t be surprised if that were so, because our trainer Mr. Kim is very devoted to the animals. He and Kosik have known each other for 10 years,” said Dr. Kim.
Dr. Kim noted, however, that even though elephants may appear to be very slow because of their large bodies, they actually have huge brains and past studies have shown that their intelligence is similar to that of a two or three-year-old human child.
While Kosik is the first elephant on record to mimic a person, there have been previous studies of elephants copying other sounds. Last year, the American science journal Nature published a paper about a 10-year-old African elephant named Mlaika who imitated the sound of trucks that were driving past three kilometers away on a freeway.
When the Korean scientists contacted Peter Tyack, the writer of that paper, he expressed great interest and said that if Kosik’s reported speech was indeed true, the data would make a very powerful science paper. The scientists involved in the study said they will work with other local scientists and foreign experts to uncover more information on the speaking-elephant phenomenon.
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