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Do Parrots Understand the Human Language?

Nicole Cosgrove

Most of us have learned that parrots can mimic human words through the media. Right now, images of colorful macaws saying, “Polly, want a cracker,” are probably popping into your mind. Even though parrots can repeat things that we say, does that mean they understand human language?

Unfortunately, parrots and other exotic birds cannot understand the meanings behind our words. But let’s not let that allow that to take away from the fact that their mimicking abilities are an impressive trait. When bird owners interact with parrots on a regular basis, they might gain a contextual understanding of what those words mean.divider-birdcage

Do Parrots Understand What Humans Say to Them?

Lears macaw parrot
Image Credit: Sandro Riedmann Shutterstock

Parrots don’t understand the meaning behind our speech, but they do sometimes pick up on the context in which we say certain words. If someone walks into a room and says, “Hello,” to their pet bird, they are likely to repeat it whenever they hear the sound of someone entering a room. Although they don’t actually know what that word means, they learn to understand sounds, movements, and activities associated with it.

Can Parrots Distinguish Between Different Languages?

Parrots aren’t quite intelligent enough to know the difference between two languages. Instead, they learn the language of their handlers or owners. Parrots are recognizing the sounds used instead of focusing on the words themselves. With that said, some parrots have such advanced mimicry skills that it seems like they could be fluent in a language.

Do Parrots Hold Conversation?

Two Parrots in a Cage
Image credit: Jana Mackova, Shutterstock

Parrots can’t exactly hold a conversation with us as we do with other humans. However, they can vocalize enough phrases and words that it feels like we hold conversations with them sometimes. This is only possible when the owners engage in this activity regularly.

In the wild, parrots do hold conversations with the rest of their flock. These birds use unique songs that allow them to recognize one another.

How Do Parrots Copy Our Speech?

Parrots are excellent at grasping sounds and imitating them. These birds have unique brains with a developed song system.  Not only can they sing the same songs as songbirds, but they can sing the same songs of other species.

Researchers don’t know exactly how this sound system in a parrot’s brain works, but they know it is the key to their vocal abilities. Why do birds use this part of their brain to imitate us? Parrots are engrained to fit in with a flock. Joining a flock protects them from their predators and gives them a better chance at survival. When your parrot mimics you, that is them trying to fit in and become part of the flock.

Most people wonder if their anatomy is the same as a human. Parrots make sounds by modifying the air that flows over a fluid-filled cavity in their spinal cords, similar to how we modify the air that flows through our throat and mouth. Their tongue also creates vibrations that help them reproduce the sounds we make.

macaw parrot
Image Credit: Arulonline, Pixabay

Why Do Parrots Remember Words?

Scientists have performed studies and now believe that parrots have memories that are almost as strong as ours. Parrots can remember people, situations, and other parrots that they’ve encountered throughout their lifetime. Like us, they can store this information in their brains and use it whenever they decide.

Do Parents Comprehend What They Say?

A lot of bird owners claim that their pet parrots respond to and comprehend what they say to them. Sometimes they even answer questions that they’ve been asked. We have to remember that the meanings of the words don’t mean as much as the context behind them. If your pet asks how you are every time you come home, it doesn’t mean they care for your well-being. Instead, they are simply repeating a phrase they have learned to say through practiced behavior.

Do Pet Birds Understand Their Names?

Parrot Scratching_ Franck TAILLEZ_Shutterstock

Image credit: Frank Taillez, ShutterstockThe first thing that most bird owners do is assign their pets a name. It is possible to teach parrots how to recognize their name with training. Give your parrot a few weeks to get comfortable in their new surroundings before you start training. Work to form a secure bond during this time and handle them regularly.

Find a quiet spot in your house that is free from a lot of traffic. Have some treats ready and say your bird’s name a few times while you reward them with a treat every time you say it. Repeat these training sessions for about ten minutes every day for a few times a day. Over time, your bird learns to associate a treat with the name it hears.

After a few weeks of training, slowly start to diminish the number of treats you feed your bird until they respond to you with no reinforcement at all. Once you choose a name, stick to it so they don’t get confused.

In the wild, young birds learn how to identify themselves to other birds in their flock based on the peeps they make. Researchers believe that the parents might assign the babies a specific identifying sound.

The Best Parrots for Talking

Not all parrots have the amazing ability to talk. Some don’t make any sounds at all. If you want a bird that is a little more chatty, you have to buy a bird that is known for mimicking noises. African Grey Parrots are one of the greatest vocalizers you could buy. They learn new vocalizations after only a few times of hearing them because of their advanced cognitive abilities. They can vocalize phrases and recite numbers around the age of one.

Amazon parrots are another good talking bird. They learn between 100 to 120 words during a lifetime. Some even learn to pick up different dialects and annunciate better than African Grey parrots.

Budgerigars are small birds, but learn a good number of words and phrases. These are some of the most common bird species in captivity. Their voices are low, so they aren’t as easy to understand as other parrots.divider-birdcage

Final Thoughts

Pet parrots are growing in popularity. They are a truly unique pet, and being able to teach them new words and phrases can be an exciting adventure. Communicating with your parrot is a great way to bond with them, and it can be a proud moment every time they learn something new. It takes a lot of persistence and repetition for you parrots to catch on, but sooner or later, they’ll be speaking so well that it makes you believe that they understand every word you say to them.


Featured Image Credit: crivolu, Pixabay

Nicole Cosgrove

Nicole is the proud mom of Baby, a Burmese cat and Rosa, a New Zealand Huntaway. A Canadian expat, Nicole now lives on a lush forest property with her Kiwi husband in New Zealand. She has a strong love for all animals of all shapes and sizes (and particularly loves a good interspecies friendship) and wants to share her animal knowledge and other experts' knowledge with pet lovers across the globe.