Do Parrots Understand What They Say? (Find Out)

Last Updated on October 23, 2023 by Ali Shahid

Parrots can imitate human speech, but do parrots understand what they say? Typically, parrots don’t understand the words they repeat, but they can learn a few words if taught. However, it’s incorrect to assume they understand everything they mimic or hear from us.

They can be trained to recognize some words, but they don’t grasp the meanings of all the words they utter or hear. In this article, we will discuss whether or not they truly understand the words they imitate.

Do Parrots Understand What They Say?

Do Parrots Know What They Are Saying?

Determining whether parrots truly understand the meaning of their speech is a complex issue. Dr. Irene Pepperberg, a renowned animal behaviorist, suggests that parrots can indeed understand human speech, but they require assistance from their owners. 

The most effective approach involves a technique known as the model/rival method, wherein two humans demonstrate the appropriate use of specific words to the bird.

However, there is ongoing debate regarding the extent of parrots’ understanding of human language. Some researchers believe that parrots can link certain words to their meanings, while others contend that they merely replicate sounds without comprehension. 

One significant challenge in this inquiry is that parrots excel at discerning the context in which human language is used. For instance, a parrot that greets you like a human may not necessarily comprehend that “hi” is a greeting phrase.

Understanding Context VS Understanding Meaning

Parrots are famous for mimicking human speech, but whether they truly grasp the meaning of the words they repeat remains a subject of debate. Some parrots, much like humans, can pick up contextual meanings. 

For instance, a parrot might learn to say “hello” when someone enters the room and associate it with a friendly greeting. Nonetheless, most parrots primarily imitate their owners without comprehending the words’ significance.

One key challenge in assessing whether parrots understand what they say is their remarkable ability to grasp the context of human language. This can create an illusion of comprehension. For example, when a parrot greets someone with “hi!” it might seem as though it understands that “hi” is used for greeting, but in reality, it’s just echoing what it has heard.

Research led by Dr. Irene Pepperberg, conducted with her African Grey parrot named Alex, indicates that certain parrots possess the capacity to understand and appropriately use specific human words genuinely. 

Alex, a remarkable case, was trained to comprehend and employ language. By the end of his life, he could identify 50 objects, recognize seven colors, understand five shapes, and even count up to eight. Nevertheless, Alex was an exceptional example, and most parrots do not achieve such a high level of understanding.

Do Parrots Understand Human Language?

Parrots are one of the rare bird species capable of learning and imitating human words. However, it is important to note that they don’t truly understand the meanings of these words. Their motivation for mimicking our speech is often rooted in the enjoyment of the activity or the desire to please their human companions. 

When it comes to expressing their feelings, parrots rely more on body language than spoken words. Experts agree that, for the most part, parrots do not possess an understanding of the actual meanings of the words they mimic. 

However, they do exhibit an ability to grasp the context in which these words are used and can form associations with them. For example, parrots can recognize that a person saying “hello” upon entering a room is extending a friendly greeting.

There are exceptions, like the case of Alex mentioned earlier, where professionally trained parrots have been shown to understand the meaning of certain words. In general, though, parrots do not figure out human language in the same way that humans do. Their understanding is more contextual and situation-dependent.

How does the parrot’s brain work in vocal learning?

Parrots can talk like humans because their brains are special. Inside a parrot’s brain, there’s a part that helps them learn to speak. 

This part is called the “song system.” In parrots, the song system has two layers – an inner “core,” which all birds who learn to make sounds have, and an outer “shell,” which only parrots have. This “shell” is what makes parrots great at copying sounds, but scientists don’t fully understand how it works yet.

Erich Jarvis, who is a neuroscientist and an expert in how animals learn to make sounds, says that a parrot’s brain is wired in a way similar to how humans learn languages. Parrots can hear sounds and understand what they mean, just like we do. They use this ability to talk to their human friends.


Parrots are extraordinary beings known for their special talent for imitating human speech. Although they may not understand the exact meanings of the words they repeat, they can connect specific sounds with their intended significance.

This ability enables them to engage in communication with their human companions. The structure of a parrot’s brain is similar to that of humans in terms of learning sounds, and their vocal system enables them to reproduce various sounds, including human language.

Parrots are sociable animals that seek attention and interaction, and their capacity to mimic human speech is just one of the numerous ways they connect with their human caregivers.

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