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Do Parrots Understand What They Say? Vet-Reviewed Science

Kit Copson

By Kit Copson

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Dr. Luqman Javed

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There’s no doubt about it—parrots are great conversationalists. That said, do they actually understand what they say? In general, parrots imitate what humans say and are capable of creating simple associations between certain words or phrases and objects and actions. However, experts have proven that some parrots can be trained to understand the meaning of those words and phrases and apply this skill to better communicate with humans. 

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Are Parrots Simply Imitating Us?

Yes and no. Terms like “parroting”, which means to repeat someone’s words without really knowing what they mean, have contributed to the belief that parrots simply mimic words, phrases, and sounds with nothing going on behind the scenes, but this isn’t entirely true. 

The process begins with the parrot imitating words and phrases, and they then go on to form associations between those words and phrases and use context to know when to say them. 

For example, Tim Wright, a biology professor who studies parrot vocalization, has explained that if a parrot says “Hello, how are you?” when you enter a room, they’re not really asking how you’re doing, but have instead learned to associate the phrase “Hello, how are you?” with someone coming into the room. Wright goes on to explain that parrots tend to pick up on phrases and sounds said in an excitable manner.

Quaker Parrot
Image Credit: VH-studio, Shutterstock

Do Some Parrots Understand What They Say?

Yes. This has been proven by Dr. Irene Pepperberg, research associate and lecturer at Harvard University, who for several years trained her parrot, Alex, an African gray, to communicate and truly understand words and phrases.

One of her training methods involved having Alex watch researchers say the words for objects Alex was fond of and exchange them (making deliberate mistakes from time to time) with the goal of getting him to correctly identify the objects. The objects were used as rewards when Alex was able to correctly identify them.

Alex went on to learn the words for 50 objects, seven colors, and six shapes, and he could count up to eight. Alex was even capable of counting and distinguishing different types of objects from one another.

For example, when presented with a tray of items in various shapes, you could ask him something like “How many green block?” (singular form was used instead of plural) and he could tell you exactly how many there were. 

Alex was able to use the language he had acquired to ask for what he wanted. He could ask for various types of food and identify their textures with words like “rock” and “soft”. Alex could even let Pepperberg know when he wanted to go home by saying “Wanna go back”. 

Why Do Parrots Talk?

According to a study by Duke University neuroscientists found that parrots, along with other birds that learn vocally, have a part of the brain called a “song system” which consists of two layers.

While all birds that learn vocally have what’s referred to as a “core” within this “song system”, only parrots have an outer “shell”. The researchers hypothesize that this could explain why parrots are talented imitators, but they don’t know how this unique outer “shell” works yet.

What is known for sure is that mimicry is an important skill for wild parrots as it helps them fit in with other parrots and transmit information to them. This is essential for wild parrots, as they can’t survive on their own without flock mates. 

Parrots have transferred this natural behavior to the human world where they use imitation to fit in with and communicate with us as they would their flock mates in the wild. 

Parrot Pet
Image Credit: Suparat Sukpradit, Shutterstock

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Final Thoughts

Parrots are truly incredible animals, and their imitation skills are closely linked with their need for social structure. They are able to create associations and contextualize to communicate with humans, but some parrots, like Alex the African gray who underwent special training, are exceptional in their ability to understand and use speech, which proves that this behavior, in some cases, goes beyond simple imitation.

Featured Image Credit: Ear Iew Boo, Shutterstock

Kit Copson

Authored by

Kit Copson is a freelance writer and lifelong animal lover with a strong interest in animal welfare. She has parented various furry beings over the years and is currently a proud cat mom of two—one very chilled (unless hungry) Siamese and a skittish but adorable Domestic Shorthair—and dog mom of one—an adopted Bichon Poodle cross. When not writing about or spending time with animals, Kit can be found doodling in her...Read more

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