Last Updated on February 9, 2024 by Carrie Stephens
Parrots don’t understand the underlying meaning of human words. They learn and repeat what we say because they find the activity fun or want to please their owners, perhaps to earn a reward.
They may gain a contextual understanding of words. For example, a parrot may learn that a person saying hello upon entering the room is issuing a friendly greeting. Of course, some say ‘hello’ when you leave.
Communication is fundamental to the survival of wild parrots. Pet parrots talk to their owners because there are no members of their species. With no other parrots, you’re their flock.
Parrots Don’t Understand English
Parrots can’t distinguish between languages like English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish. They’ll learn the language of their owner but won’t understand what the words mean.
While it may sound like parrots understand English, they produce similar-sounding words.
Our brains fill in the blanks, fooling us into thinking that a parrot has said a word when it’s made a gibberish sound. Parrots have advanced mimicry skills that sound authentic to human ears.
Having A Conversation with Parrots
Parrots can hold loose conversations with humans. While they don’t understand what they’re saying, they can sometimes say enough words for us to believe we’re having a real conversation.
Parrots communicate with their flock through bird sounds and body language. They can learn human words, but this isn’t how they converse with each other in the wild.
How Parrots Vocalize Human Speech
Parrots produce sounds by modifying the air that flows over their syrinx (their voice box). They use their tongues to make vibrations that pass through the syrinx, replicating the sounds they hear.
Parrots are vocal learners, developing sounds that benefit them by using them repeatedly.
Joining a flock affords parrots protection from predators and allows them to forage for food together, increasing their chances of survival. Parrots communicate with their flock using unique calls.
How Parrots Remember Words
A parrot’s brain works similarly to the human cortex. Parrots have high neuron densities and advanced cognitive functions, which means they have excellent memories.
Parrots can remember situations, people, and other birds. Therefore, they use their short and long-term memory to learn and distinguish between different words.
Parrots’ Understanding of What They Say
Most parrots mimic human vocabulary, but words can be taught contextually. For example, if you offer something to eat and say ” food,” the parrot will likely realize it’ll be fed.
Some parrots combine words but don’t understand grammar and sentence structure.
The Journal of Comparative Psychology examined Cosmo, a pet Congo African gray parrot, to see how her speech and non-word sounds changed with social context.
Researchers wanted to determine if the parrot responded using the correct answers to questions. After various tests, they found that many vocalizations were specific to the context.
During the study, the parrot’s repertoire consisted of 278 units ranging from 1-8 words. Some vocalizations were non-word sounds, and 219 were English speech units. Phrases included:
- “Cosmo, go up.”
- “Cosmo wanna go up.”
- “Okay, go up.”
- “Wanna go up.”
Whenever Cosmo’s owner wasn’t in the room, she would say things like, “I’m here” and “Where are you?” These phrases suggest that Cosmo grasped the concept behind her words.
Other parrots may understand the context of what they’re saying. In most cases, parrots may associate some words with their context (if taught) but not complex meanings.
If we don’t teach them the meaning of words, they won’t understand the context.
Parrots Know Their Names
The first thing most owners do after adopting a parrot is to give them a name. Parrots are unlikely to learn and understand their name without training.
You can teach parrots to recognize their name with this process:
- Allow the parrot time to adjust to its surroundings.
- Work on forming a bond with the parrot (handling, socialization, etc.)
- Find a quiet location to commence training.
- Say the parrot’s name a few times, rewarding it with a treat whenever it tries.
- Repeat this process frequently for about 5 minutes. Attempt it several times daily.
- Eventually, the parrot will expect a treat whenever it responds to its name.
- Eventually, the parrot will react to its name without reinforcement.
Once you have a name, avoid changing it to avoid confusion.
Not only can parrots learn their name, but it seems as if wild birds name their babies.
According to The Royal Society Publishing, researchers put video cameras and sound recorders inside and outside several nests containing newly hatched green-rumped parrots.
After listening to their vocalizations, the team found that the chicks used specific peeps to identify themselves from others. They also learned the peeping names of their family in conversation.
One explanation is that the parents name their chicks, giving them a unique identifier.
Best Talking Parrots
Some parrots never talk, while others develop an impressive repertoire of human words. With patience, training, and consistency, many parrots become skilled talkers.
If you’re looking for a pet parrot with good mimicking abilities, consider the following:
African Gray Parrots
African grays are among the parrot family’s best talkers, with many learning around 1000 words.
Many owners claim their African grays can speak in context and learn vocalizations after hearing them once or twice, likely due to their advanced cognitive and memory skills.
Amazon parrots are advanced talkers that can learn up to 300 words and phrases. Yellow-naped Amazon parrots are among the most accomplished at singing human songs.
Some owners claim their speech is clearer than that of African grays.
Budgies are social, interactive birds that enjoy learning new words from their owners. Their voice is relatively low and gravelly but easy to understand.
Puck, an English budgie, holds the Guinness world record for having the most extensive vocabulary, with a repertoire of a staggering 1,728 words.
Even if a parrot doesn’t understand the meaning or context of what you’re saying, regularly interacting with them through speech is a great way to bond. The parrot will believe you’re part of its flock.