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Can Cats Understand English?


reading catWe don’t seem to give cats as much credit as they properly deserve anymore since we lump them in as just “pet.” When looking at their intelligence compared to dogs, it’s hard to really determine their intelligence, though more than anything it seems like they lack the basic ability to learn vocal commands when compared to dogs. But is this just a misconception? Can cats learn proper English? Well, perhaps to some extent. Let’s take a look a cats and see if they can or can’t really learn a language.

Obviously I’m not talking about whether cats can speak or not. Their vocal cords and mouths just aren’t capable of producing the same sounds that humans do, so it’s physically impossible for them to learn to necessarily speak any language, English included, but that doesn’t mean they can’t learn to understand various languages.

In fact, cats are very similar to dogs in that they will absolutely learn words when they determine learning such words is beneficial to their lives. Just like a dog will learn the “sit” command in order to get a treat, a cat will do the same thing. The only real difference is that while a dog won’t usually forget how to do certain tricks, a cat will purposefully forget if it isn’t continually getting a reward of some kind for its efforts. Missing an opportunity to give your cat a treat after a successful command won’t immediately turn your cat’s interest off, but if you stop entirely, your cat may not care to keep the memory of the trick anymore, so “sit” is gone and you have to start over from the beginning again.

According to science, cats are capable of learning roughly 50 different words and commands, which includes their names and any words related to tricks. This may seem like very few words, but really it’s all they ever need to figure out. Words like “food,” “eat,” “dinner,” and “no” (that last one is mostly so they know when to ignore you) are all beneficial to them, but of course learning something unrelated to anything in their life like “choo-choo” or “Skyrim” won’t really do any good, so they aren’t going to learn them.

Really the most obscure word they’ll ever learn is their name, and then only really when they have a very distinctive name with G’s and R’s in it. You’ll actually discover that they come more when called with a general meowing sound than with an actual command, partly because it shows you’re trying to communicate specifically to them. They will meow at you and you will attempt to imitate this sound and meow back, and eventually they will just learn to associate this talking with you.

Were it not for human involvement, cats would have no reason to ever make a sound. They aren’t creatures that care much about verbal language as they’re more about body language and subtleties. For instance, you can get a lot more accomplished if you want to convey that you’re okay with your cat doing something or sitting somewhere if you yawn, slowly blink your eyes, and generally feign sleep rather than saying straight-out “I’m okay with you sitting there.”

Oddly, the whole business of cats meowing is primarily meant for communication with humans as we respond to it more frequently than simple body language. We assume that we’re training our cats to respond to us with meowing, but really it’s the other way around. Cats know we respond to them best when they meow, so they imitate the sound of a baby crying as best as they can to get our attention. It’s very fascinating and really does show how smart yet manipulative felines really can be!

So, can cats learn to understand English? Sure, most cats can learn up to 50 commands in any language. The trick is whether they’ll really care to learn the words you’d preferred they learn, and usually there the answer is no. Oh well, at least you can still meow back and forth as usual.



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