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Speech vs. Language

Updated: Jun 9, 2021

Often, the words speech and language are used interchangeably. One of the most common questions I am asked as a Speech-Language Pathologist is “what is the difference between a speech and language disorder?” First, let’s understand the basic differences between the terms speech and language. Speech refers to three things:

  • Articulation/Phonological Skills: The ability to physically produce the individual sounds and sound patterns of one’s language. It is how speech sounds are made using the muscles of the tongue, lips, jaw, and vocal tract in a precise and coordinated manner (i.e., a child’s ability to produce the ‘r’ sound in order to say the word “rainbow”).

  • Speech Fluency: Producing speech that has appropriate rhythm and is free of hesitations or stuttering behaviour.

  • Voice: The use of the vocal folds and breathing to produce sound with appropriate vocal quality. For example, overuse or misuse of the voice can lead to hoarseness or loss of voice.

While speech is an oral means of communication and comprises of the physical motor ability to talk, language refers to a symbolic, rule-governed system used to convey a message. Symbols can be expressed through words that are written, spoken or with gestures and body language that communicate meaning (e.g., waving to indicate “bye” or pointing to something to indicate “I want”). The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), says that language is made up of socially shared rules that can consist of phonology, semantics, morphology, syntax and pragmatics. This includes:

  • What words mean (i.e., “right” can refer to a direction or being correct)

  • How to make new words (i.e., read, reading, rereading)

  • How to put words together (i.e., “John walked to school today” rather than “John walk today school”)

  • What word combinations are best in what situations (i.e., “Would you mind moving your shoes, please?” versus “Move your shoes!”)

When an individual has trouble producing certain speech sounds accurately or fluently, or has problems with his or her voice, then he or she might have a speech disorder. It is common for children to make some mistakes when they are young and learning new letter names and sounds. However, this becomes an issue when the speech error persists past a certain age. Reading, writing, and/or spelling can be impaired as a result of a speech sound disorder. When a person has difficulty understanding others (receptive language), or sharing thoughts, ideas and feelings (expressive language), then he or she might have a language disorder. A child may have difficulty demonstrating age-appropriate skills such as, vocabulary, following directions, comprehension of verbal and/or written information, understanding questions, answering questions, and expressing their ideas clearly. Speech disorders and language disorders may occur separately, or an individual may have both kinds of impairments at the same time.

Language allows us to communicate with others. A person can have language without having speech. For example, American Sign Language (ASL) is its own language with its own set of rules, symbols, syntax, pragmatics, etc. In ASL, the symbol for a four legged animal that says “moo” is the sign for “cow”. One can completely communicate in ASL without ever speaking a word. Thus, this is a language that does not use speech, but can be used to communicate with others who understand the language. Another way one can communicate without using speech is by using alternative or augmentative communication (AAC). AAC allows one to communicate using signs, gestures, pictures, or an electronic device that enable a person to express his or her wants, needs and ideas.

A Speech-Language Pathologist can help your child with speech and/or language impairments and open up a world of communication possibilities. For more information, please contact us at Hello Speech. We look forward to connecting with you.


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