How are Speech and Language Different?
I have encountered a lot of confusion among other professionals and parents regarding the difference between speech and language. Here’s a brief overview:
Speech deals with the sounds that are produced, not the content of what the child said. For example, if a child says “bid snake” – the fact that the child turned the “g” into a “d” in the word “big” (big→bid) falls in the speech realm. There are many reasons a child may make speech errors including (but not limited to):
- phonological awareness/processing difficulties (i.e., processing the sounds or patterns of sounds within a language system)
- anatomical or physiological anomaly (e.g., cleft lip/palate, “tongue tie,” etc.)
- motor speech disorder (e.g., apraxia of speech, dysarthria, etc.)
Language typically deals with the content of what was said, rather than the sounds that were produced. For example, if a child said “big snake” when s/he was actually looking at a small goldfish – this type of difficulty falls within the language domain. Language is typically broken up into 3 categories – receptive language, expressive language, and pragmatic language.
- Receptive language: refers to a child’s understanding of language. It’s what many parents and teachers describe as “listening skills.” The ability to follow directions, understand/learn vocabulary, listen to stories, and many other skills fall within the realm of receptive language.
- Difficulties with receptive language skills may contribute to difficulties in following directions at home and school, learning new information, and meeting behavioral expectations at work and school.
- Expressive Language: refers to the ‘output’ or the content of what the child actually says. Expressive language can refer to spoken output (i.e., talking), signing (e.g., American Sign Language), or output via augmentative communication (e.g., picture boards, Proloquo2Go, etc.). Using appropriate content, vocabulary, grammar, and syntax to share information with others and make requests fall in the realm of expressive language.
- Difficulties with expressive language skills may contribute to difficulties communicating wants/needs (e.g., I need a bandaid), sharing information (e.g., unable to describe movies/books/events/play routines/safety issues, etc.), initiating and maintaining friendships (e.g., asking a peer “do you want to play” or using appropriate vocabulary/grammar to discuss on-topic and age-appropriate topics with another child).
- Pragmatic Language: refers to social skills and our social use of language. Requesting items and expressing concerns in age-appropriate ways, providing adequate listener information, knowing when to code-shift (e.g., talking to an adult vs. child peer; talking on the playground vs. in a classroom, etc.), taking turns in conversation, staying on topic, initiating and changing topics in conversation, and using body language for communication (e.g., standing distance, eye contact, reading/using facial expressions appropriately, etc.) fall in the realm of pragmatic language.
- Pragmatic language skills are important for initiating/maintaining friendships, building positive relationships with adults, getting needs/wants met, and navigating complex social interactions in the community (e.g., school vs. a hospital vs. a job, etc.).
Additional things to keep in mind:
- Delays can co-exist in all domains (e.g., receptive/expressive/pragmatic language + speech).
- A speech language pathologist can help tease out where exactly your child’s difficulties fall and how they affect the other domains of language, speech, and learning.
- Don’t hesitate to contact a speech language pathologist in your area of you have any concerns about your child’s development in these areas.