Speech & Language: The Basics

When first learning about speech and language, it’s important to define some basic terms. Many people use the words speech, language, and communication somewhat interchangeably. Speech-language therapists and audiologists, however, mean something very specific when using these three words. Luckily, the definitions of the words are really very easy to understand.

Communication is the broadest and most encompassing of these three terms. Communication occurs any time a message is somehow conveyed from one person to another. Communication can take place in a wide variety of ways. The most obvious form of communication is verbal speech—when we are talking to someone, we are clearly communicating a message to them (as long as they are listening to us, that is!). But communication can also be nonverbal, such as when you shrug your shoulders to indicate confusion, or shake your head to indicate displeasure, or use your best motherly stare from across the room to convey to your five-year old that he had better use his manners. In fact, much of communication is nonverbal; some studies have shown that even when we are directly speaking with someone, the words we choose account for less than 10% of the overall message, while body language and vocal intonation make up the rest.

Language is one very specific way of communicating with others. Language involves using a consistent and agreed upon set of symbols to convey a message to another person who understands what those specific and pre-defined symbols mean. We generally call those pre-defined sets of symbols “words” and we put the words together in a pre-defined and commonly agreed upon way to create sentences. Each language has their own set of words (“vocabulary” or “semantics”) and their own rules for putting those words together into sentences (“grammar” or “syntax”). Language can take a variety of forms: it can be spoken, written, signed, or beeped (think: Morse code).

It can also be further divided into two, more specific, categories:

  • Receptive Language, which is our ability to understand words and sentences that are spoken (or signed, or written) to us, and
  • Expressive Language, which is our ability to use words and sentences to effectively communicate our message to others.

Finally, speech is the most specific and narrowly defined term. Speech occurs when we use verbal words to communicate with others. It requires us to put individual speech sounds together into words and speak them to someone else. The process of doing this—of forming sounds with our mouth and shaping them into words, phrases and sentences—is called articulation. Speech also includes the ability to use our voice properly, without harshness or hoarseness, and the ability to speak fluently, without word or syllable repetitions.

Children who are in need of speech and language intervention services may have difficulty with one, some, or all of these areas.

For example,

  • A child who can’t express her basic needs to others—she might cry and tantrum, but not be able to use words or even gestures to show her parents what she wants—is having difficulty with basic communication.
  • A little one who does not fully understand the words we say has difficulty with receptive language. For example, a child with a receptive language delay might not be able to follow simple directions, respond to her name, or find pictures in a book.
  • A toddler who understands everything you say and is really good at communicating through gestures and eye contact, but who doesn’t yet use any actual words yet is having difficulty with expressive language.
  • A child who is talking a blue streak, using lots of words and sentences, but whose speech is not understood by others is having difficulty with speech, or articulation.
  • A child who has lots of words, but who is struggling to speak without repeating words and syllables multiple times is having difficulty with fluency.
  • A child who uses sentences, understands language well, and produces speech sounds well, but who has a habitually hoarse voice might have a voice disorder.