FAQ: What’s the difference between speech and language?

A mum (not my own) asked me this question recently.  She wanted to know why I’m called a Speech-Language Pathologist. “Isn’t that redundant?,” she asked.  “Aren’t speech and language the same thing?

Having assessed and treated speech and language disorders as separate beasts for so long, it took me a while to think about how best to respond.  It was – and is – a very important question.

1. Speech and language are not the same thing  

Language is the method humans use to communicate with each other, often involving words and symbols used consciously by a group in a structured or conventional way.  Languages can be spoken, signed and/or written.  We are “wired” for oral language – almost as if it’s an instinct.  Language is one of the key ways we differ from other primates.  It is an important element in what makes us human.

Speech is the expression of thoughts and feelings by humans through articulated sounds that come out of our mouths and noses (with help from our cranial nerves, lungs, vocal chords, throats, soft palates, teeth, facial and neck muscles and tongues).  Speech is one way that we express language.

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(Cute fluffy bunnies can neither speak nor use language (with the exceptions of Peter Rabbit, Roger and the Velveteen Rabbits as well as the cast of Watership Down) – though we may just be splitting hares…)

2. Speech and language problems don’t always happen together

For example:

  • a child or adult may have normal language skills – she may understand what others are communicating and communicate her thoughts and feelings fully through signs, symbols/pictures or in writing – but be unable to speak clearly or fluently, e.g. because of a cleft palate, apraxia of speech, dysarthria, stutter or other disability; or
  • a child or adult may have the physical ability to speak clearly, but have limited language skills that make it hard to communicate with others, e.g. because of specific language impairment or as a result of a stroke.

3. Problems with speech development can sometimes affect language development and vice versa

For example:

  • a child who can make only a few sounds may struggle to communicate with others.  A child who can only say /b/ and /m/ and a few vowels will find it difficult to ask for daddy’s watch, although she may compensate with gestures, such as pointing; and
  • a child with a vocabulary of less than 50 words may not have much opportunity to practice or master some of his speech sounds, which may in turn affect his intelligibility.

Related articles:

Banter Speech & Language Banter Speech & Language
Banter Speech & Language is an independent firm of speech pathologists for adults and children. We help clients in our local area, including Concord, Rhodes, Strathfield and all other suburbs of Sydney’s Inner West.

Banter Speech & Language is owned and managed by David Kinnane, a Hanen- and LSVT LOUD-certified speech-language pathologist with post-graduate training in the Spalding Method for literacy, the Lidcombe and Camperdown Programs for stuttering, and Voicecraft for voice disorders. David is also a Certified PESL Instructor for accent modification.

David holds a Master of Speech Language Pathology from the University of Sydney, where he was a Dean’s Scholar. David is a Practising Member of Speech Pathology Australia and a Certified Practising Speech Pathologist (CPSP).

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