The Difference between Speech and Language

When thinking about communication, people often use the words speech and language interchangeably. While often confused by many as having the same meaning, there is actually a difference between ‘speech’ and ‘language’.
So, what is the difference?
Speech is the means of communication and is how the spoken communication sounds. It is the way a person uses their oral motor structures (i.e. lips, tongue, jaw) in order to produce the sounds to convey their intended message. Speech consists of Articulation (how speech sounds are made), Voice (from breathing and using vocal folds), and Fluency (rhythm of speech).

Language is the system of communication, referring to a ‘code’ or a ‘symbol’ used to communicate meaning. These codes or symbols can be expressed through spoken words, written words, gestures, and body language.

Now that we know that speech and language are in fact different, how can we describe these terms when something goes wrong?

It is quite common to see a person having difficulties with either speech or language, or even both. As their names suggest, a speech disorder occurs when a person has difficulties with their speech and with producing sounds accurately, while a language disorder occurs when a person has difficulty with their language, be it their expression of language or their comprehension of language. To elaborate further, a person who struggles to understand the meaning of what others are saying may have difficulties with their receptive language, and a person who struggles communicating their own thoughts and ideas meaningfully may have difficulties with their expressive language.

Let’s have a look at a couple of examples:

John may want to express an idea or a thought that he loves cats. He has difficulties producing all the speech sounds accurately and says “I love tats”. This makes him difficult to understand, due to problems with his speech.

Kate wants to ask her mother what’s for dinner and says “food”. She is only able to say one or two words at a time and is unable to fully express what she wants. Kate also has difficulties understanding what her mother says to her. She may have problems with her language.

Speech Pathologists work with people who have speech and language difficulties and can help support overall communication. If you know someone who exhibits any of the above difficulties, it may be a good idea to see a speech pathologist to see if they can help you identify if a problem exists.

– by Mynn Cheah

About the Author

Mynn Cheah
Speech Pathologist

Mynn is a Certified Practising Speech Pathologist with experience working with children and adults with disabilities, supporting them with their speech, language and swallowing/feeding needs. She has clinical experience in a range of settings including education, community health, and hospitals. Mynn is most passionate about working with children in the 0-5 year age group and has an interest in paediatric feeding and alternative and augmentative communication (AAC). Mynn is always looking for new and creative ways to make therapy as fun and engaging as possible, and aims to go above and beyond to make a positive difference in her clients’ lives. Things I like: food, singing when no one is listening, spending time with family and friends. Things I don’t like: the cold, swooping birds, pickles. Favourite colour: Blue

“Words are our most inexhaustible source of magic”                                  – Albus Dumbledore

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