Is there a difference between speech and language?

While speech and language delays or disorders can exist together, there is a distinct difference between the two. Language is communication that can be understood, spoken, written, read, and gestures (such as sign language). There are two areas of language including receptive language, defined as what we hear and understand, and expressive language, defined as the words we use to communicate wants and needs to others. Speech is the ability to clearly and verbally communicate messages to others. Speech includes: articulation, defined as how sounds are made (e.g. the ability to produce /r/ or /s/ correctly), voice, defined as how the vocal folds and breathing combine to produce sound (e.g. healthy voice versus hoarse or “lost” voice), and fluency, defined as the rate and rhythm of the flow of speech (e.g. smooth versus stuttering).

When a child has difficulty with comprehension or understanding others, it is defined as a receptive language delay. When a child has difficulty expressing wants, needs, and other general ideas and thoughts, it is defined as an expressive language delay. When both are present, it is defined as an overall language delay.

When a child has difficulty producing speech sounds correctly or fluently, or has voice problems, it is defined as a speech delay or disorder.

It is significant to note that there is also a difference between a delay and a disorder. A speech or language delay describes a child whose skills are developing along the same developmental path as typically developing children, just at a slower rate and they may require more time, more practice, and more repetition.

Speech and language disorders describe children whose speech and language is developing abnormally and not following the usual pattern or sequence of typical language development.

The best way to find out if your child’s development requires attention is to seek a comprehensive evaluation by a speech-language pathologist (SLP). Pediatric speech therapy is available through the Illinois Early Intervention program and can greatly improve or remediate your one- to- three-year-old child’s speech and language problems. Children over three can receive outpatient pediatric speech therapy at a pediatric therapy clinic as well. A children’s speech therapist can be a great resource for your questions and concerns, as well as ongoing speech therapy.

Therese Schmidt, MS, CF-SLP