The Difference Between Speech & Language
By Hallie Bulkin
May is Better Hearing and Speech Month. This annual event is held by the American Speech-Language and Hearing Association (ASHA). The purpose of the event is to “provide opportunities to raise awareness about communication disorders and to promote treatment that can improve the quality of life for those who experience problems with speaking, understanding, or hearing.”
One of the most common questions that I get asked is about the difference between speech and language. It is crazy how many educators and administrators in education cannot even explain the difference between the two. So in honor of Better Hearing and Speech Month I will describe the difference between the two as well as explain what “communication” is since that also differs from Hearing and Speech.
What is Speech?
Speech-Pathologists break speech into three areas:
- Articulation: How speech sounds are made (e.g., children must learn how to produce the “k” sound in order to say “cookie” instead of “tootie”).
- Voice: Use of the vocal folds and breathing to produce sound (e.g., the voice can be abused from overuse/misuse and can lead to hoarseness/loss of voice).
- Fluency: The rhythm of speech (e.g., hesitations or stuttering can affect fluency).
What is Language?
ASHA, defines language as socially shared rules that include the following:
- What words mean (e.g., “star” can refer to a bright object in the night sky or a celebrity)
- How to make new words (e.g., friend, friendly, unfriendly)
- How to put words together (e.g., “Peg walked to the new store” rather than “Peg walk store new”)
- What word combinations are best in what situations (“Would you mind moving your foot?” could quickly change to “Get off my foot, please!” if the first request did not produce results)”
Language exists without Speech
While speech and language are related, language can and does exist without speech. One example of this is sign language. Sign language comes in several different forms (or languages) of it’s one, one of which is American Sign Language, or ASL. ASL is it’s own language with it’s own rules that governs how it is used. ASL as it’s own language is communication that doesn’t use speech. That said, some people communicate using ASL paired with the spoken word in Standard American English (SAE) when helping children with delays and disorders to acquire language.
What is communication?
Communication is the process of conveying a message or meaning to establish a shared understanding to others. Therefore, you do not need speech or even a shared language to communicate between individuals. For example, let’s say you are in a foreign country where you do not speak the language and you need to call a cab. You might be able to communicate with a local person who does not speak English by showing them the symbol for a phone and driving a steering wheel. The point is, there are ways to communicate, through symbols, pictures and gestures, especially in the absence of speech or a shared language.
Helping People (especially, kids!) Communicate
Those of you that know me know that I specialize in working with children between Birth to 5 years of age. My main goal when working with a young child is always communication. This is true regardless of whether the child has a speech and/or language impairment. In my experience, all children can benefit from the use of alternative and augmentative communication (AAC) systems to help get a child communicating immediately. AAC is especially important for children who have significantly impaired speech and/or language to help them start communicating as soon as possible.
AAC includes using low-tech (e.g., signs, gestures, pictures) and/or high-tech (e.g., electronic devices or computers) systems to give the child the ability to communicate their wants and needs. Often times once a child is communicating through AAC, speech and language through additional means (e.g., verbal means) can be added in as appropriate.
As you can see speech and language (and communication in general) are very different! I hope this gave you a better idea of how to understand these topics.
For resources to learn more about hearing, speech and language, please follow this link: BSHM Resources