Speech and Language: What’s the Difference?

 The terms speech and language are often used interchangeably, with an overall assumption that these words refer to how we speak.  It’s true that both speech and language are critical components of communicating with each other, but there is much more to it than just how we speak.

According to The American Speech Language and Hearing Association, “speech” refers to the actual sounds and words we say. If you dive a little deeper, speech includes articulation, voice and fluency. Articulation refers to the actual production of how we make sounds. For example, what do my lips do when making the ‘m’ sound, or where should my tongue be when saying the ‘c’ in cat? In addition, voice is specific to the anatomical combination of our vocal folds and our breathing to produce what we call our voice. Not everyone’s voice sounds the same, some people speak loud while others are much more quiet. The pitch of our voices also vary, some are high-pitched, low-pitched, and others are somewhere in between. Speech also considers fluency, which is the rhythm of how we speak. While some people repeat words when speaking or take pauses in the middle of a sentence, others are able to express their entire thought without a break or stumble.

Now let’s take a moment to consider “language.” At its surface, language is the actual words we speak in order to communicate our thoughts, ideas, wants and needs with others.  It considers the meaning of words, the understanding of words, when we use words, and how we combine them together to communicate an idea. When an individual appears to have difficulty in these areas, it is determined if they are displaying deficits at a receptive or expressive level. A receptive language disorder may be present if an individual has a difficult time understanding what is being said, following directions and/or answering questions after reading a story. On the contrary, an expressive language disorder may be present if an individual has trouble communicating his/her own thoughts. These individuals may have difficulty creating a sentence that makes sense. Is what they are saying missing pronouns or are they using the wrong word tense (“I goed,” instead of “I went”), or are they forgetting to include words all together?

At this point you probably feel like you understand the basic differences between speech and language, but wait…there’s more. Language does not solely refer to the words we speak, but it can also be expressed in a written form, through facial expressions and body language used to communicate meaning. At its core, communication is simply the expression of a thought or an idea. Have you ever used a smile to say thank you to a stranger who held the door open for you while you were navigating 6 bags of groceries and a toddler out of the store? Or, have you ever looked up to see your child with their arms crossed and head down after you told them they had to finish their dinner before getting up to play? These simple actions allow us to express what we are thinking or how we are feeling, without ever saying a word.

Speech and language, although these words have very different meanings, both allow us to communicate with others.

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Written by Speech-Language Pathologist, Katie George