What is the difference between speech and language? Are they the same thing? Is there even a difference? Simply put, the answer is yes; there is a significant difference between speech and language, although they are closely related.

Let’s begin by defining the term speech. Speech is defined as the process that occurs when natural stimulation takes place. Speech is typically performed without having to put much conscious thought behind it. Specifically, the term speech refers to the sounds that come out of our mouths and take the shape of words. Although this definition seems very basic, speech is a very complicated process. In order to generate speech, many events must take place in the brain. Firstly, the brain MUST create a signal to communicate an idea to another person. The brain then has to send the information and communicate to the mouth which words should be said and what sounds make up those words. The brain also gives off signals to incorporate specific tones and patterns when speaking to give the correct impression. Finally, after the previous steps are put into place, the brain then sends the signals to the muscles that make up the speech articulators. These muscles include the tongue, jaw, and lips. However, for these muscles to work correctly, they must have the strength, coordination, and control to carry out the commands put in place by the brain.

Just like the brain, our lungs also play an essential role in producing speech. For the vocal folds to vibrate to produce speech, the lungs must be healthy enough to generate enough air. It is important to note that it is essential for the lungs to push air out instead of in to produce functional speech. Vocal health is also critical to speech generation. One’s vocal folds must be in good condition to produce clear, loud speech. Vocal hygiene is essential in keeping our voice strong for speech production. You can practice good vocal hygiene by ensuring you drink plenty of water and avoid excessive vocal abuse such as yelling, shouting, coughing, throat clearing, etc.

Now let’s discuss language. Language is typically defined as what we speak, write, read, and understand. Language does not only have to come from the mouth but can also be understood through gestures such as body language or sign language. Language can be separated into two distinct types: receptive language and expressive language. Receptive language can be defined as one’s ability to understand and comprehend any spoken language or gestures that we hear, see, or read. Expressive language can be defined as one’s ability to form one’s thoughts into words and sentences in a way that makes sense and is grammatically accurate. Like speech, language also requires specific steps that must be set in place before one can understand language. Firstly, one must have the ability to hear well enough to distinguish one word from another. If one does not have typical hearing, they must then have the ability to see gestures or body language to understand what is being said. One must also have a general understanding of what different words mean. This can be achieved by having someone model what different words mean and use them in a sentence. One must also possess the intellectual ability to process what words or phrases are being said to them. Physical ability is also important to speak and respond to questions.
If a child has a receptive language delay, they may, at times, have difficulty listening and attending to conversations, stories, directions, activities, etc. Simply put, if a child has a receptive language delay, their expressive language may not be typically developing either. Suppose a parent feels like their child may not be talking as expected or has concerns about their child developing as their same-age peers; in that case, it is important to speak with their pediatrician about being referred to a licensed speech-language pathologist (SLP). An SLP can perform a hearing screening to ensure the child’s hearing is within normal limits and assess the child’s receptive and expressive language by administering a standardized language assessment.

In summary, speech is the process of forming words, and language is what speech production creates. If a parent or caregiver feels as their child is struggling with speech or language, it is important to speak with their primary care provider about a possible speech services referral. The earlier an SLP can identify and start treating a child’s speech and/or language issues, the more likely it is these problems will be improved. Early intervention can help children become more successful speakers, readers, writers and succeed in their schooling and day to day life.


-Rachael Dionne-Smith, FMU Grad Student

What is the difference between speech and language?
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