Speech vs. Language

Speech and language are two terms which are often used interchangeably in error! Though related, the two terms are clinically separate entities.  As they are both areas of potential delay in your child’s development, let’s get some clarification on the differences between them!

Speech is the sound system produced as a result of vocal fold vibration in coordination with respiratory support and shaping of the articulators (cheeks, lips, tongue, oral cavity).  Speech is what we hear.  More technically and specifically, speech is comprised of phonemes (sounds) that are labeled as consonants and vowels. Speech production becomes more complex as speakers combine consonants and vowels to form more complex syllable shapes

Take a moment and sound the following words out and you’ll become aware of just how many different actions your articulators are making in “elephant” compared to a more simple word “me.”  

In typical speech development, there are certain sounds that a child produces earlier vs later. The more visual sounds (bilabial) are those that are made with our lips such as “b” “p” “m” are our earlier sounds.  The more complex sounds that are produced inside the oral cavity using specific tongue placements come later in speech development, such as “r” “s” “l.” Parents can expect children to mispronounce words that are more difficult or have later developing sounds for a period of time, while they are honing their speaking skills.

Language is the way we exchange information.  “Exchange” implies the presence of two individuals, or communicative partners, because language requires a listener and a speaker.   Language can be verbal (speech) and non-verbal (gestural/graphic). Language is further broken down into receptive language (understanding gestures, eye contact, spoken and written words) and expressive language (using gestures, eye contact speech, and written words to communicate a message).

Common gestures that children use include pointing, waving, and shaking their heads “no” and “yes.” If the child is using words, is she starting to combine them? This typically happens when a child is approximately 2 years of age. Is the child using their words for different communicative functions? The main areas of communicative functions that I look for as an Speech Language Pathologist (SLP) include the following: labeling, commenting, calling attention, greeting, exiting, refusing, requesting objects, answering yes/no questions, requesting actions, and requesting information (e.g. asking wh-questions).  A huge component of language development is the function of language. A child may be able to name every animal while reading his favorite book, but can he use that same word to request an animal during play?

Some questions to ask about your child’s language development include:

Receptively, does my child …

Respond to his name with eye contact?

Following familiar commands?

Follow new commands?

Answer questions?

Locate familiar people and objects?

Identify his body parts?


Expressively, does my child…

Use gestures such as pointing and waving?

Look at the person he is communicating with?

Continue to add to his growing vocabulary?

Put words together to express his wants?

Ask questions about his environment?


As with all early childhood development, it’s important to understand that each child develops a little differently, some at slower paces than others.  In the early years, I always stress to parents to worry less about the articulation (speech) because to a certain degree, unintelligibility is typical! You really want to make sure that even if your child’s speech is not quite there yet, are they still communicating effectively through other routes of language?

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