Thursday, March 3, 2011

Speech and Language 101

Most people haven't given all that much thought to the words speech, language, or communication. In fact, many people use those words interchangeably. Speech-language therapists, though? Not so so much. To us speechies, each of these words holds very specific meaning. And, as we all know, we take our words pretty seriously. Since the whole point of this blog is to delve into all things communication related, I figured I'd better define the words before going too much further. Then, if when I use the words in a later post, I'll just direct you over to this one for further clarification as needed. Capiche? Capiche.

Communication is, well, communication. It's the transmission of a message from one person to another. It is the most broad of the three terms, and it encompasses a wide variety of methods for communicating ideas to each other: nonverbal communication, spoken language, written language, sign language. We communicate all the time without saying anything at all, through touch and looks and facial expressions and gestures. Allow me, for a moment, to share the following video of my daughter with you. One, because it makes me smile. And two, because it is a beautiful demonstration of communication. As you watch, look at the ways Baby Girl communicates effectively without using any actual speech or language.

My baby girl manages to communicate joy, surprise, confusion, and love, all without saying a word. And yours will too-- babies communicate long before they are able to use speech and language. It's one of the things we speech therapists look for when we evaluate a child-- if the child isn't using speech or language, how is he communicating? This gives us clues to what's going on. But I digress. Back to the basics.

Language is the symbolic form of communication. It is comprised of words that represent objects. The actual words, of course, depend on the form of language you are using. Language is further divided down into receptive language, which is how well a person understands the words that he hears, and expressive language, which is how well a person is able to use words to communicate. Then, when talking about both receptive and expressive language, we go even further and break it down into things like semantics/vocabulary (the number of words person uses and understands), and syntax/grammar (the way a person puts words together to form sentences that make sense). As children learn to talk, they first develop their vocabulary. Then, they begin adding elements of grammar, and, as they do, they make predictable mistakes that we've studied well. As speech therapists, we know (for example) what mistakes in grammar a three year old is likely to make; this helps us know when to worry and when to assure parents that things are going just fine. Language, though, doesn't have to be spoken. It can be sign language or written language. When it is spoken, speech enters into the equation.

Speech, then, is the act of actually producing speech sounds when speaking a formal language. A child may have really great language, but not be able to produce it in a way that others understand because he has difficulty with speech (or, articulation/phonology as speech-language therapist would call it). Again, we speech therapists have information about what sounds young children usually produce incorrectly, what kind of errors they are most likely to make, and when we should expect them to start using those sounds correctly.

So there you have it. Speech, language, and communication. Words about words that to allow us to communicate about the way we communicate with each other.


  1. I really enjoyed reading your blog posts, and I am looking forward to reading more about how to help children with speech development. When my son was younger, it was very hard to find any information online about how to help him.

    We also enjoyed your video. (My kids gathered around to watch it also.) Your daughter is adorable! It was fun to watch her expression when the music stopped. :)


  2. Thanks, Kay! I enjoy writing's so fun to share the information I have. Please do let me know if you have any specific questions. I hope your son is doing well now.

    And thanks for the comment on my daughter. I think she's pretty cute, too, but I'm probably a wee bit biased. ;)

  3. I agree with Kay, my son had some pretty major speech impediments (he would call dad "gog"). It was hard to find any sort of advice, and we eventually took him into pediatric speech therapy. So I appreciate the advice, hopefully it can help other parents like us!