In For Parents, Tips & Tricks

Speech and language. They’re two different skills, but work together to make communication possible.

These skills develop from early in childhood, and are learned by hearing and understanding as other people use their speech and language skills.

Below, we’ve got information about the important differences between speech and language. And, if you know a child who might have difficulties with speech or language, we’ve got some information that can help you work on the parts where they need help.

Speech

What is Speech?

When someone’s talking about speech, what they’re referring to is the sounds that people make to communicate. That includes the vowels and consonants, the rhythm and pattern, and the sound quality.

Speech development starts from infancy and usually follows a pretty regular pattern. But, this only happens if a child is able to hear the sounds that they and other people make. Without being able to hear someone speak, like what can happen if a child has a severe enough hearing loss, it’s possible that they will have difficulties in developing speech skills.

How does Speech Work?

Speech might seem simple, but like many bodily functions there’s a complex system behind it. Here are the four main parts of the body that everybody uses when they speak:

  • All speech starts with air that’s blown out of the lungs.
  • Vocal chords. Vocal chords are the vibrating part inside your neck that changes how this air flows. You use them when you’re speaking normally, but don’t use them if you’re whispering.
  • Mouth and more. The tongue, lips, jaw, teeth, and other parts around the mouth all move around to change the air stream, and therefore what sounds are made. They have such a large impact on speech that it’s often possible for people to “hear” the sounds with sight alone: by lip reading. Children who can’t hear other people speak will be able to move their mouth around, but they won’t be able to hear if they’re making the right sounds or not.
  • It’s the brain that tells each person which parts of their vocal chords or mouth they should move to create a certain sound.

Language

What is Language?

Language, as far as we’re concerned in this blog post, is a way of organizing speech so someone can know what you’re saying and meaning.

Someone might be able to speak clearly, but you’ll only be able to understand them if you’re using the same language. The best way for a child to build up their language skills is with lots and lots of good exposure to people using a specific language from very early on. That includes hearing specific words, explanations of what they mean, and these words used in grammatically correct sentences. If a child isn’t able to hear or understand what’s being said then they won’t be able to develop language.

The Parts of Language

There are three main parts to language: content, structure, and meaning.

  • This is using the right words in a sentence. For example, “fair” and “fair” sound and look the same, but they can have different meanings: one refers to something being just, and the other is a group of people gathering together.
  • This is using the right form of the word for the given sentence. For example, “throw,” “throwing,” “threw,” and “thrown” all refer to the same action but a sentence’s meaning will change depending on which one is used. It also means the order in which words are used: changing order can change the meaning. For example, “His work is gone” could mean he is without work while flipping work and gone (“He has gone to work”) means something completely different.
  • Language can be used to talk socially, to ask questions, and to respond to questions, to make general comments, and more. A person will use language in different ways, depending on what they’re trying to do.

Two Skills, Working Together

Speech and language are different concepts but they’ve obviously got a lot of overlap. They’re both necessary to clearly communicate a message. Not fully developing one can have an impact on the other.

If you know a child who’s having difficulties communicating, it’s important to know if the troubles are stemming from speaking skills or language skills. Here’s how to tell, and how to help them. Depending on how much trouble they have, you could either help them out your own or talk with a professional like an audiologist or Speech and Language Pathologist/Therapist.

Speaking

Someone who has trouble with speech might be difficult to understand. But, you might see that they understand what’s said to them—and they’re able to pronounce words and some sentences properly.

For example, if a child says, “The wabbit came out of the hole and wan wound him,” that’s a clear indication that it’s their speech skills which need working on. The R sound is being pronounced like W. The words are correct, and the way that they’re made into a sentence is correct.

In this case, you could work with the child on pronunciation of the R sound through practice.

Language

Someone who has trouble with language might be able to pronounce words clearly, but it can be difficult to understand the meaning of what they’re saying.

For example, if a child says, “The rabbit came up hole ranned round boy,” then they’ve got troubles with their language. They’re pronouncing all of the words correctly, but not using the right words.

In this case, you can help them by repeating the sentence back to them—except using proper grammar: “The rabbit came up out of the hole and ran around the boy.”

This post was written by Ingrid Steyns, a speech-language pathologist and Rehabilitation Specialist at MED-EL.

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