Speech Versus Language. What’s the Difference?

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Clearly one of a parent’s greatest concerns is their child’s speech and language development – and rightly so! Communication is one of the most important skills our children ever develop. It connects our children to their families, to their peers and to their world. Research shows that good communication skills are critical to social, emotional and academic success.

Let me get you started with some definitions that I know will help you better understand this whole ‘communication’ thing!

Speech versus language

To start, let me clarify a simple point that many are not aware of. There’s a distinct difference between what we refer to as ‘SPEECH’ and what we refer to as ‘LANGUAGE’.

Speech has to do with the sounds that are in the words that we say. If a child says ‘tat’ for the ‘cat’, he may be exhibiting a speech sound error. Sometimes an error can be a simple sound substitution – saying one sound in the place of another. Sometimes sounds are left out completely. Sometimes the speech error could be a distortion – where the ‘a’ sound is produced improperly, with a sound that is not typical in a normal child’s speech sound development.

As Speech Language Therapists (and parents) we’re concerned with the age at which a child masters the specific sounds that are in their language. We’re concerned when they’re not saying sounds they should be saying by a certain age, or when they are making sound distortions that are not seen in typical speech sound development. There are tons of speech sound development charts that you can check out online, but keep in mind, that most of these charts show the age at which most children have mastered specific sounds. Sometimes waiting for a child to master a sound can put them at the risk of falling further behind. Why? Because, the type of error the child is producing could be disordered, not part of the typical developmental pattern. As well, the later speech issues are addressed, the more challenging it can be to help your child learn to make those sounds. Why? Because the brain is specially wired for speech and language development from ages 0-5 years. Does this mean kids stop developing? Of course not! We still develop past that point, but children don’t pay attention to sounds, the way they’re making them and whether they’re matching that target as well the older they get. As well, the wrong production can simply become a habit that then needs to be broken.

Now, what about LANGUAGE? Language has two components that we need to be aware of. First there’s the ‘receptive language’, then there’s ‘expressive language’. Receptive language refers to the words your child understands. (Think of the word ‘receptive’ as in ‘receiving’ to help make this word’s meaning stick in your head!)

If your child knows the names of common objects around the house – for example, table, bed, cracker – or can follow a two-step command, you’re seeing aspects of their receptive language. Expressive language, as you might guess, is the other side of the coin. Expressive language refers to the words and grammar your child uses to express their wants and needs. If your 18 month old can tell you ‘want baba’, she’s using her expressive language to request something she wants. It’s good to be aware of approximately how many words your child says, how and why your child uses the words they know, as well as how they string them together. These important aspects relate to vocabulary, functional and pragmatic use of language and grammar.

Your little one should be demonstrating consistent growth in their language skills, and the more you know about what they should be doing at what ages, the better you can insure that they’re on the right track. Seek out information from trustworthy sources, and I encourage you, as parents, to trust your gut. If you notice that other children appear to be understanding more or speaking more clearly than your little one, don’t hesitate to check into it. The action you take in the early years can have a dramatic impact on your child’s communication skills, as well as all the areas of their lives that are influenced by those critical skills.

If you have questions or concerns, you can contact Denise through email, Facebook or Twitter. If you’re interested in strengthening your language facilitation skills so you can better support your little one, sign up for one of her online speech and language facilitation workshops.“The Communication Cafe” offers small group, interactive sessions that teach you specific and customized strategies to boost your child’s speech and language growth.

Author: Denise is a Speech Language Pathologist, having earned my Master of Science degree at Rutgers University. I am certified with the College of Audiologists and Speech Language Pathologists of Ontario, and with the American Speech Language Hearing Association. I have enjoyed practicing in the field in both private and public settings, and offer my clients over 25 years of pediatric experience. If you have questions or concerns, you can contact Denise through email, Facebook or Twitter. If you’re interested in strengthening your language facilitation skills so you can better support your little one, sign up for one of her online speech and language facilitation workshops.“The Communication Cafe” offers small group, interactive sessions that teach you specific and customized strategies to boost your child’s speech and language growth.

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