What is speech? What is language?

When I explain to people what I do, that I focus on language and communication but that I also can help with the speech, as I have studied and taught phonology, I often need to explain the difference between speech and language.

What is Speech?

With speech we refer to the articulation of the sounds, the phonological skills, the speech fluency and the voice. 

When I focus on the speech of a person, I focus on her or his ability to use the human vocal tract:

  • Physically produce the individual sounds and sound patterns of his/her language (Articulation)
  • Produce speech with appropriate rhythm (and free of Stuttering behavior)
  • Produce speech with an appropriate vocal quality for his/her age and sex.

When a child or an adult has problems to pronounce a sound, we focus about the phonological level of his/her production of language and try to help with it.

What is Language?

Language is a system that consists of the development, acquisition, maintenance and use of complex systems of communication. Every language – German, English, French etc. – has its “symbols” that can be words, either spoken or written.

Most languages also have gestures that are a form of non-verbal communication, or non-vocal communication, where bodily actions communicate or accentuate particular messages. For example, waving hands to say “goodbye”.

What determines a language are the socially shared rules that include:

  • semantics: what a word means. In different contexts “star” can refer to the bright object in the sky, a celebrity or a bright person etc.
  • morphology: how to make a word so that it can function in the sentence and make sense: friend (a friend), friendly (a friendly person), unfriendly (someone who is not friendly) etc.
  • syntax: how to put words in an order so that the message is understood (we also talk about grammatically correct sentence): Lisa drives the car, and not *Car Lisa the drives
  • pragmatics: the ways in which language use is patterned and how these patterns contribute to meaning. In all languages, linguistic expressions can be used not just to transmit information, but to perform actions.

Language without speech

Speech and language are related, but we don’t need speech to have language. When we use sign language, speech is not involved. Sign language has its own set of rules to govern how it is used: its own symbols, syntax, pragmatics, etc.

What is communication?

Communication, then, is the process of conveying a message or meaning to establish a shared understanding to others. We don’t need speech or a shared language to communicate.

We can always use our hands and gestures that make others understand what we mean or draw pictures of what we are looking for. By using gestures and pictures we can communicate without using speech or shared language.

Communication is always the first goal

Sometimes a person’s ability to communicate with speech and/or language is so impaired, that Speech Therapists need to bypass those methods and use an alternative or augmentative communication (AAC) system to get the child communicating as soon as possible.

This could be by using signs, pictures, or an electronic device to give the person the ability to communicate his or her wants and needs.

Once the person starts communicating, we can focus on trying to improve the speech skills so that he/she can use speech to communicate his/her wants and needs. 

Just think about toddlers who still don’t talk: they are communicating through gestures, facial expressions, and body language even though they aren’t using a lot of speech yet.

– Although speech and language are related to each other, they are different.  


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