Speech and Language - What is the difference?

Speech and language are not the same thing. In fact, they are very different. Quite often parents and teachers will report concerns about a “speech delay”. However, during a consultation with a qualified professional, it may become clear that the child has commuincation and/or language difficulties.

Language is the method humans use to communicate with each other, often involving words and symbols used consciously by a group in a structured or conventional way. In summary, it refers to the words we use and how we use them to share ideas and get what we want. Languages can be spoken, signed and/or written. We are ‘wired’ for oral language – almost as if it’s an instinct. Language is one of the key ways we differ from other primates. It is an important element in what makes us human.

Speech is the expression of thoughts and feelings by humans through articulated sounds that come out of our mouths and noses (with help from our cranial nerves, lungs, vocal cords, throats, soft palates, teeth, facial and neck muscles and tongues). Speech is one way that we express language.

Language includes:

Morphology - What words mean.

Some words have more than one meaning. For example, “star” can be a bright object in the sky or someone famous.

Phonology - How to make new words.

For example, we can say “friend,” “friendly,” or “unfriendly” and mean something different.

Syntax and Semantics - How to put words together.

For example, in English we say, “Peg walked to the new store” instead of “Peg walk store new.”

What we should say at different times.

For example, we might be polite and say, “Would you mind moving your foot?” But, if the person does not move, we may say, “Get off my foot!”

Speech consists of the following:


How speech sounds are made (e.g., children must learn how to produce the “r” sound in order to say “rabbit” instead of “wabbit”).


Use of the vocal folds and breathing to produce sound (e.g., the voice can be abused from overuse or misuse and can lead to hoarseness or loss of voice).


The rhythm of speech (e.g., hesitations or stuttering can affect fluency).

Speech and language problems don’t always happen together. However, problems with speech development can sometimes affect language development and vice versa. For example: a child who can make only a few sounds may struggle to communicate with others. A child who can only say /b/ and /m/ and a few vowels will find it difficult to ask for Daddy’s watch, although she may compensate with gestures, such as pointing; and a child with a vocabulary of fewer than 50 words may not have much opportunity to practice or master some of his speech sounds, which may in turn affect his intelligibility.

Early identification and intervention is key for children with speech and language difficulties. Speech and language therapists can help those with development of skills and strategies, and to understand both your child's difficulties and strengths.

If you are concerned about your child’s ability to understand and use verbal and written language, please do contact us to make an appointment for an assessment. A speech and language therapy assessment can identify a child’s area of strengths and areas to develop allowing specific and targetted therapy.