It is true that both speech and language play a role in communication. However, these terms are not synonymous. While the terms “speech” and “language” may seem interchangeable, it is very important to differentiate their meanings and understand how they are involved in communication.
So what’s the difference? Speech is how we produce words and sounds aloud. It includes articulation, or the movement of our mouth, lips, and tongue; voice, like pitch, loudness, and softness; and fluency, or the smoothness in our speech. All of these factors, including our breath and other vocal structures, contribute to our ability to say words aloud.
But what are we saying when we speak? In order to speak our thoughts and communicate, we need some kind of shared system of knowledge to get these thoughts across. This shared system of knowledge is known as language. Language not only can be spoken, but also written, signed, gestured, or produced with a speech-generating device. We use language in order to have meaning behind words or concepts, also called semantics. For example, our semantic language agrees that the meaning of “flower” is a plant, often with petals, that grows from a seed. When we make new words or adjust parts of a word, like changing “jump” to “jumped,” this is referred to as morphology. Furthermore, if we don’t abide by the same rules in a language, it becomes difficult for other people to know what we are talking about. That is why grammar, or syntax, is imperative for language. Knowing how to use language appropriately, social contexts, for instance, is following the pragmatics of language. Correlating articulation rules with specific sounds, like the “p” sound, implements the last language domain: phonology.
Why is this difference important?
Speech and language problems do not always happen at the same time. People who understand what others are saying to them but are unable to speak fluently and clearly may have apraxia of speech, dysarthria, or a fluency disorder, like stuttering. These are primarily speech problems. However, language impairments may exist with or without a speech disorder. Language impairments can inhibit communication both receptively and expressively with impairments in semantics, morphology, syntax, pragmatics, and phonology. These can include populations such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and individuals with aphasia.
This difference is important to recognize when communicating with someone with a language or speech disorder. Knowing the difference can help communication partners understand what their spouse, child, grandparent, friend, or peer’s strengths and difficulties are when communicating. Whether you are a Speech-Language Pathologist or know someone with a language and/or speech disorder, we can all become better communication partners and improve how we interact with those around us.