As a speech pathologist I receive a lot of initial enquiries from parents who express concerns about their child’s speech. After they have told me a bit more information about their concerns and I have asked them a few more questions, more often than not they are actually concerned about their child’s language development. This is because there seems to be a general confusion about the difference between speech and language. So what’s the difference between speech and language?

Speech refers to the actual vocal production of sounds and words. It is how we articulate sounds and words, or how we pronounce words. Speech also includes our voice volume, intonation and the stress we place on sounds and syllables in words. If a child has a speech delay or disorder, it may be because they are:

  • Mixing up their sounds
  • Not saying a sound expected for their age
  • Speaking with unusual volume, intonation or stress (eg. using a robot voice)
  • Stuttering
  • Having difficulty planning movements for speech (motor speech disorder)

Language refers to the understanding of language (receptive language) and how we use language (expressive language). It includes both spoken and written language. Receptive language includes being able to follow instructions, answer questions and understand different words, sentences and stories. Expressive language includes the ability to put words together to form sentences, use grammar correctly, label objects, retell events and tell stories. If a child has a language delay, they may:

  • Make grammatical errors
  • Have trouble putting words and sentences together
  • Have a smaller vocabulary compared to their peers
  • Use shorter and simpler sentences compared to their peers
  • Have trouble understanding words and sentences
  • Have difficulty following instructions
  • Have trouble finding the right word or learning new words
  • Use non-specific vocabulary or talk in circles
  • Have difficulty retelling stories or describing events clearly

So, if you are concerned because your child is not talking yet or only has a few words, then you would be concerned with your child’s language development. If you are concerned because you can’t understand what words or sounds your child is saying, then you would be concerned with your child’s speech development.

What’s the Difference between Speech and Language?