What is the Difference between Speech and Language?

Speech and Language can sometimes be confused and their definitions are often confused as the same thing. However, there are many differences between Speech and Language. Christina Evangelou, Speech Therapist who specializes in Bilingualism explains the Speech definition and Language definition, and the difference between the two:

Speech and Language – Is there a difference?

This is a question that many parents ask when I introduce myself as a Speech & Language Pathologist. They ask: “But aren’t speech and language the same thing?”

The answer is that they both fall under the umbrella of communication, but both language and speech are different communication tools.

Language can be conveyed/communicated through different modes, it can be spoken, written or signed! All of these modes can be broken down to sentences, words, syllables and ultimately the smallest units- sounds.

Sounds combined make up speech and speech refers only to the spoken mode of communication.

The Iceberg of Speech and Language

This is best viewed as an iceberg analogy, where communication forms the entire iceberg.

speech-language-definition-difference

Language Definition

Language forms the base or submerged part of the iceberg. Language is composed of language:

  1. content/meaning which is also referred to as Semantics of language. For example “rose” refers to a flower but is also the past tense of the verb rise. This shows that the same word can have different meanings.
  2. form/structure which is also referred to as Syntax and morphology. For example: “give” “gave” and “given” all refer to the same action, but the meaning of sentence will change according to which form of the verb is used.
  3. use which is also referred to as Pragmatics. This is how language is used socially; asking and responding to questions, following a conversation and staying on topic

Speech definition

Speech constitutes the surface or visible structure of the iceberg. Speech is the production of sounds that make up words and sentences. These sound units are combined so that they make up words and sentences. Speech involves the co-ordination of our breathing, vocal cords, vocal tract, nasal tract tongue, jaw, tongue and lips; it is comprised of three main components:

  1. Voice ( the use of our breath and vocal cords to make sounds)
  2. Articulation (the way sounds are produced by the structures in our vocal tract)
  3. Fluency ( the rhythm that is required so that we speak without hesitation or repetition of sounds, syllables, words or sentences)

So far we have talked of speech and language as different skills; and they are two different skills that work together so that a message is clearly communicated.

So what happens when things go wrong?

If one of the two is not fully developed it can have an impact on the other. A child who might have trouble with speech sounds might be difficult to understand; on the other hand a child that might be experiencing problems with language might be able to pronounce words clearly, but understanding the meaning of what they are saying might be difficult. Clearly there is a lot of overlap among speech and language!

What about a bilingual child?

Many parents also ask how this iceberg analogy applies to their bilingual child. The answer is that bilingual language development is best viewed as two separate icebergs that are joined at the base where languages and ideas come from a common source; This means that the surface structures of the two icebergs are speech systems of two different languages, which often have different sound systems.

Speech and Language Development

If you are interested in learning more about speech and language development check out our Expert Advice section with a range of articles written by Speech Therapists and Speech Pathologists who specialise in bilingualism. Subscribe for related articles. Follow Bilingual KidSpot on Facebook and join our online community and support group.

The Iceberg of Speech and Language