What is the Difference Between Speech and Language?

What is speech? What is language? These are questions I hear often when working with families, educators, and medical professionals so I thought it might be helpful to explain the difference. 


Speech refers to the individual’s ability to communicate verbally. Speech includes articulation, fluency, and voice. 

Articulation and Phonology

Articulation refers to the actual process of production of speech sounds. A child with a speech impediment has difficulties with the production of a certain sound (e.g., “R”, “L”, or “S”). Articulation errors are substitutions, distortions, omissions, and less commonly additions. 

An 8-year-old child who says: “The thun is shining in the thky” is using the sound /TH/ instead of /S/. This is an example of an articulation disorder which we call a frontal lisp or an interdental /S/. The therapy with this child is going to be directed at establishing a correct tongue placement for the sound /S/. 

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Some children have difficulties using a group of sounds or patterns. A 5-year-old who says: “The tow dives milt” has not mastered the production of the sounds “K” and “G”. We call this process “fronting” (consonants "K" and "G", produced back in the mouth, are substituted by “T” and “D” which are produced in the front of the mouth). Fronting occurs in typical speech development, and is usually eliminated by the age of 4. Fronting is a phonological process. Another common phonological process is final consonant deletion in which final sounds in words are not produced (e.g., "do" for "dog").  

Motor speech disorders/ Apraxia of speech

Apraxia of speech is a rare disorder which affects the process of planning the movements of the articulators for the production of speech. Apraxia varies in severity. Kids on the severe end rely on augmentative and alternative communication to communicate. Many kids with apraxia develop typical speech.  


Fluency is the flow of speech. Stuttering and cluttering are fluency disorders characterized by interruption in the rhythm of speaking in the form of sound/ word repetitions, prolongations, and blocks. 


Voice is produced by the vibration of the vocal folds and breathing. Misuse of the voice can lead to changes in the vocal quality or loss of voice.  


Language is a complex and dynamic system of conventional symbols that is used in various modes for thought and communication. I like ASHA's definition of language: 

Contemporary views of human language hold that:

language evolves within specific historical, social, and cultural contexts;
language, as rule-governed behaviour, is described by at least five parameters—phonologic, morphologic, syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic;
language learning and use are determined by the interaction of biological, cognitive, psychosocial, and environmental factors;
effective use of language for communication requires a broad understanding of human interaction including such associated factors as nonverbal cues, motivation, and sociocultural roles.

Receptive language (language comprehension) refers to the individual’s ability to understand others.

Expressive language is being able to share one’s ideas through gestures, words, phrases, or writing. 

A speech-language pathologist working with a child with expressive language disorder aims at helping the child increase the number of words produced; generate words, word combinations or use more complex phrases; use grammatical markers. Following verbal directions, answering questions, identifying what pictures mean are common therapy goals for individuals with receptive language disorders.  

Photo courtesy of 古 天熱 via Creative Commons license

Denitsa Getsova

Denitsa graduated from the Master’s program in Speech-Language Pathology at Sofia University, Bulgaria. In her practice, she has worked with preschool and school-aged children with a wide range of communication difficulties – speech (articulation, phonology, motor speech), fluency (stuttering), language, preliteracy and literacy skills, cognitive-communication (social communication, executive functions). Denitsa has completed the It Takes Two to Talk®and More Than Words®family-focused intervention programs designed for parents of children with language delays and social communication difficulties/Autism Spectrum Disoders (ASD). Additionally, Denitsa has received training in the PROMPT system(for motor speech disorders), DIR®Floortime Model (child-centered approach for children with ASD) and PECS (augmentative/alternative communication program for nonverbal or minimally verbal children). Denitsa incorporates new technology and uses an iPad in her sessions both as a way to support her clients’ communication needs and a tool for language learning. She provides assistance to parents in the process of selection of educational iPad applications for home practice.