Speech vs Language – What is the Difference?
The first time you go to see a Speech Pathologist, you might have found yourself wondering what the ‘Speech’ in our title stands for. Sure, at first glance it may seem obvious (we help people with speech challenges like stuttering), however there’s a whole lot more to speech and language difficulties than meets the eye.
Over in America, Speech Pathologists are commonly known as Speech Language Pathologists – but that doesn’t mean that ‘Speech’ and ‘Language’ are the same thing. They’re actually quite different concepts when you get to know them, but like any other perfect pair they go together to help us communicate with and understand the people in our life.
Keep on reading to learn about speech vs language, and what the key differences are that make speech and language equally important.
What is Speech?
Simply put, speech is the term we use to describe our ability to produce sounds. For instance, if you were asked to say, ‘untigament’ you could say it, even though it is a meaningless nonword. You could even say words in other languages without knowing their meaning. That ability to produce sounds is speech.
From a more medical point of view, speech refers to the way we use the muscles of the tongue, lips, jaw, palate and vocal tract (known as our ‘articulators’) in a very precise and coordinated way to produce recognisable sounds that make up our language.
From a clinical perspective, we Speech Pathologists typically refer to these areas within Speech as Articulation, Voice, and Fluency. For us to produce Speech, we need to co-ordinate our speech subsystems; respiratory (lungs/breath), vocal (larynx- ‘the voice-box’ and vocal cords), resonatory (nasal areas) and our articulatory system (tongue, jaws, palate, teeth, lips).
We can support people through targeted and evidence-based therapy approaches to improve their speech clarity and overall, improve their communication abilities. Let’s dig into these ‘speech subsystems’ in a little more depth, shall we?
Articulation (Articulatory Subsystem)
Articulation is an area of speech that covers the different ways we use our articulators (tongue, jaw, vocal tract, lips) to make speech sounds. For example, we need to be able to articulate the “r” sound correctly to be understood by others when we want to say “rabbit”. Otherwise, it might come out sounding like “wabbit.”
Voice is a particularly interesting area of speech, especially if you’re fond of singing or using your voice for performances like an actor would. When we focus on voice, we’re considering how we use our vocal folds (how our vocal cords vibrate in harmony with air supplied by our lungs) and breath to make sounds. Our voice can be loud, soft, high-pitched, or low-pitched. We can also hurt our voice by talking too much, yelling, or coughing a lot. One of the most common reasons we work with someone on voice disorders is due to the impacts of Parkinson’s Disease. LSVT Loud is the ‘gold’ standard for Parkinson’s Disease-related voice disorders.
The easiest way to explain the area of fluency is by thinking about waves on the beach. Ideally, we want our Speech (the way we produce and form words) to be smooth like the gentle rolling in and out of the tide, so that we can be understood by others. If our speech is choppy like waves in a storm, it can be unpredictable and difficult to understand. One of the most common fluency challenges is stuttering – where people repeat sounds or pause while talking. Speech Therapy can help to improve fluency and therefore, reduce the severity of stuttering.
What is Language?
Now that we have explored speech and all the wonderful subsystems that bring it to life, let’s dive into Language and what makes it so different.
Language is the ability to pick and choose the right words to say – it’s a ‘brain’ skill! It is also the ability to understand what is being said.
Have you ever tried to learn a new language? It’s a challenging experience, isn’t it? There is so much to learn, from grammar to the meaning of words that you’ve never heard spoken in another language before. In the process of learning a new language there is so much to learn, from the way words are used in different tenses (gone, go, going to) all the way through to how to start and maintain a conversation with someone else speaking that same language.
It’s a lot to think about at once! So, it’s not surprising that some people may find themselves struggling with language challenges or even diagnosable Language Disorders.
What Makes Speech and Language Different?
We hope the differences between Speech and Language are becoming clearer now that we’ve explored what each area involves.
As a quick recap, Speech refers to the way in which we say words; articulating each speech sound in a way that makes sure we can be understood by others whether we are standing right next to them or shouting across a park while playing a game with friends.
Language on the other hand is all about meaning. Idioms like ‘on the other hand’ can be difficult for those learning English to understand because it requires an intimate knowledge and understanding of how we use the English language. When we struggle to comprehend the meaning of language, like after a stroke, it can be difficult to interact with loved ones and even health professionals taking care of us because we cannot understand everything they are saying to us.
Can You Have Speech Challenges without Language Challenges?
It is possible to experience difficulties with one or the other – just because someone struggles with Speech doesn’t mean they will struggle with Language.
For example, a child or adult may have typical language skills – understanding what others are communicating – but may be unable to speak clearly or fluently due to Dysarthria, a Stutter, or another challenge they are facing. This is someone facing a Speech challenge without necessarily having any Language challenges.
On the other end of the spectrum, a child or adult may be able to produce clear speech sounds but may have limited language skills that make it hard to communicate with those around them, including their close family members. This could be due to a Language Delay, a Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) or due to a stroke.
Do you know someone who is experiencing challenges with their Speech, Language, or both areas? We’d love to help. Our team of passionate Speech Pathologists work with people of all ages and with all types of Speech and Language concerns.
SpeechEase Speech Therapy have private practice clinics in Townsville, Mackay, and Brisbane with clinicians who are ready to help you to achieve your Speech and Language goals. Register for our Speech Therapy waitlist today!