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Speech Pathology 101: Speech, Language, and Communication

Friday, May 18, 2012

Speech. Language. Communication. What exactly do these words mean? As a speech and language pathologist, I am constantly thinking about these three words and all that encompasses them. However, if you do not work in this field, these terms may seem interchangeable. What is the difference between these words? This is one of my most frequent questions, so I thought this was a perfect place to introduce this blog, which I hope will provide information on the different areas of speech, language, communication, development, and more.


Communication refers to how an intended message is conveyed from one person to another. Communication is a broad term that includes a variety of means to share the message, including spoken language, nonverbal communication, written language, and sign language. Spoken language is just that-what is said from one person to another to get your point across. The same goes for written language, whether it be a thank you letter, an email, or a honey-do list, the written word lets others know your message through writing. Nonverbal communication can be expressed by anyone and includes so many things: a smile, a shrug of the shoulders, the "teenage eye roll" (as it is known in my family), pointing to an item, leading someone by the hand, a raise of the eyebrows to show surprise, and the list goes on.

Alternative communication devices fall into this category as well. These are devices, such as the iPad, Springboard lite, and Dynavox Maestro, that are used to help convey a message to others for children and adults that have difficulty expressing their intended message verbally for a variety of reasons. Sign language is another form of communication. While American Sign Language is a separate language, the use of signs in therapy and even with babies is very common and a great way to allow a message to be shared. As you can see, communication can include a variety of means, but refers to how the message is conveyed from one communicator to another.


Language refers to a rule governed, symbolic system used to share a message. Language is divided into three categories which include expressive language, receptive language, and social language. Expressive language refers to how well a person uses words to communicate. Receptive language refers to how well a person understands the intended message. Social language, which is the third type of language refers to the understanding of how to use language, as well as how to interact with others in social situations and can include things such as knowledge of personal space, eye contact, topic introduction/maintenance/closure, interrupting, turn taking, etc.

Children start developing their vocabulary based on the language they are surrounded by in their environment. As children develop vocabulary, they begin combining words and start to add grammar to their utterances to request, negate, demonstrate, declare, share, etc. Typically, children make expected mistakes in their language as they are learning how to use it and these mistakes will likely be corrected over time. There are instances in which the grammar and word usage are not developing as expected, and that is when it would be a good idea to talk with a certified speech and language pathologist (SLP) to learn more. As children use more spoken language, their speech develops as well.


Speech is the vocalized production of sound to communicate ideas. Speech is produced using our tongues, lips, teeth, palate, vocal folds, and respiratory system. Just like language, speech is broken down into several subcategories. These include articulation, which is the physical act of making targeted sounds; phonology, which is the ability to follow rules or sounds patterns in speech; fluency, which is the ability to talk "smoothly" with an appropriate rate and rhythm (most often referred to as "stuttering); and voice, which is the ability to speak using appropriate vocal hygiene, including appropriate vocal quality, pitch, resonance, and prosody based on age and gender. Children may have an abundance of language, but have difficulty conveying their message because of their speech development or mistakes in their speech sounds. There are expectations about when children should have certain sounds mastered and what to look for with childhood fluency concerns, and if a concern is noted, consult a certified SLP to see if these concerns are valid.

Speech. Language. Communication. Three distinct concepts that work together to allow us to share our message with others.