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    What Is Language? What Is Speech?

    Kelly's 4-year-old son, Tommy, has speech and language problems. Friends and family have a hard time understanding what he is saying. He speaks softly, and his sounds are not clear.


    Jane had a stroke. She can only speak in one- to two-word sentences and cannot explain what she needs and wants. She also has trouble following simple directions.


    Language is different from speech.


    Language is a symbolic, rule-governed system used to convey a message and is made up of socially shared rules including the following:

    • What words mean (e.g., "star" can refer to a bright object in the night sky or a celebrity)
    • How to make new words (e.g., friend, friendly, unfriendly)
    • How to put words together (e.g., "Peg walked to the new store" rather than "Peg walk store new")
    • What word combinations are best in what situations ("Would you mind moving your foot?" could quickly change to "Get off my foot, please!" if the first request did not produce results)


    Speech is the verbal means of communicating. Speech involves the physical motor ability to talk and consists of the following:

    • Articulation: How speech sounds are made (e.g., children must learn how to produce the "r" sound in order to say "rabbit" instead of "wabbit").
    • Voice: Use of the vocal folds and breathing to produce sound (e.g., the voice can be abused from overuse or misuse and can lead to hoarseness or loss of voice).
    • Fluency: The rhythm of speech (e.g., hesitations or stuttering can affect fluency).


    When a person has trouble understanding others (receptive language), or sharing thoughts, ideas, and feelings completely (expressive language), then he or she could have a language disorder.


    When a person is unable to produce speech sounds correctly or fluently, or has problems with his or her voice, then he or she could have a speech disorder.


    In our example above, Tommy has a speech disorder that makes him hard to understand. If his lips, tongue, and mouth are not moved at the right time, then what he says will not sound right. Children who stutter, and people whose voice sounds hoarse or nasal have speech problems as well.


    Jane has a receptive and expressive language disorder. She does not have a good understanding of the meaning of words and how and when to use them. Because of this, she has trouble following directions and speaking in long sentences. Many others, including adults with aphasia and children with learning disabilities, have language problems.


    Language and speech disorders can exist together or by themselves. You can have language without having speech. Though speech and language are related, you do not have to have speech to have a language. The best example of this is the use of Sign Language. American Sign Language, or ASL, is its own language. It is not just a gestural form of American English. It has its own set rules to govern how it is used: its own symbols, syntax, pragmatics, etc. For example, in spoken English, the symbol for a four legged animal that says “Meow” is “cat” however the symbol for this same thing in ASL is the sign for “cat.” You can completely communicate in ASL without ever speaking a word. This is a language that does not use speech.


    Communication, then, is the process of conveying a message or meaning to establish a shared understanding to others. You do not need speech or a shared language to communicate. Let’s say you decide on a trip to Rome, but you don’t speak one word of Italian. You get off your plane, and you want to pick up your rental car, but you can’t read any of the signs. You find a local, but he doesn’t speak English. What can you do to communicate to this person that you want to know where the rental cars are? There are a couple of ways. One, you could use your hands and gestures as if you are driving a car. Another way, could be to draw a picture of a car. This could help the local Roman help you find your way to the rental cars. Each of these options allows you to communicate without using speech or a shared language (i.e. English or Italian). You are using gestures or pictures to communicate!