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Speech Versus Language: What’s the Difference?

While it’s common to hear the words speech and language used interchangeably, they actually have different meanings in a clinical setting – as Hear and Say Listening and Spoken Language Specialist, Jessica Tattam explains.

Speech is the way we produce sounds to form words. That is, speech is the physical act of talking. It’s how we articulate our vowels and consonants in such a way to generate the recognisable sounds that make language.

For example, to produce the ‘s’ sound our mouth, lips, tongue and voice need to be in specific places. The blade of the tongue is almost touching the alveolar ridge (the roof of the mouth just behind the upper teeth), the lips are spread like when we smile and our teeth are almost closed. Air then flows over the centre of the tongue through our teeth to produce the ‘s’ sound.

Language is then how we use words to get our message across to others. This includes vocabulary, use of expressive language (conveying our own spoken language) and receptive language (how we understand others).

Language is governed by a series of rules including:

  • Sentence structure (e.g. in English we would say, “Annie got a new shirt” rather than, “Annie new shirt got”)
  • Meaning of words (e.g. ‘bark’ can be the noise a dog makes or it can be found on a tree)
  • The emphasis we put on words (e.g. the sentence, “I didn’t say he crashed his bike” can have different meanings when we emphasise specific words – “I didn’t say he crashed his bike” or “I didn’t say he crashed his bike” or “I didn’t say he crashed his bike”).

People of all ages can face challenges with speech, language or both. For parents, knowing what red flags to keep an eye out for with children will help identify any developmental concerns early. It will also ensure the right support is received.

Concerns relating to a child’s speech development may include:

  • Difficulty understanding what the child is saying
  • Only parents or carers recognising what their child is saying or asking for, while other family members, peers or educators have significant difficulty understanding them
  • Inconsistent production of words (e.g. when a child produces the same word in multiple ways – car or dar or gar)
  • Producing words with incorrect vowels (e.g. car becomes core)
  • Dropping off initial sounds of words (e.g. car becomes ‘ar)
  • Frustration when trying to communicate with others.

Concerns relating to a child’s language development may include:

  • Difficulties following instructions (e.g. “Go and put your shoes on.”)
  • Shows signs of echolalia – this is where a child simply repeats back what was said without following through (e.g. a parent says, “Go and get your shoes on” and the child repeats, “Get shoes” but does not complete the task)
  • Poor vocabulary, with minimal understanding of words or unable to name objects, animals etc.
  • Difficulties answering “Wh-” questions (Who, What, When, Where, Why, How)
  • Poor concentration
  • Demonstrates understanding of what an object is (e.g. by pointing), but is unable to find the word to say what it’s called
  • Frustration when trying to communicate with others.

If you have any questions about your child’s speech and language development, Hear and Say’s specialist Listening and Spoken Language team is here to help. Please contact us here or phone 07 3850 2111 to find out more.

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At 9.10pm on 24 October 2013 our beautiful daughter Maia was born. 

The moment of elation was short-lived as we immediately noticed her left ear was missing. I frantically looked to the medical team around me for answers but received none.

Panic set in as we waited 4 days in hospital for an ENT to explain her condition, by which point we already had all the answers from Simone, who runs the Microtia and Atresia Program at Hear and Say.

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