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The Difference Between "Speech" and "Language"

To understand a whole picture of communication, we break it down into "speech" and "language." However, this leaves many people wondering what exactly those terms mean.


The term "speech" refers to how words and sounds are produced using the tongue, teeth, and lips. Speech is often associated with articulation therapy, or help pronouncing certain sounds, such as "rabbit" instead of "wabbit." Some mispronunciations are age appropriate and do not require intervention, however, please see "How will I know if my child needs articulation help?" for additional information.

Stuttering and voice disorders are also considered speech difficulties.

Importantly, "speech" can also include how a child associates sounds and letters. This is called phonological awareness and is a crucial skill for learning to read.


The term "language" refers to how a child express his or her ideas and how he or she understands the world around them.

There are three categories of language: expressive language, receptive language, and pragmatic language.

Expressive Language:

Expressive language is how a child expresses his or her ideas when speaking and writing. This includes:

  • ​vocabulary

For example, how many words your child uses and if they are using new words


  • word order

For example, "Went Jane to the store" instead of "Jane went to the store."

  • prefixes, suffixes, and roots

For example, "jump" + "ed" = jumped

  • sequencing and organization

For example, when your child tells a story, are the events in the right order?

  • writing

As a child gets older and begins to write, these issues be seen in his or her

writing as well.

When children learn new vocabulary, they become excited to find the words everywhere!

Even at the museum!

Receptive Language:

Receptive language is how a child understands what he or she is reading or hearing. It usually develops earlier than expressive language. It includes:

  • ​vocabulary

For example, does your child understand new words?

  • reading comprehension

For example, does your child understand the main idea of a story?

  • understanding concepts

For example, does your child understand "on" versus "in" and other location


  • understanding the "wh-questions"

For example, "who," "what," "when," and "where" are the first question words

children begin to understand. Understanding "why" and "how" can be more


Pragmatic Language:

Pragmatic language is how a child understands unwritten or "hidden" rules about social interactions. For example, how to be kind to friends, how to share, how to start and end a conversation, how to maintain eye contact, and many more.

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