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A Net Speech Blog

Speech and Language: What's the Real Difference? (Part 1)


As a parent, you get to watch and listen to your child talk (or not talk) day after day, hour after hour, minute by minute. Sometimes what your kid says just cracks you up! Like when they ask if they can go to the moon, or touch grandma's arm and ask so innocently why she has so many wrinkles?


JUMP TO SUMMARY (TLDR)


Whenever they are talking to you, the top two communication skills your child is using are called 'speech' and 'language'. But what's the difference between 'speech' and 'language'?


Speech or language signs held by kids

First, let’s back up to another term. You've probably heard of an ‘SLP’, and you may even know that their job acronym stands for Speech-Language Pathologist. This is because speech and language are two core areas of communication that an SLP assesses and treats.

The top two communication skills your child is using are called 'speech' and 'language'. But what do these two terms mean?

In this two-part blog post series, I will give you a parent-friendly overview of these two key terms in communication development: ‘speech’ and ‘language’.


In this first post, I will:

  • Describe speech and language differences

  • Describe speech development, with examples

  • Provide a short checklist of possible speech concerns

  • Describe two types of language processors, with examples

  • Explain the role of echolalia in language development

  • Provide a short checklist of possible language concerns


Speech and language are two core areas of communication that an SLP assesses and treats.

In the second blog post, I'll describe what is involved when a Speech-Language Pathologist evaluates a child for speech and language, provide some tips for parents who want to support their child's speech and language development at home, and also provide some guidance on sharing any communication concerns for your child with her pediatrician.


Let’s get started!


What's the Difference Between Speech and Language?

Woman with short dark hair, wearing a black and white striped top, head on hand with wondering look on face

As parents ponder this question, it's good to be reminded that in general, communication encompasses many factors: speech sounds, language comprehension, and spoken, written, or even pictorial utterances.


Communication is basically when one person shares his thoughts, emotions, wants, needs, etc, with another and that listener receives the intended message.


To get their message across, children use certain sounds (speech) to form spoken words or sentences (language).


Speech refers how the child makes the sounds for language. Language refers to both understanding and expressing thoughts and feelings with words. Let's look into each of these skills a bit deeper.


What is Speech?


Speech sound development starts when your child is an infant and will typically continue to progress until your child is about six or seven. According to recent research*, many children have fully mastered the ability to clearly produce all the individual sounds of their language by the time they turn five.


Speech refers to how the child makes the sounds for language.
Mom smiling and talking back to infant who is held by both mom and dad

When infants begin their journey with speech sound development, the sounds their mouths are experimenting with are called ‘babbling’.


Babbling or jargon


Babbling starts as early as 4-6 months with maybe one or two sounds, and is called Marginal Babbling. Then at 6-10 months they will typically enter the Canonical Babbling stage (which has two sub stages, Reduplicated and Variegated) and around 10 months they begin producing Conversational Babbling.

  • Marginal Babbling = usually one syllable, like ‘ma’ or ‘ba’

  • Reduplicated Babbling = repeated syllables, like ‘bababa’

  • Variegated Babbling = strings of different syllables, like ‘ba-guh-do’

  • Conversational Babbling = conversation intonation with strings of syllables

This may seem like many months spent on babbling skills! But it's important to remember that these early speech milestones of babbling are indicative of on-track speech sound development.


It's important to remember that these early speech milestones of babbling are indicative of on-track speech sound development.
Toddler girl laughing with open mouth, playing with a pillow

Words


When a baby becomes a toddler, they add more sounds and sound sequences. For example, at about one year of age children will say sequences of sounds that are words. And when they are two they will typically put together sounds for a couple words at a time. Their speech sounds can be what we call ‘approximations’. For example, they may say ‘wawa’ for ‘water’, or 'kee' for 'kitty', or even ‘go’ for dog’. But you can tell what they mean, and they’ll have many different sounds in their repertoire.


By three years old a typically developing toddler will have the following sounds in their repertoire: p, b, m, t, d, n, h, w, y. These are the easiest to produce with their still developing mouth structure and tongue agility. Three-year-olds will be able to say many words that have a sound sequence called a consonant-vowel pattern, also referred to as a CV pattern. This includes words such as 'go', 'no', 'hi', or 'bye'. Three-year-olds may also be producing a lot of words with CVCV patterns like 'mama', 'dada', or 'bye bye' or even CVC patterns, such as 'mom' and 'done'. Check out this free download for a quick glance at speech sound milestones.


Speech Sounds Development Concerns


If you’re concerned your child isn’t reaching certain speech milestones, here are some examples of common speech sound delays to look out for:

  • At age 3: not having most of these sounds 'm, b, p, w, f, n, d, t, y, g, k, ng, h’

  • At age 4: not putting the ending consonant on words, like 'bed' or 'man'

  • At age 4: not differentiating between /t/ and /k/, like saying 'I tan' for 'I can'

  • At age 5: being less than 100% understood by the parent

  • At age 6: not having clear /l/ or /r/ sounds and using a /w/ sound instead (for example saying 'wok' for 'rock or 'weef' for 'leaf

What is Language?


Language refers to how the child understands and expresses meaning; specifically, these are 'receptive' and 'expressive' language skills. If a child is delayed in language, they may be behind in both comprehension and expression, where some children may be behind in only one of these skill areas. Language development starts in infancy and continues a person's whole life. But generally by Kindergarten, most children have pretty normal, basic grammatical sentences.**


A common phrase heard for language delays is the 'late talker', a layman's term for the child who appears to understand a lot of what their caregivers say, but is just not talking or maybe only saying one-word utterances. Or it could be a child who also struggles with understanding others.


Language refers to how the child understands and expresses meaning.

Sometimes, these 'late talkers' are the kids who have ‘disappearing’ words; their parents may report that Jack used to say a phrase like ‘come on e’body’, but now never says this phrase and doesn’t say the word ‘come’ either. Sometimes these 'late talkers' are actually just kids on an alternate language development track; they are what we call 'gestalt language processors'.


Two Types of Language Processor Kids

Two boys smiling and holding up hands with 2 fingers raised

While talking more about ‘language’ as opposed to ‘speech’ development, let’s dive a little bit deeper into the concept of ‘language processors’.


Many children are what we speech-pathologists call ‘analytical language processors’ (APLs). These kids, even if delayed in their development, will follow a path to increase their spoken language skills by first saying words and increasing their word-size vocabulary up to over 50 words by two and a half. These kids then move to word combinations, then 3-4 word sentences, and finally longer sentences. That’s their type of language process.


Many children are what we speech-pathologists call ‘analytical language processors’ (APLs)....who increase their spoken language skills by first saying words....then word combinations, then 3-4 word sentences, and finally longer sentences.

On the other hand, some children are ‘gestalt language processors’ (GPLs). These kids can appear quite delayed, even non-speaking. For these children, they process all the incoming language in their environment first into chunks or units. Units can be as small as a word or as large as the text of a whole picture book or a long script from a favorite video.


On the other hand, some children are ‘gestalt language processors’ (GPLs). For these children, they process all the incoming language in their environment first into chunks or units.

GPL kids gain language in large chunks and then, if well-supported, learn that those chunks can be broken down into usable pieces able to be recombined in new ways. These are the kids that often exhibit something called ‘echolalia’.


Echolalia - A Strong Language Skill


What is echolalia? Echolalia (pronounced 'eck-oh-lay-lee-ya'), is a language repeating skill. Previously many people considered echolalia to be broken language. But it can actually be a strong skill on the part of a gestalt language processor as they sort out the stream of language around them.


Echolalia can be immediate or delayed. In immediate echolalia a child says what you say right after you say it. Or immediately repeating of words or sounds in a video. Or your child may repeat just the end of what you said.


What is echolalia? Echolalia (pronounced 'eck-oh-lay-lee-ya'), is a language repeating skill....it can actually be a strong skill on the part of a gestalt language processor as they sort out the stream of language around them.

For example, you may say, ‘Want to have some cake today?’ And your child responds with ‘cake today’. This might or might not be them answering you what their choice is, but if they are using echolalia, they are practicing repeating chunks of language. Gestalts are often not meant literally, but have a unique meaning for the child.

Small boy playing with toys inside

In delayed echolalia, the child stores a chunk of language in their memory to pull out and say later. Each chunk of delayed echolalia is also called a ‘gestalt’.


An example of a gestalt, or delayed echolalia, could be when your child seemingly randomly, while not reading the book, says a phrase from that book.


For example, they may say 'Did Pete cry? Goodness, no!' with the book intonation, when away from the book. This shows this gestalt is stored in their gestalt dictionary as a useful, engaging utterance that they like to say. Depending on the situation in which the child uses that gestalt, it could mean 'I don't need to cry' or 'Hey this is an unexpected situation' or even something else.


One of the keys for parents to know about delayed echolalia is that there is something attractive to the child in the original chunk of words that prompts them to store that chunk in their memory. It's maybe a funny thing, or extra special intonation, or produced by a face with lots of animation, or something else!


The take-away here is: kids who are GPLs need lots of fun, engaging language around them so they have lots of options to choose from to increase their growing gestalt language library.


Language Development Concerns


You may have heard of communication milestones for kids, just like there are health and development milestones that pediatricians check.


The typical language development milestones you'll find on the internet or at doctor's or SLP's offices are actually for analytical language processors. I have some of those same type of milestones you can download for yourself here.

Mom smiling with daughter hugging mom, both outside on fall day

But for either APLs or GPLs, here's a short snippet of some key areas of language development concerns:

  • At age 3: difficulty following 1-2 step directions (get your teddy and put him in the box)

  • At age 3: still depending largely on taking parents hands to get what they want rather than using words

  • At age 4: not answering simple questions about a story read to them (point to character/item and ask, 'Who/What is this?')

  • At age 4: not generating own combinations of words (only repeating from videos or only saying one-word utterances)

Whether your child is an analytical or gestalt language processor, the language delays or differences in this list are a good reason to have a check-in consultation a speech-language pathologist.


Whether your child is an analytical or gestalt language processor, the language delays or differences in this list are a good reason to have a check-in consultation a speech-language pathologist.

Historically, the analytical way of language development has always been called the norm. So, gestalt kids are often provided with only analytical development support from the adults in their lives. These kids may not be verbally speaking or may be only using echolalia for their utterances.


But there are great ways for family and speech pathologists to provide alternate supports to help GPLs to make progress on their alternate trajectory of language development.


I'll write more about these language processor types in the future, but for now, for more information on these gestalt language processor kids check out these two resources: Meaningful Speech and the Communication Development Center, or connect with me for a free consultation.


Summary


In this first post in this two-part series, you have read about the real difference between speech and language. I’ve given you an overview of the differences, defined each, given several examples of typical skills in each as well as examples of development concerns for both of these important communication skills.


Here's a summary of this post:


  • Speech is the sounds a child makes for communicating words

  • Infants begin developing speech sounds with babbling stages

  • Some common typical speech development concerns are listed here

  • You can access a speech sounds chart by ages here

  • Language is the words and sentences children understand and use

  • You can access a speech and language milestones by ages here

  • Analytical Language Processor kids develop language in a 'typical' trajectory

  • Gestalt Language Processor kids develop language in a top-down trajectory

  • Echolalia, or repeating, is a language skill used by GPL learners

  • Some common typical language development concerns are listed here


If you want to know more in relation to your child, whether your child is age 3 to 11, or anywhere between, feel free to connect with me for a consultation!


In the meantime, subscribe to my blog so you don't miss the next post in this two-part series. That's where I’ll go over what is involved when an SLP evaluates a child for speech and language skills, some ways that parents can support their child’s speech and language development at home, as well as some tips for talking to your pediatrician about any concerns you have.


Follow me here on Facebook or Instagram. *McLeod, S., Crowe, K. (2018). Children's consonant acquisition in 27 languages: A cross-linguistic review. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 27, 1546-1571. doi:10.1044/2018_AJSLP-17-0100

**McDaniel, J., Krimm, H., Schulele, C.M. Speech-Language Pathologist's Endorsement of Speech, Language, and Literacy Myths Reveals Persistent Research-Practice Gap. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools. 2023;54: 550-568. doi:10.1044/2022_LSHSS-22-00087


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