The difference between speech, language and communication.

Speech, language and communication – Speech and Language Therapists (SaLT) hear these terms used interchangeably; with a general overuse of the term “speech”; “my child has a speech delay” or “(s)he has a speech impediment”. Clinically, this has a different meaning for us as SaLT and different implications for you as parents, carers or educational staff.

Whilst it’s important for you to know the difference so that you can make sense of our professional jargon, it’s also helpful for you to better understanding your child’s communication skills and how to support Them.


Speech refers to the actual sounds produced, aka pronunciation. It is NOT what the person says, but HOW they say it. This involves your articulators; your tongue, lips, teeth and palate (roof of your mouth) moving together to coordinate the physical motor movements of speech. Think of your lips coming together to make a ‘b’ sound, or your lips rounding to make the vowel sound ‘oo’.

Children with unclear speech may substitute sounds for other sounds, e.g. a child may say “tat” instead of “cat”. They may also delete some sounds, e.g. “do” instead of “dog”.

When should you be worried about your child’s speech? Children will typically demonstrate immature speech sounds until around 3;06 years (with exceptions of trickier sounds, e.g. ‘r’ and ‘l’). Until this time, we focus on developing their language, which is distinguished and described below…

-> By 18 months a child’s speech is typically 25% clear to a familiar adult. 

-> By 24 months a child’s speech is typically 50 -75% clear to a familiar adult.

-> By 36 months a child’s speech is typically 75-100% clear to a familiar adult.



Language refers to the content of what we say. Language entails words (vocabulary), putting words together, using different sentence structures (syntax), and grammar.

Language is split into two broader categories:

  • Understanding of language (aka ‘receptive language’)
    This refers to a child’s ability to follow and understand language, including everyday instructions and concepts (e.g. concepts of size and time – big, small, now, next, tomorrow, etc).
  • Use of language (aka ‘expressive language’)
    Children with expressive language difficulties may struggle to acquire vocabulary at a rate expected for their age. They may also have difficulties combining words into sentences and picking up rules of grammar (e.g. rules of past tense).

By 24 months children typically have around 50 single words and begin combining two words together.


Communication is the broadest category of them all. Whilst ‘communication’ does include spoken language, communication is also more than words. Babies and infants learn to communicate far earlier than they begin to speak by using non-verbal communication. They do this by:

  • Crying to communicate that they are hungry.
  • Reaching to communicate that they want something.
  • Pointing to communicate they want to show you something.
  • Looking at you to communicate that they are sharing an experience with you.

You may find that your child with language difficulties is a strong communicator; they find a way to get their message across without using their words. Alternatively, you may find that your child struggles with their non-verbal communication as well as their spoken language. In this instance it would be best to seek advice from a qualified and experienced Speech and Language Therapist.

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