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Speech versus Language:  Terms to Know in Pediatric Speech Therapy

The world of speech therapy is indeed filled with much technical jargon, such as pragmatics, morphology, variegated babbling, semantics, receptive language, expressive language, articulation, and so on and so on. While, like in all fields, these technical terms help the professionals in the field navigate through different diagnosis, syndromes and symptoms they don’t do much to help parents and families understand what their child is actually doing in therapy. Most likely, as a parent, you’ve probably been told that your child has been diagnosed with a receptive language disorder, an expressive language disorder, an articulation disorder, impaired pragmatic skills or some combination of the four, but you may still be unclear about what exactly that means or even the difference between speech and language. My hope is that by the end of this article you will have a more in-depth understanding of the different terminology specialists may use and better understand what your child is doing in therapy.

The first thing to know when dealing with speech and language therapy is the difference between speech and language. When a therapist is referring to “speech” they are referring to how sounds are produced. The actual production of sounds and words is characterized as speech, also referred to as articulation. So if your child has been diagnosed with a speech/articulation disorder, they are having difficulty pronouncing certain sounds/letters, such as pronouncing the word ‘cat’ as ‘tat’ by substituting a ‘t’ sound for the ‘k’ sound. When a therapist is determining whether or not a child has an articulation disorder, they are evaluating how the child produces all sounds in the beginning, middle and end of words as well how well the child can be understood in conversation. This gives the therapist a clear picture of the sounds that the child is misarticulating (mispronouncing) and in what position of words, as some kids can make a sound at the beginning of a word but may have trouble making that same sound at the end of words. Speech also may refer to the quality of vocal production, and as such, speech disorders may also include stuttering, and/or diminished vocal quality caused by nodules or polyps.

Speech differs from language in that while speech is the actual physical production of sounds, language is how we use the words and sounds we generate, and can further be subdivided into receptive language, expressive language, and pragmatic language, each having its own unique definition and corresponding disorders.

Receptive language refers to how we understand language. This includes following directions, identifying pictures/gestures, and understanding basic concepts such as more/most, descriptions, etc.

Expressive language is defined as how we use the language that we have. This includes formulating sentences correctly, answering questions, labeling vocabulary and using grammatical endings such as –ed, -ing.

Pragmatic language is also referred to as the social use of language and deals with whether or not the language we have is being used appropriately for the situation. Pragmatic language encompasses nonverbal communication and how we understand body language, facial expressions and tone. A child can have a disorder in one, some or all of the areas of language mentioned above or have disorders of both language and speech.

These are just a few of the most important terms that you may come across in your therapeutic experience and might want to know. Most parents are able to describe their concerns but may not know the technical terminology for the symptoms they are describing, and many times, we as therapists, brush past these terms, with the assumption that our parents are already familiar with them. But it is always important to be able to describe what is going on with your child and if you have a technical term, that even better helps therapists and doctors with taking a more detailed history and planning care. If you have any questions about speech or language therapy, please contact us at 404-606-3755.

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