Sooo...Is It “Speech” or Is It “Language”?

Oct 10, 2023

There is a lot of terminology in AAC and speech-language pathology. For those who are not clinicians, terminology generally may not feel like it is especially important.

However, there are specific situations where terminology does matter.

  • It is important to understand the meaning of vocabulary words before using them in order to facilitate consistency and understanding while avoiding confusion.

For example, the terms “speech” and “language” may appear to be similar or even identical to some. Although they are related, they are two distinct concepts.

Speech refers to how people say words and sounds and encompasses articulation, fluency, and voice (ASHA, n.d.). Speech is the physical production and formation of words using mouth, voice, and breath.

  • When someone has challenges with one or more of the three areas of speech, it is not only difficult for them to functionally use speech to communicate, but it is also difficult for communication partners to understand what they are saying.

“Speech” in the context of AAC is how the speech-generating device says words and phrases. It is what communication partners hear out of the AAC device when interacting with someone who has complex communication needs.

  • Many AAC software, such as CoughDrop, have adjustable speech settings, especially voice and fluency settings. Such settings should be customized for each communicator to meet their and their communication partners’ receptive and expressive language needs and skills.

Language refers to the words that people use and how such words are used to communicate (ASHA, n.d.).

According to ASHA (n.d.), language is multidimensional and includes:

  • The meaning of words - There are words that have multiple meanings. For example, “key” can be something used to unlock a door or a button on a computer keyboard.
  • How to form new words - For example, the communicator can say “chill” or “chilly.”
  • How to string words together - For example, we say, “I go to the store” instead of “Store go to I.”
  • What to say when - For example, we may say, “The food was okay” to be nice (and honest) to the chef. But, if the food is nasty to the point that we cannot eat it, we may say, “The food is disgusting!”

“Language” in the context of AAC is how the communicator’s message is conveyed. It gives the message meaning. Language is the fabric of what is said.

Language is what robust AAC systems are built around.

  • People with complex communication needs must have access to language in order to effectively and efficiently communicate.
  • Speech is the medium by which language is conveyed to communication partners. It transforms language into something that people can auditorily process and decode the meaning of the language.

Speech and language are not necessarily interdependent.

A person can have clear speech and not have language skills. They would not be able to effectively and efficiently communicate because they do not have the words to represent their thoughts in a way that their communication partners can decode and understand their messages.

  • This is why it is so important to develop language skills in those with complex communication needs.

The voice output of AAC devices paired with the symbolic representation of language fosters the development of expressive and receptive language skills in the communicator via speech and AAC. It also provides support to develop the communicator’s reading and writing skills as they simultaneously hear the word's pronunciation while seeing its written form (Mirenda, 2008).

On the other hand, a person can have developed language skills and not clear speech. They have the words to represent their thoughts, but they cannot express such messages clearly enough for communication partners to decode and understand their messages.

  • AAC devices allow the communicator to express themselves in a way that communication partners can understand by transforming their language into clear speech.

The overall goal of AAC intervention is to enable people to participate in activities of their choice and engage in a variety of interactions effectively and efficiently (Beukelman & Light, 2020).

Language, regardless of how one may express it, is the fabric of effective and efficient communication, and speech makes those interactions possible.


American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA). (n.d.). What Is Speech? What Is Language?

Beukelman, D. R., & Light, J. C. (2020). Augmentative & Alternative Communication: Supporting Children and Adults with Complex Communication Needs (5th ed.). Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Mirenda, P. (2008). A Back Door Approach to Autism and AAC. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 24(3), 220–234.

Hannah Foley

Empowering Teams of Those With Complex Communication Needs Through Support and Implementation