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Holly L. Storkel, Ph.D.
University of Kansas

“My child doesn’t talk like other kids.” A lot goes into talking so there can be different problems that affect talking. Did you know that talking includes speech and language and that speech and language are different?

Talking: From thought to language to speech to hearing and back

The chain of events that links a speaker to a listener is sometimes called the speech chain (Denes & Pinson, 1993) but it really should be called the thought-language-speech-hearing-language-thought chain. This chain begins with a speaker having a thought they want to share with a listener (Denes, P. B., & Pinson, 1993; Levelt, 1989). The speaker then needs a way to get this idea out of their mind and into the mind of their listener.

One way to do this is through language and speech. For the language part, the speaker needs to come up with the words that will express their thought and put those words in the right order with the right word endings to make a grammatical sentence. For the speech part, the speaker coming up with the right sounds that make up the words. The speaker then moves their mouth in the right way to make the sounds. The speaker’s idea has now been turned into a sound wave that exists in the real world, not just the speaker’s mind.

The listener now takes over. The listener’s ear gets the sound wave and tuns it into speech sounds. The listener’s ability to hear and understand sounds is key to this step. The listener then uses their language ability to turn those sounds into words and to understand how the order of the words and the grammatical endings work together to paint a picture of the speaker’s thought. If all goes well, the listener will now understand the speaker’s thought. The speaker and the listener have successfully shared an idea!

Development of speech and language

Children learn the parts of the speech chain together but at different speeds. Speech development starts early. Infants babble to learn how to make different speech sounds. From there, children learn to pronounce speech sounds in words, so they sound more and more like an adult. There are charts showing the age when children learn to correctly pronounce different English speech sounds. Mistakes in speech sound pronunciation are not very common after age 8.

Language development also starts early but there are many parts of language to learn. Children learn words used to tell different thoughts. They learn ways to combine words into sentences. Children learn the endings or small words that need to be added to make a sentence grammatical. Children also learn how to put together parts of words to make new words. For example, they learn to put “re” with “use” to make the word “re-use.” All these parts of language help a child talk, but they also learn how to do all of this with letters for reading and writing. Language learning takes a long time. It begins at birth but extends even into adulthood because we are always learning new words for things. There are checklists showing the language skills children learn before kindergarten and during elementary school.

Difficulties with speech and/or language

Children can struggle with one part or with many parts in the speech chain. Different struggles may be noticed at different ages.

Difficulties with speech are usually spotted during preschool or kindergarten. Children with difficulty in speech are said to have a speech sound disorder. Signs to look for are

  • (1) difficulties saying specific sounds that other children can say correctly;
  • (2) being hard to understand because of pronunciation.

Language difficulties can be diagnosed at any age. Children with language difficulties are said to have a developmental language disorder. Signs to look for are

  • (1) not knowing or using the right words;
  • (2) putting the words in the wrong order,
  • (3) having trouble explaining thoughts, or
  • (4) having trouble understanding what others are talking about.

Children can have problems with speech or language or both. That means that you may first become aware of one difficulty, like speech, and later find out that your child also struggles in another area, like language. It’s important to know that what is easy or difficult for your child will change over time as they learn and grow. The services your child receives will need to change over time to keep up with these changes in your child.

Finally, it’s important to point out that children with speech or language disorders don’t necessarily have problems with the “thought” part of the chain. Parents and teachers often find this confusing. When told that a child has a speech or language disorder, a parent may say “but he’s smart.” The speech chain shows us that it’s possible to be smart with great thoughts but experience difficulties in sharing those thoughts through speech or language. Checking with a speech-language pathologist can be helpful in finding out your child’s strengths and weaknesses.


  1. Denes, P. B., & Pinson, E. (1993). The speech chain. Macmillan. Levelt, W. J. M. (1989). Speaking: From intention to articulation. ACL-MIT Press series in natural-language processing. Cambridge, MA, US: The MIT Press. (1989) xiv, 566 pp.