Communication: An Overview

Communication is not just the words that you say. It is so much more than that!! Let’s take a look at an overview of communication.

Most parents who are concerned about their child’s communication are concerned because of their child’s speech. When asked what their concerns are, it’s usually something along the lines of “Joey isn’t speaking yet” or “I can’t hear what Megan is saying”.

Very rarely do I see a parent who tells me that they are concerned about what their child is understanding. This could be because speech is a lot more tangible than understanding. It’s a milestone that’s talked about and about which parents get very excited. You’ll often hear about a child’s first word, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard a parent announce “Joey followed his first single step instruction today!” However, that’s the kind of thing that I do get very excited about! Communication is so much more than speech.

Let’s take a look at the parts that make up communication.

            Language –

“a socially shared code or conventional system for representing concepts through the use of arbitrary symbols and rule-governed combinations of those symbols” (Owens, 2008)

As you can see from the quote above, language is in no way the same as speech. Speech is only one “system” which is used to communicate. Other systems are writing, signs or gestures. Language is learned through exposure and learning opportunities, which we’ll discuss later.

Language consistes of a number of components: Form (Syntax, Morphology and Phonology), Content (Semantics) and Use (Pragmatics – we’ll discuss pragmatics in a bit more detail later).


The first part of language form is Syntax. This pretty much means the rules of sentence structure. All sentences need both a noun phrase and a verb phrase. From a developmental point of view, even the utterance “cookie” is acceptable at the appropriate age, because “want” can usually be implied.

As a child grows older, he’ll start to combine words to form more complex sentences: “Want cookie” “Me want cookie” “I want cookie please” “Can I have a cookie please?”


Morphology is a bit more complicated than syntax, beacause we’re no longer just looking at words in a sentence, but at the smaller units in words, which are called morphemes. English words usually only have one or two morphemes, but some languages contain more.

A morpheme is “the smallest grammatical unit and is indivisible without violating the meaning or producing meaningless units” (Owens, 2008). So, in a word like trees, tree is one morpheme, meaning a plant with a trunk and some height, and –s is the other morpheme, meaning more than one. What’s important to note is that, as with syntax, understanding is vital before a child can use a morpheme correctly.


Phonology, the last aspect of language form, is concerned with the actual sounds of a language system. Whilst this sounds like it’s describing speech, phonology is not just speech. It’s the rules that govern how speech in a certain language sounds.

Whilst a child is learning language, they usually simplify adult speech to make it easier, using a number of patterns that we call “phonological processes”. These are usually normal, but they usually disappear at a stage. For example, a child may say “nana” for “banana”, which represents the phonological process of Weak Syllable Deletion, but by 4 years of age, this phonological process should be disappearing.

Another example is Fronting, where a child produces a sound that should be produced further back in the mouth in the front, for example saying “tootie” instead of “cookie”. This is age appropriate until the age of 3 ½.  Sometimes a child uses so many different phonological processes that it affects their intelligibility, which can be cause for concern.


The content of speech, or semantics, comes down to one very simple word: Meaning. What does a child mean when they are speaking?

Quite often, a child may use the word “dog” to describe any animal. That’s because, until being exposed to another animal, their understanding of dog was “four legged, fluffy creature”, which can be applied to a dog, a cat, a monkey, or even a horse.

As their world experiences increase and they are exposed to new features of different animals, they will start to understand that a dog is not just “four legged, fluffy”, but also  “barks, likes licking people, loves eating bones” and that a cat, whilst also being “four legged, fluffy” has additional features such as “meaows, purrs when happy, likes milk”.

            Speech –

“a verbal means of communicating … The result of planning and executing specific motor sequences, speech is a process that requires very precise neuromuscular coordination.” (Owens, 2008)

The quote above perfectly puts into words what speech is. Whilst speech feels very easy to me and you, it’s actually a very complex combination of planning and executing of movements. These movements are practiced in the first year of a child’s life. All that “goo-goo-ga-ga”ing that babies do? That’s them practicing to speak. Even in the first year of life, those sounds differ according to each language.

When a child starts speaking actual words, it’s the result of months of practice. As you can imagine with such a complex system, if there is any hinderance in any part of the process, then the development of speech will be affected. (For example movement that is affected by something like Cerebral Palsy or a disorder in the planning of speech).

            Pragmatics –

“concerned with the way language is used to communicate rather than with the way language is structured.” (Owens, 2008)

When we think of language and speech, we quite often forget to think about how we use them. That’s what pragmatics, or social communication, refers to. There are 3 important social communication skills:

  1. Using language for different reasons appropriately
  2. Changing language in different situations and with different listeners
  3. Following rules for conversation, such as turn taking, topic maintenance, using gestures and using eye contact (ASHA, 2018).

When someone doesn’t have these social skills, our interaction with them might feel awkward, or they may not be able to communicate their needs and feelings adequately. So these skills are extremely important skills to learn.

If you’ve enjoyed learning more about communication, sign up to receive our newsletter! For more advice on how you can assist in your child’s development of communication, take a look at the following posts: 5 Strategies that Speech Therapists use.Before words: 4 Prespeech Skills you can Boost Before your Child Turns 1!,

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