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What is Speech? And What's AAC Got to Do With It?

May is Better Hearing, Speech (and Language) Month so I thought I'd muse on a topic near and dear to my heart-the connections between AAC and typical communication development. Throughout the month of May, look out for posts, resources, and trainings that center around this incredibly valuable philosophy that helps all of us supporting communicators with complex needs keep our eye on the prize-communication independence.

You might think it is silly to have a speech related post on an AAC focused website, but stick with me. It is super important that parents and professionals alike understand the difference between speech and language development and how AAC plays a role for communicators without speech, with full speech, and everything in between.

What is speech?

Speech is breath, voice, and the movements of the mouth working together to verbally express wants, needs, thoughts, and ideas. We create speech by stringing sounds together in certain ways with certain melody and rhythm. When the coordination for speech is working well, speech is easy to understand (intelligible). When the coordination for speech is not working as it should, speech is hard to understand or may not develop at all.

How does speech develop?

Just like all skills, speech develops gradually over the course of a child's life. Speech development starts when a baby is immersed in the sounds of his mother tongue as his family speaks to him. Soon, a baby learns to make "coos and goos" to explore sound, and then babbles, combining the sounds that will eventually become words. At an early age, babies learn to play with sounds, taking turns with their caregivers in early "conversations" (vocal play). By watching, listening, and exploring, children learn to imitate the sounds and sound sequences of their adult models and typically start to produce their first spoken words by around 12-14 months of age.

Some "consonant" sounds- like b, p, m, t, d, n, k, and g are earlier to develop and easier to produce than others. "Vowel" sounds- like a, e, i, o , and u- also emerge earlier in development and children begin their use of spoken words with simple, short word shapes that combine these early sounds (consonants with vowels). As a child grows, she becomes better able to produce more complex word shapes and to sequence more words together, first with some approximation, and eventually, with the same precision as an adult. Children are typically expected to be fully understood by others by the time they reach 5 years of age.

What happens when speech does not develop as it should?

Sometimes, the development of speech is significantly impacted by injury or conditions present at birth. This may result in a breakdown at one or more points in the coordination process, resulting in speech that may not be available to a communicator at all or may not be sufficient to support everyday needs and quality of life.

Examples of conditions that have an impact on the production of speech:

Anarthria (no voice)

(this isn't an exhaustive list)

These types of challenges impact the successful coordination of speech in one or more ways and often result in absent speech or speech that may be difficult for others to understand in the short or long term.

How does AAC support speech?

AAC is perhaps just as valuable for communicators with speech as it is for those without. AAC offers support when...

  • Speech is absent by offering a voice through speech generating technologies. Lighter forms of AAC can offer access to language without generating speech, offering individuals the ability to express themselves with pictures or text.

  • Speech is present but may be hard to understand, offering a way for individuals to repair breakdowns in their communication, especially when communicating with people who may be less familiar with their speech style.

  • Speech is present but limited by offering a platform upon which an individual with limited speech can learn new language and use more complex language they may not be able to communicate verbally.

  • Speech is present and developing rather well, but may become inaccessible to an individual due to anxiety, sensory challenges, or physical states that reduce access to the ability to coordinate for speech.

Will AAC Prevent Speech from Developing?

Nope. AAC has not been shown to negatively impact the development of speech and some studies support a positive impact on speech development when AAC strategies and tools are used to supplement speech.

You can download a printer-friendly handout of this information on our Tools page

Do you or someone you love use AAC to support your speech? Share your story with us in the comments below!


1 Comment

Stephanie Gagnon
Stephanie Gagnon
May 12, 2021

Awesome resource! Thank you!

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