Speech-Language Pathologists often throw around the terms “expressive language” and “receptive language” as though they are in everyone’s vocabulary. To clear up any confusion, here are definitions for these terms in simple language.
What is Receptive Language:
Receptive language is the understanding of language “input.” This includes the understanding of both words and gestures. Receptive language goes beyond just vocabulary skills, but also the ability to interpret a question as a question, the understanding of concepts like “on,” or accurately interpreting complex grammatical forms (i.e. understanding that the phrase “The boy was kicked by the girl” means that a girl did the kicking). A child typically develops receptive language skills first, you can think of children as sponges who absorb the rules and use of language before they begin to express themselves using each of these language skills.
What is Expressive Language:
Expressive language, is most simply the “output” of language, how one expresses his or her wants and needs. This includes not only words, but also the grammar rules that dictate how words are combined into phrases, sentences and paragraphs as well as the use of gestures and facial expressions.
It is important to make the distinction here between expressive language and speech production. Speech production relates to the formulation of individual speech sounds using one’s lips, teeth, and tongue. This is separate from one’s ability to formulate thoughts that are expressed using the appropriate word or combination of words.
If you have concerns about your child’s language development, consider both how they respond to directions you provide, as well as the words and word combinations they use. Give credit to the gestural cues and facial expressions that your child uses and reacts to as this is an early-developing and important skill. If your concerns persist, seek out the advice of a Speech-Language Pathologist who can evaluate your child and determine if their development is on track, or whether therapy is warranted. And regardless of your child’s skill set, keep talking and interacting with your child- however they are able. Language models are key in fostering the development of communication skills.