Language In Brief


Language is a system of patterns and symbols used to communicate. It is defined as the comprehension and/or use of a spoken (i.e., listening and speaking), written (i.e., reading and writing), and/or signed (e.g., American Sign Language) communication system. In some cases, individuals may use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) to replace or supplement spoken language. For further information, please see ASHA’s Practice Portal page on Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC).

Language is both expressive (e.g., speaking, writing, signing) and receptive (e.g., listening, reading, watching). Spoken language, written language, and their associated components are each an interdependent system comprised of individual language domains that form a dynamic integrative whole (Berko Gleason, 2005).

The five language domains are as follows:

  • phonology
  • morphology
  • syntax
  • semantics
  • pragmatics

These five language domains are often grouped into three components of language, as follows:

  • form: phonology, morphology, and syntax
  • content: semantics
  • use: pragmatics

The chart below describes how each language domain relates to spoken and written language. Signed languages and AAC can facilitate development of the language domains below. It is important to note that individual languages and dialects vary across the five components of language. Each dialectical speech community has its own range of social and linguistic diversity (ASHA, 2003). For example, what is pragmatically appropriate in one community may be unusual in another community.

Spoken language

Written language






Identifying and distinguishing between different phonemes when listening (i.e., phonological awareness)

Using necessary phonological patterns while speaking

Understanding of letter–sound associations while reading (i.e., phonics)

Using necessary spelling while writing


Understanding the meaning of free morphemes (e.g., “cookie” in English) and bound morphemes (e.g., past tense –ed in English) when listening

Using necessary morphemes when speaking

Understanding morphemes while reading (e.g., understanding the meaning of past tense –ed in English)

Using necessary morphemes (e.g., using past tense –ed in English) when writing


Understanding sentence structures (e.g., passive sentences, sentences with relative clauses) when listening

Using necessary sentence structures when speaking

Understanding sentence structures (e.g., passive sentences, sentences with relative clauses) while reading

Using necessary sentence structures and accepted word order, including necessary function words, when writing


Recognizing and understanding the meaning of spoken words

Using words in a meaningful way when speaking (e.g., labeling an object, describing an action)

Recognizing and understanding the meaning of written words

Using words in a meaningful way when writing (e.g., writing the name of an object, describing an action)


(includes discourse)

Understanding social aspects of spoken language, including turn-taking in conversation

Using spoken language in social situations, including production of cohesive and relevant messages during conversations

Understanding points of view and audience perspective

Conveying points of view and the intended message in writing

See ASHA’s resource on developmental norms for speech and language for more information.

The five basic language domains are part of a continuum that spans higher-order language skills, which include

  • inferencing;
  • comprehension monitoring;
  • interpretation of complex and nonliteral language, such as jokes, puns, and idioms; and
  • text structure knowledge.

Metalinguistic awareness is “the ability to think about and reflect upon language” and is necessary for the development of higher order language skills (Gillon, 2004, p. 10). Metalinguistic awareness includes phonological, morphological, syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic awareness. Metalinguistic skills are also critical for self-regulation and self-monitoring.

Language Acquisition and Use

An interaction of biological, cognitive, psychosocial, and environmental factors determines how language is learned and used. Language develops within specific historical, social, and cultural contexts. Dialects are variations of a linguistic symbol system that reflects the shared regional, social, or cultural/ethnic backgrounds of its speakers (ASHA, 2003). Examples of dialects spoken in the United States include General American English, African American English, and Southern White English (Oetting, 2020).

Effective use of language for communication requires an understanding of human interaction, including nonverbal cues, motivation, and sociocultural roles.

Relationship Between Spoken Language and Written Language

Spoken language is generally considered to be a foundation for written language. The “simple view of reading” (Gough & Tunmer, 1986; Hoover & Gough, 1990) is a widely accepted framework in which both decoding (i.e., identifying the speech sounds associated with specific letters or letter combinations) and spoken language comprehension contribute to successful reading. This means that an individual’s knowledge of phonology, grammar, and semantics in spoken language supports their reading and writing skills. Phonological awareness—an aspect of spoken language knowledge—is often discussed in relation to reading and writing.

Phonological awareness underlies the ability to manipulate speech sounds (i.e., phonemes) in spoken words. It has been found to contribute notably to reading and writing development (Al Otaiba et al., 2009; Lemons & Fuchs, 2010; Scarborough, 1998), particularly for early readers (Hogan et al., 2005). Components of phonological awareness include syllable awareness (e.g., one syllable in “cap” vs. two syllables in “again”), onset–rime awareness (e.g., onset: “cap” vs. rime: “cap”), and phoneme awareness (e.g., “cap” contains three phonemes: /k/ + /æ/ + /p/).

Phonics, a core written language skill for reading and writing development, is the direct instruction of pairing sounds with the knowledge of letter names (i.e., graphemic awareness).

Language Disorder

A language disorder is a persistent difficulty learning and using language. This could include spoken, written, and/or signed language. The disorder may involve the form of language (phonology, morphology, syntax), the content of language (semantics), and/or the function of language in communication (pragmatics) in any combination (ASHA, 1993). Some individuals with language disorders may require AAC as a means of, or supplement to, expressive communication.

Language disorders can be developmental (i.e., from birth or beginning in childhood) or acquired (i.e., due to an event such as a traumatic brain injury or stroke). Language disorders may persist across the life span, and symptoms may change over time (Bashir, 1989; Conti-Ramsden & Botting, 1999; Orrego et al., 2023). Furthermore, a language disorder can be a distinct diagnosis or may occur within the context of other conditions (Bishop et al., 2017).

A regional, social, or cultural/ethnic variation of any spoken language or symbol system is not considered a disorder of speech or language (ASHA, 1993).

See ASHA’s Practice Portal pages on Spoken Language Disorders and Written Language Disorders for more information.

Relationship Between Language Disorder and Social Communication Disorder

Children with language disorders may have difficulty with social communication, which relies on verbal and nonverbal language. Social communication includes social interaction, social cognition, pragmatics, and language processing. More information about social communication can be found on ASHA’s Social Communication Disorder Practice Portal page.


Al Otaiba, S., Puranik, C. S., Ziolkowski, R. A., & Montgomery, T. M. (2009). Effectiveness of early phonological awareness interventions for students with speech or language impairments. The Journal of Special Education, 43(2), 107–128.

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (1993). Definitions of communication disorders and variations [Relevant paper].

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (2003). American English dialects [Technical report].

Bashir, A. S. (1989). Language intervention and the curriculum. Seminars in Speech and Language, 10(3), 181–191.

Berko Gleason, J. (2005). The development of language (6th ed.). Pearson Education.

Bishop, D. V. M., Snowling, M. J., Thompson, P. A., Greenhalgh, T., & the CATALISE-2 consortium. (2017). Phase 2 of CATALISE: A multinational and multidisciplinary Delphi consensus study of problems with language development: Terminology. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 58(10), 1068–1080.

Conti-Ramsden, G., & Botting, N. (1999). Classification of children with specific language impairment: Longitudinal considerations. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 42(5), 1195–1204.

Gillon, G. T. (2004). Phonological awareness: From research to practice. Guilford Press.

Gough, P. B., & Tunmer, W. E. (1986). Decoding, reading, and reading disability. Remedial and Special Education, 7(1), 6–10.

Hogan, T. P., Catts, H. W., & Little, T. D. (2005). The relationship between phonological awareness and reading: Implications for the assessment of phonological awareness. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 36(4), 285–293.

Hoover, W. A., & Gough, P. B. (1990). The simple view of reading. Reading and Writing, 2(2), 127–160.

Lemons, C. J., & Fuchs, D. (2010). Phonological awareness of children with Down syndrome: Its role in learning to read and the effectiveness of related interventions. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 31(2), 316–330.

Oetting, J. B. (2020). General American English as a dialect: A call for change. The ASHA Leader Live.

Orrego, P. M., McGregor, K. K., & Reyes, S. M. (2023). A first-person account of developmental language disorder. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 32(4), 1383–1396.

Scarborough, H. S. (1998). Early identification of children at risk for reading disabilities: Phonological awareness and some other promising predictors. In B. K. Shapiro, P. J. Accardo, & A. J. Capute (Eds.), Specific reading disability: A view of the spectrum (pp. 75–119). York Press. [PDF]

ASHA Corporate Partners