Language In Brief


Language is a rule-governed behavior. 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 other communication symbol system (e.g., American Sign Language).

Spoken and written language are composed of receptive (i.e., listening and reading) and expressive (i.e., speaking and writing) components.

Spoken language, written language, and their associated components (i.e., receptive and expressive) are each a synergistic system comprised of individual language domains (i.e., phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics) that form a dynamic integrative whole (Berko Gleason, 2005).

 Descriptions of the five language domains follow:

  • Phonology—study of the speech sound (i.e., phoneme) system of a language, including the rules for combining and using phonemes.
  • Morphology—study of the rules that govern how morphemes, the minimal meaningful units of language, are used in a language.
  • Syntax—the rules that pertain to the ways in which words can be combined to form sentences in a language.
  • Semantics—the meaning of words and combinations of words in a language.
  • Pragmatics—the rules associated with the use of language in conversation and broader social situations.

The five basic language domains are part of a continuum which spans to higher order language skills, such as discourse, which is impacted by skills in the pragmatics domain.

Higher order language skills include inferencing; comprehension monitoring; interpretation of complex language, such as jokes and puns; and use of text structure knowledge. Metalinguistic awareness is requisite for the development of higher order language skills and is defined as "the ability to think about and reflect upon language" (Gillon, 2004, p. 10). Metalinguistic awareness includes phonological awareness, morphological awareness, syntactic awareness, semantic awareness, and pragmatic awareness. Metalinguistic skills are also critical for self-regulation and self-monitoring. 

  Spoken Language Written Language
  Listening Speaking Reading Writing
Phonology ability to identify and distinguish phonemes while listening (i.e., phonological awareness) appropriate use of phonological patterns while speaking understanding of letter-sound associations while reading (i.e., phonics) accurate spelling of words while writing
Morphology understanding morphemes when listening using morphemes correctly when speaking understanding grammar while reading appropriate use of grammar when writing
Syntax understanding sentence structure elements when listening using correct sentence structure elements when speaking understanding sentence structure while reading using correct sentence structure when writing
Semantics listening vocabulary speaking vocabulary reading vocabulary writing vocabulary


(includes discourse)

understanding of the social aspects of spoken language, including conversational exchanges social use of spoken language, including production of cohesive and relevant messages during conversations understanding point-of-view, needs of the audience, etc. conveying point-of-view, intended message, etc.

See ASHA’s resource titled Developmental Norms for Speech and Language for more information.

Language Acquisition and Use

Language learning and use are determined by the interaction of biological, cognitive, psychosocial, and environmental factors. Language evolves within specific historical, social, and cultural contexts. Communication difference/dialect is a variation of a linguistic symbol system used by a group of individuals that reflects and is determined by shared regional, social, or cultural/ethnic factors (ASHA, 1993).

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

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, Puranik, Zilkowski, & Curran, 2009; Lemons & Fuchs, 2010; Scarborough, 1998).  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/)

When instruction in phonological awareness is paired with knowledge of letter names (i.e., graphemic awareness), then phonics, a core written language skill for reading and writing development, is being addressed.

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

Language Disorder

language disorder is an impairment in comprehension and/or use of a spoken, written, and/or other communication symbol system (e.g., American Sign 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). In some cases, augmentative/alternative communication may be required for individuals demonstrating impairments in gestural, spoken, and/or written modalities. (ASHA, 1993).

Language disorders may persist across the lifespan, and symptoms may change over time (Bashir, 1989). Further, a language disorder can be a distinct diagnosis or may occur within the context of other conditions.

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

Relationship Between a Language Disorder and Social Communication Disorder

Children with language disorders may also present with social communication difficulty since social communication comprises social interaction, social cognition, pragmatics, and language processing. More information about social communication can be found on ASHA’s  Social Communication Disorder Practice Portal site.


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

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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