Gestalt Language Processing Stages

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gestalt language processing

Gestalt Language Processing

You’ve heard the term, maybe seen it online…but what does it mean?

Gestalt language processing means that a child learns language in longer strings that are related to emotional context.

For example “I need a band-aid” may be a script that a child learns during a moment they have injured themselves and so they received a hug from their caregiver.

So, the child later uses “I need a band-aid” to indicate they want a hug rather than literally asking for a band-aid.

When a child applies a whole script like this it considered “delayed echolalia” and is considered a stage 1 gestalt. Please note that “delayed” here refers to the time it is used vs delayed in terms of development.

Barry Prizant research: https://barryprizant.com/resources/downloads/echolalia-articles/ suggested that echolalia may serve as a an alternative route to language development.

This work was further researched by Marge Blanc (see book) and has been reported on by speech therapists and families working with children who use echolalia and are therefore, gestalt language processors (GLPs).

Blanc described 6 stages of gestalt language development that work towards independent language use. These stages apply to both speaking and non-speaking children and can be used alongside AAC.

Stage 1 – Echolalia

Gestalt Language Processing Stages » Gestalt Language Processing

At this stage your child is learning (and using) full scripts or “gestalts”. These could be from everyday language e.g. “I need a bandaid” or from media they enjoy e.g. “to infinity and beyond!”

This is often referred to as “delayed echolalia” in the temporal sense. That is it is not immediately repeated, rather it is heard, stored and repeated at a later time.

At this stage there is an underlying meaning to the gestalt that means the words cannot be taken literally. The grammar is often maintained and might lead adults to think the child has expressive language skills beyond their actual skills level/what they understand (which can lead to frustration and confusion for all involved).

It is important that your child has gestalts across the full range of communication functions + a wide variety. These gestalts also need be easily broken down and mixed and matched (thinking towards future development and stage 2+).

For example, “let’s go home” could mean “I want to go home/I want to leave/I want to go out in the car”. The underlying meaning is usually linked to the experience the child heard the phrase…

This example is easier to break apart into meaningful “chunks” to use in later stages as it is everyday language vs something that can from media (a show, song or book) that is harder to break down into easily recombined “chunks” and clearly get the child’s point across.

 VOICE QUALITY: highly intonational, sing-song, accents which are non-native to the speak may be  maintained

Stage 2 – Mitagation

Gestalt Language Processing Stages » Gestalt Language Processing

This is when children begin to break apart full scripts into “chunks” e.g.

“let’s go home now” = “let’s go” +”home now”

“that’s so fun” = “that’s so” + “fun”

“I wanna eat cookies” = “I wanna” + “eat cookies”

At stage 2 children also learn to recombine these “chunks” and mix and match:

“I wanna” + “home now” = “I wanna home now”


“Let’s go” + “eat cookies” = “Let’s go eat cookies”

VOICE Quality: high intonation, sing-song, some gaps for thinking time between “chunks”

Stage 3 – Isolated single words and 2 word combinations

Gestalt Language Processing Stages » Gestalt Language Processing

Now children will have separated out singe words and the smallest unit of meaning.

In our example “I wanna eat cookies” this would look like “I” + “wanna” + “eat” + “cookies”

A request for cookies might look like “Cookies”

Combinations at this stage are referential; this means they refer to something so are:

noun + noun= “mumma cookie”

pronoun + noun= “I cookie”

adjective + noun= “big cookie”

Stages 4-6 – Sentence Grammar Develops

Gestalt Language Processing Stages » Gestalt Language Processing

This is where GLP language acquisition begins to look more like the progression that traditional communication milestones describe. It can seem like a “regression” if the GLP is not identified as a GLP as the child seems to go from full and complete sentences (at stage 1) to sentences and phrases with grammatical errors.

These errors are actually the “hallmark of stage 4” and beginning grammar e.g. “Mummy cookie me”. This shift demonstrates the child is now self-generating their language rather than using scripted language.  

Important note on sensory regulation and impact on script use. It is likely that GLPs, no matter how far progressed will use stage 1 and 2 scripts when dysregulated.


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