Lindsay Cha M.A., CCC-SLP | April 25, 2024

Beyond Individual Words: Gestalt Language Processing

Most people are familiar with the typical sequence of language learning. Babies start out babbling, then start using single words around the age of 1 year, then start using word combinations such as “go car” or “my ball,” and then advance into early sentences. We refer to this as analytic language learning.

Some children learn language in a different way: gestalt language learning. The word “gestalt” refers to a whole or a chunk of information. This means a whole phrase, sentence, dialogue, or even songs and clips from movies and TV shows. Some children pick up on the intonation pattern first and use the whole phrase (“gestalt”) to convey meaning, without understanding the meaning of the individual words.

You may have heard the words “scripts” or “delayed echolalia.” Children who are gestalt language processors will communicate by echoing phrases they have heard before. It’s important to know that these phrases are not literal, but often do have meaning! We have to do detective work to figure out exactly what the child is trying to communicate, especially in the early stages of language development. If your child is quoting phrases and sentences from favorite TV shows, movies, books, or previous conversations that seem out of context, they may be using echolalia to communicate.

Generally, children who acquire language through gestalt language processing go through these stages: echolalia, mitigated echolalia (mixing and matching parts of gestalts), isolated words and beginning word combinations (understanding that individual words have meaning), and grammar. This is a completely valid way of learning a language. Some children go through these stages on their own, while others need a little help along the way.

Tips for responding to echolalia:

  1. Acknowledge the script! Smile, nod, and repeat it back. 

  2. Try to reduce questions and use declarative language instead. Children who are gestalt language processors usually are not ready for questions until they are using more self-generating language, rather than full scripts. 

  3. Don’t take scripts literally. Most are linked to an experience or tied to emotions that made the script stick.

If you have any concerns about your child’s communication development, seek out a speech-language pathologist to determine the next steps. Helping families build skills for life is our priority! We would love to support you in your child’s communication journey.