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  • Writer's pictureCircles of Communication

Gestalt Language Processing and Natural Language Acquisition

Language development is a topic that speech-language pathologists are passionate and knowledgeable about. However, would you believe that there’s a whole second side of language development that has been largely overlooked for much of the history of the field of speech-language pathology?! This month, we’re diving into the topics of gestalt language processing and natural language acquisition and sharing how we’ve educated ourselves to validate and work with both types of language processing in our practice.

When most people think about language development, we reference the classic framework that begins with babies babbling, then toddlers making two-word combinations, followed by rapid vocabulary acquisition and production of full on conversations in late toddlerhood. This type of language development is called analytic language processing, and it’s what most people consider to be “typical” language development. There is a long history of ableism that has ultimately classified analytic language processing as the norm, however, there is a second, equally valid type of language development called gestalt language processing! If you’ve met someone who communicates using echolalia, then you’ve likely met a gestalt language processor!

Gestalt language processors (GLPs) learn language from the top down, in contrast to analytic language processors (ALPs) who learn from the bottom up. In other words, GLPs start by learning whole phrases that carry individual units of meaning, called ‘gestalts,’ which are then broken up into smaller parts with individual meanings, then single words that can be recombined in new ways with additions in grammar built up over time. Not all gestalts are literal, and these whole phrases, also referred to as ‘echolalia’ or ‘scripting,’ are often tied to emotional experiences unique to the person and can be rich in intonation. Examples of gestalts we’ve heard in our practice include: “do it again,” “time to go,” “I’m Jet, on time, all the time,” “no way José,” and many more.

We now know that a large proportion of Autistic individuals are GLPs and there is a common misconception that all GLPs require speech-language intervention to learn language. However, research shows that both neurotypical and neurodivergent individuals can be GLPs and, furthermore, that many GLPs learn language independently! For those GLPs who do benefit from support in their language learning journey, we refer to a language learning framework called Natural Language Acquisition to inform our intervention.

Natural Language Acquisition is a framework that was created by Marge Blanc based on the research of Dr. Barry Prizant and Dr. Ann Peters about the stages of gestalt language development. When considering therapeutic goals for GLPs, we use the Natural Language Acquisition framework to identify which stage the learner is communicating in most frequently, then attempt to guide them through the stages through modeling and child-led session experiences. Natural language acquisition is known to take longer to see progress, however is an extremely validating form of speech-language therapy for neurodivergent learners.

We have taken a course on gestalt language processing and natural language acquisition. The course, called The Meaningful Speech Course, is available to both parents and speech-language pathologists. We highly recommend it for anyone looking to gain more insight into gestalt language processing. Additionally, we have a few Instagram accounts we turn to for quick, digestible, and research-based info: @meaningfulspeech, @learnplaythrive, and @bohospeechie. If you prefer to listen to podcasts for information, we recommend the following episodes:

These are broad topics and we’ve only just dipped our toes into the well of information that exists. We’d love to keep the conversation going via email or during one of our complimentary monthly check-in calls! If there is anything we can do to further support your child, we welcome your ideas and questions. We hope your month ahead is filled with early signs of spring as well as continued growth in learning, self-expression, and communication.

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