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Gestalt Language Processing: Echolalia Explained

"Historically, echolalia has been described as meaningless and without communicative function."

-American Speech Language Hearing Association

There is a growing body of research that have documented the various communication functions of echolalia (e.g., turn-taking, labeling, requesting, affirming, and protesting) and helped to demonstrate its role in gestalt language acquisition.

(Prizant, 1982, 1983; Prizant & Duchan, 1981; Prizant & Rydell, 1984; Stiegler, 2015).


If you know a child who uses echolalia (immediate or delayed repetition of phrases learned from personal interaction or media- think YouTube or favorite TV shows or movies) you have likely met a Gestalt Language Processor.

There are two types of language development: Analytic and Gestalt. Both are valid and equal ways of processing language. The difference is in the way language is learned.

Analytic Language Processors learn language with small units: words.

These children begin by learning a single word for a person, action, object, etc. They then combine words such as noun + verb, adjective +noun, adjective + verb. These combinations grow in length into phrases and sentences. These children differentiate between each unit, or word.

Gestalt Language Processors develop language that begins with “chunks” of language, or groups of words.

Gestalt language processors do not differentiate between the single words in these chunks of language. As these children learn more about language, they will begin to break down these gestalt forms and recombine or mix and match segments of words or phrases. Eventually, these children begin to formulate spontaneous utterances using novel word combinations.

Why does this matter?

We must understand how our children learn language in order to match treatment (if they are in speech therapy) and teaching styles.

When working with analytic language processors, clinicians use language expansion techniques to help them build longer and more complex phrases. However, these types of treatment practices will not work with clients who are gestalt language processors. These clients must be taught language differently.

We begin by assessing what gestalts the child is currently using. Do they say the same phrase every time they see a firetruck, have a snack, or go outside? Next we assess what functions these gestalts, or phrases, are being used for. Are they using them primarily to request, comment, gain attention, refuse? Once a library of their current phrases and their functions is collected, clinicians begin to model Gestalts to help fill in any gaps and to provide a larger and more diverse inventory of phrases the child can use across communication opportunities. As the child learns more about syntax (rules of grammar), they will begin to breakdown and recombine some of these phrases and use them in novel ways. Eventually, the child will be able to formulate creative and spontaneous phrases to communicate for a variety of functions.

@meaningfulspeech offers an amazing course that explains how to support gestalt language learners for parents and professionals. All of our Speech Language Pathologists at Bumblebee have taken this course and are trained in Natural Language Acquisition and Gestalt Language Processors.

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