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What is Gestalt Language Learning?

Gestalt Language Acquisition – Another Way of Processing Language

Analytic language is the type of language acquisition often thought of and learned about. This is language learning that starts at the single word level which builds to phrases and eventually sentences.

 Gestalt language acquisition is language learned in in larger units of words first, rather than single words. The process of gestalt language development is described through Natural Language Acquisition stages (see stages below).

A gestalt language processor learns language in chunks of words rather than one single word at a time.  For example, rather than analytic language learning of “car”, to “red car”, then eventually “It’s a red car!”. Gestalt language processors may hear a caregiver say, “Wow, that’s a fast red car!” and perhaps that is what they say every time they see a car (despite its color).

There is nothing ‘wrong’ with gestalt language learning, it is just a type of developmental language learning. Embracing how a child learns language can help them continue to acquire new language/skills through their own learning type to make more efficient gains toward their ability to self-generate language. Children who are autistic* are often gestalt language learners. Children who are not autistic can also be gestalt language learners.

What is Echolalia?

Echolalia is the repeating of an utterance that has been produced by others.

Immediate Echolalia: utterances that are repeated immediately or after a brief delay.

Delayed Echolalia: refers to utterances that are repeated after a significant delay (Prezant & Rydell, 1984).

Echolalia COMMUNICATES! The immediate logical reaction may be that we should not encourage echolalia, but in fact we SHOULD encourage it and build from it to acknowledge the communication and boost progress toward self-generated language.

What is Scripting?

Scripting is the use of delayed echolalia that a child may use to attempt communication or just something that they enjoy saying. It could be language they overheard others say, from a game they played, a show they watch, etc.

Example 1:

Child goes down a slide at the park and hears the parent say “wow that’s fast!” and now each time the child goes down a slide they say “wow that’s fast!”. The caregiver would then model additional language phrases other times they or the child go down a slide (i.e. “Wow that’s fun!”).

Example 2:

A teacher says: “Okay time for gym!” and the child says: “Let’s go to the spaceship!”. This indicates delayed echolalia/scripting from a show the child enjoys. When the child says “Let’s go to the spaceship!”, their intended meaning is “Let’s go to the gym” but they are not yet able to self-generate ‘gym’. The caregiver may then acknowledge the child’s attempt at communication by saying “Yes, let’s go!”.

 Natural Language Acquisition Stages

 Stage 1 – Echolalia:

  • “Let’s go outside”, “Time to play”

 Stage 2 – Mitigated GestaltsUse of partial gestalts

  • “Let’s” + “play” = “Let’s play”
    “Time to” + “go outside” = “Time to go outside”

 Stage 3 – Single Words – Using single words that have isolated words from partial gestalts

  • “Let’s go” + “go outside” have turned to using “go!”

 Stage 4/5/6 – Beginning Grammar & More Complex Sentences ­– Use of original sentences

  • “I want to go play outside”

 Speech Therapy for Gestalt Language Learners

The ultimate goal in speech therapy for children who are gestalt language learners is to eventually use self-generated language. Speech therapy intervention for gestalt language is the most effective when language is targeted in the most natural and engaging contexts as possible. A speech therapist will likely embrace child-led play and the child’s interests to target language. For gestalt language, acquiring skills takes time, detective work from caregivers, and consistency. This will be best accomplished by doing activities or playing with items that the child enjoys.

  4 Tips for Responding to Echolalia and Gestalt Language:

  1. Respond! Smile, nod, or even just repeat it back to acknowledge that you know it is a communication attempt.
  2. Don’t take the echolalia or scripted comment seriously (i.e. “it’s on fire!” may have a different meaning to the child than something actually being on fire/hot/etc.).
  3. Don’t respond with “replacement language”. Language development is a process. It’s better to embrace a child’s attempts to communicate and clearly model your OWN language during good teaching moments.
  4. Be a detective – Ask yourself, “What are they communicating to me when they say this script?”. Once you discover the true meaning, you will be able to target ways to increase self-generated language through modeling your own language.

For more information about Gestalt Language, check out these websites/resources:

*While many people may be more familiar with Person First Language (i.e. Person With Autism or ASD), the autistic community has voiced a preference for Identity First Language (i.e. ‘autistic’), which is why Identity First Language was chosen to be used in this post.

– Ashley Cubberly, M.A. CCC-SLP



Peters, A. 1983, 2002. The Units of Language Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Prizant, B. 1983. “Language Acquisition and Communicative Behavior in Autism: Toward an Understanding of the ‘Whole’ of It.” Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders 48:296–307.

Prizant, B., and P. Rydell. 1984. “An Analysis of the Functions of Delayed Echolalia in Autistic Children.” Journal of Speech and Hearing Research 27:183–92.

Wetherby A. 1986. “Ontogeny of Communicative Functions in Autism.” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 16 (3): 295–316.

Rydell, P., and B. Prizant. 1995. “Assessment and Intervention Strategies for Children Who Use Echolalia.” In Teaching Children with Autism: Methods to Increase Communication and Socialization, edited by K. Quill: 105-129. Albany, NY: Delmar Publishers.

Stiegler, L. 2015. “Examining the Echolalia Literature: Where Do Speech-Language Pathologists Stand?,” American Journal of Speech Language Pathology: 1-13.

Zachos, A. (n.d.). Meaningful speech- echolalia education. Meaningful Speech- Echolalia Education. Retrieved May 1, 2022, from