Gestalt Language Learners and Echolalia

There has been a new buzzword in speech/language therapy and that word is gestalt. Gestalt language learning asserts that some children learn language from the top down instead of from the bottom up. In other words, we typically build language by teaching children words, then phrases, then sentences, and so on. We work from the bottom (words) to the top (sentences). This works for most kids. They go from saying “mommy” to “mommy go” or “mommy’s hat”, to “that’s mommy’s hat”. This is in contrast to gestalt language processers who learn from the top down. These children start with phrases and sentences such as “that’s mommy’s hat” and work their way down to smaller phrases and words like “mommy hat”, “mommy go” and then “mommy”.

Another way to explain this is that gestalt language learners use echolalia initially to communicate concepts rather than words. Echolalic language is repetition of a whole chunk of information or a whole unit of information that someone else produced. It is often a repetition of something a child heard on TV or a video. A child might say “watch out Dory” to communicate that they are scared for example.

There are two types of echolalia—immediate and delayed. Immediate echolalia refers to language that is repeated immediately or after a brief delay. Delayed echolalia refers to language that is repeated after a significant delay (Prizant & Rydell, 1984).

In the field of speech/language pathology we have previously ignored echolalia as it was believed to be meaningless or without communicative intent. Today, research shows that echolalia does in fact have communicative intent. Research has found that children who use echolalia go through a rather predictable set of stages that often ends in them combining words to make their own sentences.

In my personal experience, I have found that acknowledging and repeating back the echolalia or gestalt that child produces results in the child looking at me, smiling, and repeating it back again. I am able to go back and forth using phrases in that way. I have also found that those same children will use some of the words and phrases I use in my language back to me as well.

We, as professionals and parents should get into the child’s world and acknowledge the child’s communication. I recommend checking out the website for more information for both parents and therapists.

Written by: Rachael Rose, Owner/Founder

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