Gestalt Language Development
Scripting, echolalia, movie talk, quoting--all these are common terms for the communication of children who frequently use phrases and sentences when talking, often from movies, commercials, or songs. Most speech therapists have met children who say things like “It’s not delivery, it’s Digiorno!” or “Paw Patrol is on a roll” seemingly out of the blue. Although these phrases may leave therapists and families wondering where they came from, they serve a very important function in communication and are often a stepping stone in a child’s spontaneous language development.
Learning language in this way is known as gestalt language development. This means that individuals learn language in chunks and then break these phrases down to single words. Conversely, with the language development that we are more accustomed to, or analytic language development, language learning starts with single words, building to longer utterances. With analytic language development, children learn words such as “Up” and “Go” and then begin combining them to create the novel phrase “Go up.” However, with gestalt language development, children may learn a phrase such as “Up the tree” before they learn the word “Up,” or learn “Whenever you’re in trouble, just yelp for help” before they learn the word “Help."
Individuals may use these phrases, also known as gestalts, as a strategy to calm themselves when they are upset, but it is important to recognize that these phrases are communicative. At times, it may be difficult to determine the underlying meaning, but, other times, the meaning is more transparent. For example, “It’s not delivery, it’s Digiorno!” may mean that the child is hungry.
One of the most important things families and therapists can do is validate the child’s communication. If you have a good idea what it means, you can repeat it back to them, and then say what you think they are communicating, such as, “It’s not delivery, it’s Digiorno! I’m hungry too!” If the meaning is less clear to you, acknowledging the communication in some way, such as repeating it or nodding, is still important. This shows the child that we know they are communicating, and that we are working to figure out the meaning behind the phrase. Caregivers can also model short phrases that they think the child might want to say, such as “This is fun,” “Let’s go play,” or “It’s stuck” that can then be mixed and matched with other phrases to create novel phrases.
Resources to learn more about gestalt language and approaches:
- Meaningful Speech on Instagram
- Natural Language Acquisition Study Group on Facebook
- Echolalia and Its Role in Gestalt Language Acquisition (asha.org)
- Blanc, M. (2012). Natural Language Acquisition on the Autism Spectrum. Communication Development Center, Inc.
-Rosemary O'Brien, M.S., CCC-SLP