Michelle Andrews

Gestalt Language Processing

What is Gestalt Language Processing?

First, let's define what Gestalt Language Processing is. It is a way of understanding language that looks at the whole message or sentence, instead of just analyzing individual words or parts of speech. This is in contrast to analytic language development, which focuses on breaking language down into its individual components.

Think of it like this:

Have you ever looked at a picture and saw a shape or an image in it? Maybe you saw a face in the clouds or a dog in a bunch of rocks. That's kind of what Gestalt Language Processing is all about.

Gestalt Language Processing is a way that our brains try to make sense of words and sentences by looking at them as a whole, instead of just focusing on each individual word. Just like how we can see a picture as a whole and not just as a bunch of individual shapes.

So, when we read a sentence or hear someone talking, our brains try to put all the words together and make meaning out of them as a whole, instead of just focusing on each word one by one.

It's like trying to put together a puzzle. You wouldn't just look at one piece at a time, right? You would look at the whole picture and try to see how all the pieces fit together to make the whole picture.

That's kind of what Gestalt Language Processing is all about - trying to see the whole picture of what someone is saying, instead of just looking at each word one by one.

2 Valid Forms of Developing Language

A lot of the time we are taught that analytic language is the natural way to develop language. However, Gestalt language processing is indeed another form of developing language that is not discussed quite as much. Gestalt language processors focus on intonation and meaningful experiences. Their language is a stream of sound. Very short one word gestalts might hold a larger meaning for that person.

The Natural Language Acquisition (NLA) Framework

Gestalt language processors follow predictable stages in their language development. These stages eventually lead to original, flexible language. There are six stages of gestalt language development. Some gestalt processors will communicate using a mix of these stages and some people communicate in one stage almost 100 percent of the time.

Stage 1: Delayed Echolalia

Delayed echolalia is characterized by the repetition of words or phrases after a significant time delay. Delayed echolalia can take many forms, such as repeating a question that was asked earlier, or repeating a line from a movie or television show that was heard days or even weeks ago. The repetition may be verbatim or slightly modified, and may be accompanied by gestures or other nonverbal cues. The most important take away is that delayed echolalia has meaning! 

Stage 2: Mix and Match Gestalts (Partial Gestalts) 

At this stage, children are mitigating larger Stage 1 gestalts into smaller chunks. They are also mixing and matching parts of gestalts into semi-unique utterances. This is also the stage where a child may “trim down” a longer gestalt. For example: 
“There’s a bear at the end of this book!” to “There’s a bear at the end!”

Stage 3: Single Words and Two-Word Combinations 

At this stage, children are now breaking down scripts into single word units and/or making new noun combinations. This is when children are finally able to identify words as single units of meaning and begin using self-generated language. For example, saying "big bear" instead of just "bear." We are not concerned about grammar or word order at this stage. In fact, poor grammar is an exciting milestone that the child is starting to piece together words on their own.

Stages 4-6: New Original Phrases or Sentences with Beginning Grammar, More Advanced and Complex Grammar

At these stages, children are now putting individual word units together to make their own novel phrases or sentences. At Stage 4, children are using beginning grammar, Stage 4 is when we can begin to support grammar development. At stages 5-6, children begin using advanced and complex grammar. 
Examples: “The bear goed under” (Stage 4) “The bear can’t get out” (Stage 5), “Shouldn’t he have come out from under the bed by now?” (Stage 6).

How Can We Support Children Who are Gestalt Language Processors?

As SLPs, we need to understand how we can support children who are gestalt language processors. Here are some tips:

Acknowledge the Gestalt:

Always acknowledge the gestalt that the child is saying. You can do this by giving them a smile or repeat the gestalt back to them to let them know you understand that they are trying to communicate with you and tell you something. Do not take the gestalt literally. 

Provide context:
Children who process language in gestalts may struggle to understand individual words or phrases out of context. Providing additional context can help them better understand the overall message.

Use visuals:
Visual aids can help gestalt language processors better understand language. For example, using picture cards to accompany new vocabulary words can help children better understand the meaning of those words.

Emphasize intonation:
Gestalt language processors may benefit from hearing how language is spoken with correct intonation. Emphasize pitch and tone to help them better understand the meaning behind the words. Using songs and music is great for this!

Model correct language use:
Children learn through imitation, so modeling correct language use is key. Use complete sentences and clear pronunciations to help children develop a strong foundation in language.

Practice Silence:
Instead of asking so many questions, be an observer and things will become more clear on what the child is trying to say. Then it will make it easier to model what the child should be saying. 

Learn More about Gestalt Language Processing on this Episode of the Pep Talk Podcast for SLPs

Learn more about gestalt language processing and earn CEUs/PDHs anytime, anywhere! Listen here below or anywhere you listen to podcasts. Be sure to take the quick quiz in the show notes or linked below to earn your certificate. 
This course explains the two different valid forms of developing language, analytic and gestalt language development. It lists 4 stages of Natural Language Acquisition and offers ways we can support gestalt language processors. Earn 1 clock hour of continuing education credit (Introductory Level, Professional Area).

An Exciting Approach to Language Development

In conclusion, Gestalt language processing is an exciting approach to language development that can help children develop strong language skills. By understanding the differences between analytic and gestalt language development and by providing support for gestalt language processors, we can help children reach their full potential in communication.
Created with