Did you know there’s more than one way to learn language?

Written by DWSP Speech Pathologist, Anna Parellis

I didn’t know until about a year ago (even after 4 years of study) – so if you don’t that’s okay! Let’s go back to when I was in a supervision session that the word ‘gestalt’ came up to describe how one of my clients was learning language. I had so many questions – what is gestalt language learning? Is gestalt language learning common? How do we work with gestalt language learners? How can I learn more? The questions were endless.

Let’s start with what is typically known about language learning – analytical language learning. This is when an individual learns a single words to start off with and then moved to phrases, sentences, and then in conversation. For example, let’s use the word ‘car’:

  • 1 word: ‘Car!’
    • 2-words: ‘blue car’, ‘big car’
    • Short phrase: ‘a big yellow car’  
    • Sentence: ‘look, it’s a shiny red car on the road!’

In contrast, we have gestalt language learning! Individuals who use gestalts (or scripts or who are echolalic) process language in whole chunks compared to single words. These gestalts carry lots of meaning and is another way of learning language and communicating!

Individuals who are gestalt language learners often learn language from tv shows, or movies and it can be very meaningful for them. A gestalt may look like:

  • Script directly from a tv show and repeated verbatim:
    •  ‘ok everybody it’s time for sleep’
  • Breaking up the whole script and figuring out how to mix and match language: ‘
    • it’s time for sleep’
  • Isolation and re-combining single words:
    • ‘sleep time’
  • Self-generated grammar:
    • ‘I wanna get to sleep’
    • ‘No more sleep’

A question that you might be thinking is… whether one way to learn language is better than another? The answer is quite simple – there is no right or wrong way to learn language. The first step is to embrace your child’s language learning and speak to your speech therapist about how to best support their ongoing learning journey.

Here are couple of strategies to support our Gestalt Language Leaners:

  • Acknowledge the script (or gestalt or echolalia)!
    • The script is an attempt to communicate with you
    • Acknowledgement could be repeating back the script, smiling back, or adding a comment
  • Reduce questions (instead of ‘what’s that?’ you could say ‘look, it’s a ____’)
  • You might not be sure what the script means and that’s okay. You can write it down and speak to your speech therapist about it in your next session. They can help you do the detective work.

Please ask your speech therapist for more information – we’d love to support you and your family on their gestalt language learning journey!  

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