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  • Sarah Karipides

How to Support a Stage 1 Gestalt Language Processor

What is gestalt language processing?

There are two different ways that a person processes and develops language. The first, analytic language processing is the one we hear talked about more often, and the other is gestalt language processing.

Analytic language processors learn language single word units. As babies, they soak up lots of different single words and around 12 months of age, they start to produce single words to communicate. As they get older and develop more vocabulary, they combine words to create simple 2-word phrases. Their language grows to 3 and 4 word phrases moving to sentences and then conversation.

Gestalt language processors are drawn to the intonation of speech rather than the individual words. I like to think of this like when I'm listening to a song I like, I often sing along without really knowing the words, and honestly, I don't really care about the words. I really just like the sound and the intonation. In the moment, I feel like I'm saying all of the words, but the second you turn. the music off, I realize I really don't know what I'm saying, I'm just following the melody.

In the early stages, a gestalt language processor is the same way. They like the intonation and emotion of their favorite character saying something, and they may repeat those words or that intonation later. They aren't breaking down that phrase into individual word units yet. Often times, the phrase or script is tied to an emotion. For example, many GLPs use the script "are you okay?" when they fall down or hurt themselves. They say this to themselves, because this phrase, with the dramatic intonation of a parent, is what they associate with moments of getting hurt. We can't take it literally, and they aren't actually asking themselves if they're okay. They're pairing that phrase, intonation, and emotion with the experience of getting hurt.

Many kids who are GLPs move through the stages of language development on their own and begin to use self-generated grammar without any therapy. However, some kids get stuck in stage 1 or 2 and need help to continue progressing.

Let's start with understanding who might be a stage 1 GLP.

A child who is stuck in stage 1...

  1. May have long strings of unintelligible speech with up and down intonation. It may sound like "jibberish" or professionals may have said to you that they use a lot of "jargon speech." It may sound like they're having a conversation but you can't make out any real words.

  2. May repeat lines from songs, movies, TV shows, or family members. Certain scripts may be tied to a particular emotion, experience, activity, or environment. You may feel like they can say lots of words from a song or show, but they aren't saying those words individually or in other contexts.

  3. May have a large vocabulary of single word nouns (e.g. cat, dog, legos, cookie, chips) or know every color, letter, number but cannot use these words flexibly or combine them to make a 2-word phrase like "more chips." They may have made a lot of progress initially in therapy to increase vocabulary but they seem stuck now.

  4. May be drawn to language that is rich in intonation and music

  5. May use scripts that are not literal to communicate and the scripts are tied to an emotion or experience

Does this sound like your child or client? If it does, you may be wondering, how do we support a child who has been identified as a GLP in stage 1?

The main goal is to give them more meaningful and flexible gestalts or scripts that they can use! This is done by thoughtfully modeling meaningful gestalts.

What is a stage 1 gestalt?

A stage 1 gestalt is...

  1. Flexible so that it can be applied to many contexts and routines and activities

  2. Easy to mitigate or mix and match in stage 2

  3. Meaningful and individualized to the child's language and sensory needs, interests, and daily routines

  4. Rich in intonation and tied to emotional experiences

  5. May have words like "gonna, wanna, let's, that's, this is, it's or we"

When first learning about gestalt language processing, we as parents and professionals sometimes get stuck in the idea that it's just modeling phrase-based language or making everything into a sentence rather than a single word. However, supporting a stage 1 gestalt language processor requires more thoughtful and individualized approach. We want to model naturally but we also want to be conscientious in what, when, and how we model.

When to model

  1. When the child is in a regulated state and comfortable environment

  2. When you have established a trusting relationship

  3. When you have acknowledged their communication as valid and made them feel safe and heard

  4. During the child's favorite activities

  5. In a variety of contexts, routines, and environments

Before we start modeling stage 1 gestalts, we want to make sure we have established a connection. Just throwing phrases into your conversation with a child will not lead to progression and development through the stages. We need to be thoughtful about WHEN we model.

How to Model

  1. Try picking a few meaningful stage 1 gestalts to model at first

  2. Allow for silence and follow the child's lead

  3. Model 3-5 target gestalts in a variety of routines and activities

  4. Model often but don't make it forced or unnatural. Doing this may create a taught gestalt

  5. Provide meaningful models without any expectation or requirement that they may imitate you

Remember that the point of stage 1 is to try out gestalts that may be meaningful. We don't know what the child will latch onto until we try. The child will not use every gestalt we target. There may be some that don't click for them and that's okay! We have to go back to listening, following their lead, and adjusting to try something different.

Why does this matter?

  1. Stage 1 GLPs need more flexible, mitigable gestalts to move to the next stage of development

  2. GLPs process language in whole chunks and are drawn to intonation, emotion, and experience rather than the actual word meaning

  3. We provide meaningful models that reflect the way they process langauge

  4. Supporting the way a GLP processes and uses language helps create a trusting relationship in which their language is validated

  5. We want to help them move through the NLA stages in order to develop self-generated language.

It can be overwhelming when first discovering that gestalt language processing exists! You may feel like you've missed out on supporting your child or client all these years. I think we all have experienced this feeling as our eyes were opened by the idea of GLP. Rather than feeling discouraged, try thinking about how exciting it is that you have the right information now! With small steps, we can all work to better support our children and clients to move towards self-generated language!

Check back for more tips about ideas for stage 1 gestalts!

Everything I have learned about gestalt language processing comes from Marge Blanc and Alexandria Zachos' course on Meaningful Speech. To learn more, go to their resources below.


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