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What is Natural Language Acquisition?

Updated: Sep 6

Natural Language Acquisition

Natural Language Acquisition is a framework created by Marge Blanc (based on research by Prizant & Peters) that outlines the language development of gestalt language processors. Gestalt language development is one of two ways children can develop language. Gestalt language development involves predictable stages that begin with the acquisition of intonationally rich multi-word utterances (e.g., echolalic utterances) that function as single units/serve a single meaning and eventually move towards breaking down these echolalic utterances to begin recombining segments and words into spontaneous, novel language. Research shows between most Autistic children (estimated 75%) are gestalt language processors (van Senten et al., 2013), but not all gestalt language processors are Autistic. Gestalt language development is a completely normal way to develop language, though some children get stuck in the early stages (delayed echolalia). Children who are stuck, continue to use delayed echolalia to communicate past the toddler years (past the age of 2 ½).

Delayed Echolalia/Scripting

Delayed echolalia refers to utterances that are repeated after a significant delay (Prizant & Rydell, 1984). This could be minutes, hours, days, or even months after heard. The utterances may come from videos, books, movies, TV shows, communicative partners, or songs but this is not an exhaustive list. Echolalia has many communicative functions, such as turn-taking, labeling, requesting, affirming, and protesting. When get "stuck" in this stage, and are using delayed echolalia to communicate past the toddler years, it is considered a delay in language development, not a disorder. These children often require support from a speech-language pathologist to help move them through the stages to get to self-generated language. Natural Language Acquisition is the framework that will help guide the child from echolalia to self-generated (original, flexible) language. The NLA framework describes the stages of gestalt language development in a systematic way, provides assessment strategies, and offers treatment supports at each level of development.

Main Stages of Natural Language Acquisition (Blanc, 2012)

Stage 1: Delayed Echolalia

Use of whole gestalts. Gestalts are chunks of language used verbatim from the original source (communication partners, media, songs, etc.). They typically hold a much larger meaning to the child and are often tied to an emotional/dramatic experience. They are intonationally defined and can be long strings of language, single words and/or unintelligible strings of language.


"Just keep swimming!" A line from the movie Finding Nemo that is used verbatim by the child to communicate a much larger meaning. They use this gestalt every time they are in the water or would like to go in the water (swimming, bathing, playing in the rain, etc.).

"Are you hungry?"

This is a gestalt the child uses to communicate that they are hungry. It is something adults often say to them when they offer them food. They have picked this language up as a way to communicate this message.

Stage 2: Mitigated Echolalia

Gestalts/scripts from Stage 1 are first broken down into smaller chunks (partial gestalts) and mixed and matched with other partial gestalts or the smaller chunks are used on their own to communicate.


"Are you" + "swimming?" = "Are you swimming?"

The gestalts above were mitigated down into smaller chunks and then recombined to create a semi-novel utterance in Stage 2. The child is combing these partial gestalts to communicate a new message.

Stage 3: Isolation & Recombination of Single Words

Gestalts are further mitigated from short phrases into isolated single words that are recognized as single units of meaning and are recombined into two-word combinations (noun + noun and noun + adjective combinations).

Note: verbs are not a part of Stage 3 two-word combinations. When a child starts combining with verbs, this is dipping into pre-grammar and is Stage 4.


"Dog... big"

"Doll... pink" "Chair ... table"

Stage 4: Beginning Generative Grammar

Now using original sentences with beginning grammar. The hallmark of this stage is experimental grammar and it is an indication of self-generated language!


"I goed outside"

"Me get it"

Stage 5-6: More advanced and Complex Grammar

Single words are being used to create original phrases or sentences with more advanced (Stage 5) and complex (Stage 6) grammar.

Example: "We should've left the house by now because we're going to be late!"

Blanc, M. (2012). Natural language acquisition on the autism spectrum: The journey from echolalia to self-generated language. Communication Development Center.
Peters, A. 1983, 2002. The Units of Language Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Prizant, B. M. (1982). Gestalt language and gestalt processing in autism. Topics in Language Disorders, 3(1), 16–23.
Prizant, B. M. (1983). Language acquisition and communicative behavior in autism: Toward an understanding of the “whole” of it. Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders, 48(3), 296–307.
Prizant, B. M., & Rydell, P. J. (1984). Analysis of functions of delayed echolalia in autistic children. Journal of Speech and Hearing Research, 27(2), 183–192.
Stiegler, L. N. (2015). Examining the echolalia literature: Where do speech-language pathologists stand? American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 24(4), 750–762.

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