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What is Natural Language Acquisition?

Updated: Oct 12, 2022

Natural Language Acquisition

Natural Language Acquisition is a framework created by Marge Blanc (based on research by Prizant & Peters) for children who are gestalt language processors. Gestalt language development is one of two ways children can develop language. Gestalt language acquisition 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 75%-85% of Autistic children are gestalt language processors (Prizant, 1983), but not all gestalt language processors are Autistic. Gestalt language development is a normal way to develop language, though some children get stuck in the early stages (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 services 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. NLA 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: Echolalia

Processing language as whole chunks. Strings of language are repeated verbatim from other sources. These utterances range in their nature and may include intonational contours, songs, sentences, words, or long scripts.


"Let's get out of here!"

"Wanna get some more?"

Stage 2: Mitigated Echolalia

Gestalts/scripts from Stage 1 are first broken down into smaller chunks, mixed and matched with other partial gestalts.


"Let’s get” + “Out of here!"

“Want” + “Some more?”

“Let’s get” + “Some more?”

“Want” + “Out of here!”

Stage 3: Isolation & Recombination of Single Words

Echolalia is further mitigated from short phrases into single words and then recombined into two-word combinations.


“Get… more!”

“Want… out?”

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 get.”

“Get more no.”

“I wanna get some more.”

“I gotted none but he did.”

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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