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Jessica Hay, an assistant professor of psychology and director of UT’s Infant Language and Perceptual Learning Lab, has received a five-year, $1.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study how infants acquire language. The results of the research could inspire new methods of helping children with delayed language development.

“Language is one of the things that is most fundamental to human existence and experience and culture,” she said. “Language is really complex and yet kids seem to acquire it effortlessly. It’s a bit of a mystery how they do it. One of my goals is to understand how typically developing children are able to deal with early challenges of language acquisition. If we can understand that, it may shed light on situations where early language learning is delayed.”

Hay is seeking families from East Tennessee with children ages six months to two years to be part of the study. For more information or to participate, call 865-974-0514 or e-mail

Hay noted that because people speak continuously, infants don’t usually hear words in isolation. “We think that infants become really good at discovering words in speech even before they can talk because they can track the patterns of sounds in speech,” she said.

Hay’s research will examine how youngsters find those words, remember them, and use them later, particularly when there’s background noise from other talkers, TVs, and other environmental sounds. Understanding how this works will hopefully improve our understanding of the causal mechanisms underlying language delays in children who for various reasons struggle with learning language.

“If we find that background noise impacts the very earliest stages of language learning, it may have implications regarding noise levels at home and in the classroom,” Hay said.



Jessica Hay (865-974-3329,

Lola Alapo (865-974-3993,