HVPT review

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A bit more than 11 years ago I wrote ("HVPT", 7/6/2008):

At the recent Acoustics 2008 meeting, I heard a presentation that reminded me of a mystery that I've been wondering about for nearly two decades. The paper presented was Maria Uther et al., "Training of English vowel perception by Finnish speakers to focus on spectral rather than durational cues", JASA 123(5):3566, 2008. And the mystery is why HVPT — a simple, quick, and inexpensive technique for helping adults to learn the sounds of new languages — is not widely used.

In fact, as far as I can tell, it's not used at all. Over the years, I've asked many people in the language-teaching business about this, and the answer has always been the same. It's not "Oh yes, well, we tried it and it doesn't really work"; or "It works, but the problems that it solves are not very important"; or "I'd like to, but it doesn't fit into my syllabus". Rather, their answer is some form of "What's that? I've never heard of it."

The "nearly two decades" then extended back from 2008 to  a 1991 JASA paper, which is now more than 28 years old: J. S. Logan, S. E. Lively, and D. B. Pisoni, "Training Japanese listeners to identify English /r/ and /l/: A first report". And recently, Ron Thomson sent me a link to a 2018 review article that starts by quoting my 2008 blog post — "High variability [pronunciation] training (HVPT): A proven technique about which every language teacher and learner ought to know", Journal of Second Language Pronunciation.

The abstract:

This article is a critical research synthesis of 32 studies that used the High Variability Phonetic Training (HVPT) technique to teach learners to better perceive and produce L2 sounds. Taken together, the studies surveyed provide compelling evidence that HVPT is a very effective pronunciation training tool, and that resulting improvement is long-lasting. The analysis of this research also helps to explain why very few teachers have heard of this empirically-driven approach to pronunciation instruction: HVPT studies are largely published in technically oriented journals; few are accessible to language teachers. A variety of obstacles to the widespread use of HVPT are discussed, and some possible solutions are provided.

Thomson's discussion suggest seven (!) reasons why HVPT is not more widely used, starting with the notion that "the term HVPT may be a deterrent to language teachers, who often lack training in phonetics". Then the second obstacle is the fact that the relevant studies were published "in highly technical phonetics journals", or "niche venues, or conference proceedings that are unlikely to be accessed". The third problem is "a lack of clear agreement on what constitutes best practice in HPVT". The fourth problem is the complexity of "a complete system, comprising many L2 sounds, for learners of varied L1 backgrounds and L2 experience". The fifth problem is "a lack of advertising funds for promotional materials". The sixth problem is that HPVT "does not easily lend itself to incorporation in traditional classrooms". And the seventh problem is that out-of-classroom HVPT use "requires students to be highly motivated", because "current approaches … tend to be boring and thus demotivating".

There's an eighth obstacle, implicit in several of Thomson's seven, namely the fact that educational psychology and educational linguistics are segregated in schools and programs that are organizationally, physically, and culturally separated from the "regular" or "mainstream" versions of those fields. This situation has a complicated history, and plenty of blame on all sides — but it's one of many unfortunate cases where disciplinary boundaries are more geological than logical.

Thomson concludes that

While HVPT's effectiveness for improving learners perception and pronunciation of L2 sounds is well documented, many obstacles remain for more extensive use in language teaching. As further HVPT research addresses some of the outstanding questions identified here, a coherent set of best practices for HVPT can be established. Even so, more work is needed to bridge the gap between research and practice. This requires better cooperation between researchers and teachers, and also between researchers and programmers. It also requires a willingness on the part of researchers to write for a teacher audience. On the bright side, given the rapid move toward cloud-based applications, obstacles associated with the accessibility of large-scale HVPT applications are likely to disappear soon.

Fingers crossed.



  1. Colin McLarty said,

    September 10, 2019 @ 5:18 pm

    I'll keep an eye out for any web sites or apps offering this for English speakers learning Mandarin. But I have to say the world of language instruction (notably including accent improvement) is pretty competitive: on line, off-line, in schools, and private. If no one is offering this, then I suspect it is not ready to offer.

  2. Doctor Science said,

    September 10, 2019 @ 10:36 pm

    What I want to know is, where are the YouTube videos talking about HVPT and demonstrating how it works? It seems to me that someone, say, with a renewable supply of phonetics students (grad and undergrad) could get some of them to do such videos as class projects and put them up where the world could learn from them.

    After reading LL for years, watching cDramas has finally got me interested in learning Mandarin. Alas, so far I have categorically failed at tones as far as all the online tools are concerned, so I've signed up for a live course at the local adult school. Am I too old (over 60) to learn my first tonal language? Stay tuned!

  3. Chris Button said,

    September 10, 2019 @ 10:37 pm

    "Thomson" without a "p"

    ….who often lack training in phonetics

    Just looking at some of the textbooks used in ESL pronunciation classes, a much greater awareness of the difference between phonemic forms and actual phonetic realizations would go a long way. This pertains as much to pointing out non-distinctive surface distinctions as to recognizing that realizations are going to vary based on their surrounding conditioning environments. As regards this last point, from what I understand from the HVPT description here, the methodology makes a lot of sense.

  4. eub said,

    September 11, 2019 @ 12:05 am

    Make it a smartphone game and possibly even ask native speakers to contribute pairs, which seems like it might be a bottleneck otherwise.

  5. Moa said,

    September 11, 2019 @ 12:36 am

    I'm a bit confused how HVPT differs from regular listening exercises. I remember when I first started learning Mandarin we spent a lot of class time on learning to recognise the tones as well as differentiate between similar-sounding syllables, often by doing listening exercises with word pairs where one was right and the other wrong.

    [(myl) What the research shows: It's crucial to have the exercises use examples from multiple speakers, not just a single speaker. This normally doesn't (and can't) happen in a classroom exercise managed by a single instructor.]

  6. Philip Taylor said,

    September 11, 2019 @ 5:20 am

    Doctor Science ("Am I too old (over 60) to learn my first tonal language ?"). Absolutely not. You may not be able to hear or replicate tones for other reasons, but moderate age should be no hindrance. Equip yourself with Praat (or similar), listen to and then speak aloud something as simple as mā / má / mǎ / mà / ma while recording, then compare the originals and your version using Praat. You should be able to decide in less than two weeks whether or not you are capable of hearing and replicating tones.

  7. Scott Mauldin said,

    September 11, 2019 @ 8:40 pm

    So is there a quick and easy way to get cracking with this technique? Is there an app or website where I can select the language whose phonemic inventory I want to learn and have it take me through HVPT drills? If not, can someone build one?

  8. Chris Button said,

    September 12, 2019 @ 6:31 am

    "the term HVPT may be a deterrent to language teachers, who often lack training in phonetics"

    I don't think the issue with the term HVPT is that the teachers lack training in phonetics (which is true but unrelated to this point). I think it is rather that HVPT is a uninspiring term at best that is hardly going to catch on outside of niche circles. Quite frankly, even the title of this post "HVPT review" hardly inspires one to read it!

  9. Rodger C said,

    September 12, 2019 @ 7:08 am

    Yeah, HVPT sounds like something you'd make plumbing out of.

  10. Eric Pelzl said,

    September 12, 2019 @ 7:10 pm

    I research second language acquisition of tones, and used to teach Mandarin. It is rather baffling that HVPT resources are hard to find for Mandarin tones. It's not because no one has made them. There's are dozens of published tone training studies (some are linked below–sorry for the paywalls!), many of which used materials that could be suitable for training. I was marginally involved with one project and adjacent to another at the Center for Advanced Study of Language (U. Maryland). The first project (I was not involved) resulted in a couple publications (here's one: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/lang.12159), but they used an artificial language approach, so materials weren't really useful for actual Mandarin learning. A later project that I was briefly involved with created an asteroid shooting tone app that was meant for actual use, but it got caught by the changing tides of government funding (sadly, the center no longer exists). A more recent project was headed by Catherine Ryu at Michigan State. They created a smart phone app for research purposes, published a study (https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/lang.12246), created an online database (https://tone.lib.msu.edu/), and there are recent-ish press releases suggesting the app is in the process of being commercialized (https://research.msu.edu/ryu-honored-for-online-database/). I also know folks at Carnegie Mellon have been doing lots of cool research in this area. So… fingers crossed that within a few years HVPT options will be available for Mandarin tones.

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