HVPT review

Language Log 2019-09-10

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 Thompson 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.

Thompson'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 Thompson'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.

Thompson 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.