HVPT or minimal pairs on steroids

It was by chance as these things tend to happen on the net that I read about High Variability Pronunciation Training (HVPT). What are the odds language teachers know about HVPT?

My extremely representative and valid polling on Twitter and G+ gave me a big fat 2 out of 24 teachers who knew the acronym. Of the two who said yes one had looked up the acronym and the other is an expert in pronunciation.

I would put good odds that most language teachers have heard of and use minimal pairs, i.e. pairs of words which differ by one sound, the famous ship/sheep for example.

HVPT can be seen as a souped up minimal pairs where different speakers are used and sounds presented in different contexts. Learners are then required to categorize the sound by picking a label for the sound. Feedback is then given on whether they are correct.

Pronunciation research has shown that providing a variety of input in terms of speakers and phonetic contexts helps learners categorize sounds. That is the V of variability in the acronym. Furthermore such training focuses learners on the phonetic form and thus reduces any effect of semantic meaning since it has been shown that attending to both meaning and form reduces performance.

Currently there is one free (with registration) program that helps with Canadian pronunciation it is called EnglishAccentCoach.1 This web and IOS program is developed by Ron Thompson a notable researcher in this field. It is claimed that it can significantly help learners in only 8 short training sessions and effects last for up to a month. There is a paid program called UCL Vowel Trainer2 which claims learners improved from 65% accuracy to 85% accuracy over 5 sessions.

Another (open source) program is in development called Minimal Bears which is based on PyPhon.3 MinimalBears aims to build up crowdsourcing feature so that many languages can be accommodated. Interested readers may like to see a talk about HVPT from the developers.4

So it is quite amazing as Mark Liberman from Language Log pointed out how little is known by language educators about HPVT. One of the commenters to the Language Log post suggested association with drill and kill stereotypes of language learning may have tainted it. No doubt more research is required to test the limits of HPVT. Hopefully this post will pique interest in readers to investigate these minimal pairs on steroids.

Many thanks to Guy Emerson for additional information and to the poll respondents.


1. EnglishAccentCoach
2. UCL Vowel Trainer
3. PyPhon  I have yet to be able to get this working
4. (video) High Variability and Phonetic Training – Guy Emerson and Stanisław Pstrokoński

Further reading:

Thomson, R. I. (2011). Computer assisted pronunciation training: Targeting second language vowel perception improves pronunciation. Calico Journal, 28(3), 744-765. Retrieved from http://www.equinoxpub.com/journals/index.php/CALICO/article/viewPDFInterstitial/22985/18991
Liberman, M. (2008, July 6) HVPT [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=328


12 thoughts on “HVPT or minimal pairs on steroids

  1. Very interesting read. But I guess I’m also thinking, oh dear, yet another acronym when we’re already so inundated with them!

  2. I think when you have learners who don’t try to find listening material for themselves they can get locked into only catching the teachers’ voices and whatever CDs might be used. This would even be good as a remedial or bridging programme if you can source a decent range of accents.

    1. hi Marc,
      yes easy hinderance for learners to meet; Minimal Bears program sets out to enable people to contribute as many voices as possible as I understand it

  3. Hi Elfnotes, thanks for this post! This is Stanisław Pstrokoński of Minimal Bears. I also have a podcast about education called Education Bookcast, as a completely separate thing, which might also interest you.
    Work on Minimal Bears continues. We should be getting something usable out in the next couple of months. We’ll let you know!

      1. Sorry, Mura, for messing up your poll – I didn’t’ intend to. I’m so used to you young things knowing acronyms beyond my experience, if I don’t recognise one my automatic reaction is to do an internet search search to keep up with you.

        I was very glad to read the article because I believe that the ability to make correct choices is what makes for autonomous learners. Teachers can help students to develop their inner criteria by giving them a context where the choices are limited – though not necessarily binary. Having inner criteria is not the same as being able to formulate an explicit rule. I think this sort of pedagogy applies not only to pronunciation and minimal pairs but to all fields. It’s not new either: Montessori worked with getting small children to classify objects and Gattegno too proposed classification exercises.

        I’ve made some online pronunciations exercises myself, but the choices are not necessarily binary. Here’s one that is: http://www.esl-exos.info/pronunciation-exercises/magic-e/

        I’m looking forward to see what’s possible with Minimal Bears

        I’m stuck at the moment because the tool I’ve been using, Hot Potatoes, doesn’t produce exercises that work on mobile devices

        The original article “Training of English vowel perception by Finnish speakers to focus
        on spectral rather than durational cues” isn’t available on academia.edu but I’ve sent a request for the PDF to Maria Uther.


      2. hi Glenys no worries i was not expecting to hold a serious poll : ) just use it as a rhetorical device.

        interesting to read what you say about Montessori and Gattegno thanks.

        i would recommend reading the Thompson paper which talks about labelling so you are not restricted to a binary choice? (thanks for link to your pron exs)

        i believe the article linked to in the lang log post was a conference paper? do let me know if you get a copy.

  4. Great article. I had no idea about HVPT, but it is very useful.

    I have toyed around with using forvo.com for minimal pair comparisons, e.g. students select two similar words and the forvo pronunciations pop up so that students can compare them. Unfortunately, I couldn’t figure out embedding or their API so I gave up.

    I am excited about Minimal Bears, especially if it will web-accessible to avoid needing to download and setup Python.

    1. hi Anthony while we wait for Minimal Bears the exercises Glenys posted look useful and the min pair exercises on apps4efl are good as well

      i recently recommended the EnglishAccentCoach to a student curious to see if she does use it and what she thinks of it


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