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The Speech Perception Assessment and Training System for ESL (SPATS-ESL) was originally sold only to institutional users or research organizations.   Earlier versions of SPATS-ESL included  many options to be selected by the user.  Like most very flexible software systems, the number of choices made the system difficult for those who tried to use it, unless they had the help of a clinical supervisor or ESL teacher.   The most recent version of the system avoids these problems by limiting the number of choices presented to the user.   The flexibility remains, but those who use the system in its normal form have only to start it and follow the simple step-by-step instructions to move through the standard curriculum.

This new form of SPATS-ESL has now been used successfully by many individuals without having teachers or clinicians available to supervise their drills.  CDT does provide online help if you have questions about the system, but experience with the new version has shown that most qualified users make excellent progress without having to ask many (or even any) questions.   The only choices that the users will normally make are (a) to continue to the next step in training, (b) to examine the records of past training to see how much they have improved, or (c) to end a training session.  Whenever the user chooses “continue,” the SPATS system automatically starts the next training session, containing those training tasks selected for the user on the basis of past performance.  If you have stopped in the middle of a training session, when you click on “continue” the system will start again at the point where you stopped.


Who is a “qualified user”?  Qualified users are people who meet four criteria:  

  1. Qualified users are interested in improving their ability to understand English spoken as rapidly as is common to its native speakers.   Read the “Remarks to ESL Students” to help decide whether you are really interested in improving in this way.

  2. Qualified users understand that SPATS-ESL is a training system designed to improve the ability of non-native speakers to understand spoken English, not a system for teaching English vocabulary or grammar.

  3. Qualified users have good or better literacy skills (reading and writing) in English.  This means, for non-students, that these people can read a newspaper in English.  For students, it means a TOEFL score of at least 400.

  4. Qualified users have sufficient computer skills to run the program.  This generally means at least the ability to use a browser and word processor.

How much does SPATS-ESL cost?
SPATS-ESL is licensed for one year to a qualified user for $150. 

How does a user acquire the program? The system is acquired by downloading the software after the fee is paid and a license ID number has been provided to you by email.   Software may be purchased by clicking here,   after which you will be sent instructions for downloading.

How does a user actually use the program?
When training sessions are conducted, the user logs on to the SPATS website, where all performance records are kept.   When a session is begun, the information required to start training at the proper point in the curriculum is downloaded to the user’s computer.  As the training session proceeds, new performance data is added to the user’s records on the SPATS server.  

What benefit does the SPATS-ESL program have for a person who has good English reading and writing skills?

A letter to those who want to improve their skills in conversational English.

These remarks were originally prepared for university graduate students who are native speakers of languages other than English, but whose reading and writing skills in English were good to excellent. These students’ understanding of English spoken at normal conversational speed was quite poor compared to that of native English speakers. As a result they often said that the native speakers “all speak too fast.” These students' pronunciation of English was often heavily accented, making them difficult for native English speakers to understand. They were thus typical of a great many non-native speakers of English who have excellent reading and writing skills in English, and yet have problems conversing with native speakers. The non-native speakers have trouble understanding the native speakers, and the native speakers also have trouble understanding the non-native speakers. Both native and non-native conversation partners must constantly ask the other person to repeat, if they are to be successful in understanding each other. In the following paragraphs we explain why and how systematic recognition training can improve both the perception and the pronunciation of English.

Scientific studies by many research groups, including our own, have shown that one of the main reasons non-native speakers of English have trouble talking with native speakers is that they have not achieved the ability rapidly to recognize sentences, words, and even individual speech sounds in the new language. Native speakers of any language have developed an ability to recognize the sounds of their language so quickly that no effort at all is required. But when we hear the sounds of a new language we all feel that we need a little more time after each word in order to recognize it. Our short-term memory quickly becomes overloaded when the words seem to come too fast for us to recognize one before the next one has come along. This difficulty in perceiving a new language can be corrected only by learning the same automatic processing skills that are used by the native speakers. What is required to do this is simple training in which errors in recognition are immediately identified and corrected. The training is simple, and if it is repeated in drill sessions over a period of several weeks it will be successful for the great majority of ESL students.

Training a single student to recognize the sounds and words of a new language can be done by a human teacher, but the cost of many hours of one-on-one instruction (one teacher working with one student) is very high. The Speech Perception Assessment and Training System for ESL students (SPATS-ESL) is a computer-based program that provides the same sort of individualized speech perception training that you could get from a skilled ESL teacher. The SPATS-ESL training system finds the English speech sounds with which you have the most trouble and then gives you intensive training on those sounds. After every 15-20 minutes of drill on the individual sounds, SPATS-ESL also gives you training on meaningful sentences, spoken in a natural way by young and old, male and female talkers. Research has shown that in 15-35 hours of training, most ESL students can recognize the sounds and sentences on the SPATS-ESL tasks almost as quickly and accurately as native speakers of English.

If you want to become skilled at having conversations with native speakers of English, here is what we suggest you do.

We have found that the most efficient method is to work through the Speech Perception and Assessment Training System for ESL students (SPATS-ESL) using a fixed sequence of training tasks and tests called the “Standard Curriculum.” Instead of using the Standard Curriculum, you might be inclined simply to examine the list of training tasks, and even of specific speech sounds, and then select those on which you believe you need training. We hope you will not do that, because the SPATS-ESL Standard Curriculum is designed to identify all of the speech sounds that you do not recognize as quickly and accurately as you should, on the basis of your actual performance scores on the SPATS-ESL training materials. The system will then give you the specific training that you need on those sounds. As you improve, speech sounds of greater difficulty are gradually introduced until you are able accurately to recognize all of the 109 common syllable constituents of English. In addition to this training on the basic sounds of English, SPATS-ESL will also teach you to understand naturally spoken meaningful English sentences.

What is the value of training perception, compared with grammar, vocabulary, or pronunciation? Consider deaf children!
If you are to be very successful at having conversations in English, of course you need to understand the grammatical structures of that language, have a fairly large vocabulary and be able to pronounce English in a way that is easy for native speakers to understand. All three of these, grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation, will improve greatly as a result of perceptual training. Consider children who are born without hearing (congenitally deaf). Such children usually have nothing abnormal about the mechanisms required to produce speech--their lungs, vocal cords, mouth, teeth and tongue. And yet, despite years of training by specialists in the speech of the deaf, such children almost never learn to speak in a way that is easily understood by people with normal hearing. This is because they do not have proper perceptual “models” stored in their heads of the sounds they are trying to produce. When such children are given the ability to hear even a small portion of the sounds of speech, through an modern operation called a “cochlear implant,” their speech abilities soon improve to near normal levels. This means their grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation all improve when their improved perception gives them the ability to hear just some of the details of the speech sounds.

Does the importance of speech perception for deaf children have any meaning for non-native speakers of English who have normal hearing?

Yes, it does. Speakers from the Far East who have trouble with the sounds of /r/ and /l/, for example, cannot be expected to pronounce those sounds correctly if they cannot hear the difference between them. And many other English speech sounds are not perceived accurately by many non-native speakers. This is because our ears become “tuned” to hear the sounds of our native language and, when a non-native speech sound enters our ears, our brain leads us to hear (perceive) it as the native sound that is the closest to it. Learning a new language involves “re-tuning” our auditory system (ear and brain) to correctly recognize the sounds of that language. Learning the sounds of a new language does not make the sounds of our native language more difficult to understand, because we are able to shift back and forth at will between the new and the old sets of perceptual models, one set for each language that we know. Again, we have remarkable brains!

Speech scientists have recently learned several things about the perception of a foreign language by non-native speakers (hereafter referred to as L2 speakers or learners). As we said before, L2 learners almost always complain that native speakers of the language they are learning “speak too fast.” Another difficulty is that the speech-to-noise ratio at which words can be identified in a noisy background is much lower for L1 speakers of a language than for L2s. Even if the words spoken are very familiar ones for L2 speakers, a little noise makes them hard to recognize, while the L1 speaker may have almost no trouble at the same noise level. The threshold for 50% correct recognition of words can be as much as 4-5 decibels lower for the L1 speakers than for the L2 speakers. Basically this means that more of the total speech sound (waveform) must be audible for the L2 than for the L1 speakers to correctly recognize words.

Finally, how does the perceptual difficulty experienced by ESL students affect speech communication in everyday situations?
It is important to understand that no one perceives all of the sounds of a spoken sentence accurately, whether it is in our own language or one that we are learning. We have conversations in our own language quite successfully despite hearing only portions of sentences spoken to us. Language is so predictable that it is often easy to guess the identity of a word in a sentence that was not actually heard. There are research studies in which portions of words in sentences are replaced by meaningless bursts of noise, and the listeners not only identify the words correctly, but often claim that they really heard the missing portions. The brain plays strange tricks!
What are the costs of having poor perceptual skills when speaking a new language?

What are the hidden penalties that must be paid by L2 listeners who are attempting to understand sentences in a new language, spoken at normal conversational rates? Here we need to discuss some situations that are not happy ones, and we regret having to mention them because doing so may be considered to be insulting to some L2 speakers. But these are real consequences that are frequently noticed by L1 speakers of English when conversing with L2 speakers, and we know that the same situations occur when the language used is Chinese and the L2’s native language is English.

Design by Jamie Rio
Communication Disorders Technology
3100 East John Hinkle Place, Ste 107
Bloomington, IN 47408
Phone:   1-812-336-1766
Fax:   1-812-822-3438
E-mail:   cdt@comdistec.com