Interview with Geoff Lindsey about his pronunciation and phonetics short courses
UCL alumnus Geoff Lindsey is a phonetics and pronunciation specialist who teaches on two of our short courses. He’s been a linguist, screenwriter and director and now runs his own coaching business.
6 July 2017
How did you get into teaching phonetics and pronunciation?
I was blessed (or cursed!) with some academic ability and a knack for phonetics.
Research done here at UCL shows that phoneticians have particular auditory skills and an aptitude for listening - meaning they hear more than the average person. I love taking this skill and using it to help others become more confident and in control of how they speak.
What sort of people take your classes?
Being able to pronounce English with greater control isn't just a challenge for non-native English speakers: English speakers can also benefit. For example, those wanting to work in broadcasting or performance e.g. actors and singers, English teachers who want to improve their own teaching of pronunciation, or those who want to modify their accent for whatever reason. There are many motivations.
What types of issues do people have with being understood?
Speaking is an amazing psychophysical event: you have a thought, your mouth opens and all this noise comes out! Most of us have absolutely no idea how we do it and give it very little thought. For those who don’t have that knack or a great natural ear (or even the ones that do), especially non-native speakers, there’s a nagging lack of confidence. Am I doing it right? Could I be making myself clearer? Why do people keep asking me to repeat myself? Even for those who've been living in the UK for many years - why do people keep asking me where I'm from?
How do you help people gain confidence in their pronunciation?
A lot of teaching in this area focuses on the movement of the mouth. That’s essential, of course, but an equally important step is learning to hear properly. I like to help people develop the scope of what they can hear and the sounds they can make. This is enhanced by being in a multi-language group: you get to hear shades of pronunciation in a group where people are from different places and cultures.
My short course, English Pronunciation: a Contemporary Approach, run by the Division of Psychology and Language Sciences (PALS), is run in small groups – a maximum of 12, so learners get a lot of one-to-one feedback from me in a coaching-style atmosphere. We don’t focus as much on technical description, but concentrate on practical skills and building confidence and control: it’s very intensive! I love watching people grow in confidence and ability in such a short period of time: it’s incredibly rewarding.
Why do you think the summer phonetics course has been so successful (and long running?)
Our Summer Course in English Phonetics just ran for the 96th time I believe! I was incredibly honoured when asked to be director of such a successful and long-running course. It was set up by Daniel Jones, one of the founding fathers of phonetics in this country, and subsequently run by the professors who taught me.
There’s an intensive mix of more technical phonetics and lots of hands-on practical sessions developing pronunciation and listening skills. We have people who attend year after year to brush up their skills as well as new students from all over the world. The atmosphere on this course is what makes it so special, it’s a great tradition.
It is a two-week course aimed at anyone who wants to immerse themselves in English phonetics and improving their pronunciation, but it’s also very useful for those who teach English as a foreign language. We split people up into small groups with different proficiency ranges for practical aspects so there really is something for everyone. You can read about how this course benefited two different types of English teacher.
Tell me about your teaching (and TV!) career
I completed a BA in Linguistics at UCL before studying for my PhD at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). I then lectured at UCL before becoming a lecturer and director of Edinburgh University’s Phonetics Laboratory. I have a particular interest in phonetics and applying it to the pronunciation of English, and have been asked to talk about this on shows such as Stephen Fry’s English Delight on BBC Radio 4.
I also had other ambitions and interests and left full-time academia to enter the world of TV and film. I started writing scripts, got myself an agent and ended up writing screenplays for the likes of The Bill, Eastenders and Family Affairs (where I got to kill off the main character - quite an honour in screenwriting circles!). I also had some fantastic experiences directing the likes of Michael Palin in a Monty Python extra.
The highlight of my film career so far was a labour of love: writing the screenplay and arranging Chopin’s music for the animated film The Magic Piano. Lang Lang, the classical pianist, performed the musical score. There was also a feature-length educational film about Chopin, and I directed Lang Lang and Heather Graham in the live action.
But I never lost my passion for the interaction, feedback and satisfaction I got from teaching, so I set up a speech and pronunciation coaching business about five years ago and was asked back to UCL to teach on short courses alongside that, which I love.