ELTABBer of the Month: Nicholas Terpolilli

This month, we interviewed Nick Terpolilli, a US-born ELTABBer. Grab a coffee and settle in for an interesting read!

Nick holds an MA in Linguistics/TESOL from the University of Illinois, Chicago, and a BA in English from Grinnell College. As of summer 2022, Nick is a part-time instructor at the University of Potsdam’s Zentrum für Sprachen und Schlüsselkompetenzen; he also facilitates teacher training programs with Berlin’s Studienzentrum für Erziehung, Pädagogik, und Schule. For over ten years, he has been engaged by organizations in Chicago, Kassel, and the Berlin–Brandenburg area, including immersion programs, on-site business/vocational English agencies, and institutions of higher and adult education.

Having experienced language learning in varied contexts, Nick explains that his work is informed by pragmatic, theoretical, and design perspectives—notwithstanding how different environments (e.g., digital v. physical) change the communicative landscape and how to take that into account when facilitating skills development. Nick strongly believes that English’s position as a lingua franca can play a vital role in decolonization, and he looks forward to how this position will lead to changes in the language in the coming decades.

In his free time, Nick practices yoga and is an avid fan of the Eurovision Song Contest.

  • How long have you been a member of ELTABB and what role has it played in your career?

I’ll be celebrating my tenth anniversary next year! Attending ELTABB events has been instrumental for me. From the speakers/presenters or from chatting with ELTABB members, I always walk away with new perspectives on matters ranging from simple activities for my tool kit to navigating administrative requirements.

  • What impact has studying linguistics had on your teaching?

It’s been invaluable to me because it helps me to have a theoretical and/or scientific basis for what I’m doing. I feel that I can better guide language learners to understand why people do what they do in all kinds of communicative events.

With teaching, my work in linguistics has helped me in designing effective spaces for cognitive development. It’s also given me a number of different frameworks for analyzing learner output so that I can determine speech events and aspects of grammar and lexis that should receive attention.

  • Could you tell us a little more about what you mean when you say that your work is informed by pragmatic, theoretical, and design perspectives? Do you have any examples?

Maybe I can give an example of my process in putting together a class that many are likely familiar with: academic writing. I start by considering what the participants (university students of English) need to be able to do better: produce effective, coherent, and thoughtful written English for academia. I brainstorm topics that are intellectually stimulating and select appropriately complex prompts that are worthy of academic critique. Then, I have a trajectory in mind and try to include various learning experiences. In asynchronous components, what tasks will best guide them toward noticing, internalizing, and practicing features of English academic writing? How do I design those tasks so that they are as interactive as possible? When there are live workshops, how can I facilitate a cognitively engaging room that maximizes opportunities for participants to learn from each other?

Some other concerns that receive considerable attention: how do I give feedback (and encourage peer feedback) in a way that values contribution? How can I logically build a course so that participation and navigation is intuitive, and how can different tools be used to design activities that will result in skills development? And I always add elements of practicality: how can writers exploit resources at their disposal to help in the writing process?

  • I know that you worked as a Business English teacher at the University for Sustainable Development in Eberswalde (HNEE). Have you incorporated any of the topics that formed part of your modules there (CSR, sustainable marketing, etc.) into your Business or General English classes elsewhere? Is there much interest in these increasingly important topics outside these specialist colleges?

There is certainly interest in sustainability in conjunction with the climate change crisis – I find that there are always ways to incorporate relevant perspectives, at least on environmental sustainability. It’s a bit basic, but I often start with individual actions people can take and then open a critique of those actions in terms of impact. For example, in the writing class I described, we’ve looked at some research that points to universally adopted dietary changes being able to influence the market and result in industrial/agricultural shifts that would make a difference. Usually, the result is some very interesting discussion: household v. industrial impacts and how they are related, neoliberal placement of the onus on the individual/household, how sustainable developments can have unanticipated results that are equally as problematic, etc.

I’ve done a bit with sustainable marketing outside of the HNEE as well. One of my teacher trainees recently gave a presentation on the app “Too Good to Go” and this sparked very interesting conversation!

  • English’s role as a lingua franca helping decolonize is an interesting perspective. Could you tell us a bit about this? Especially with regards to different Englishes, and how their linguistic features may be seen as ‘mistakes’ by learners as well as teachers?

It really reached catharsis for me when I interrupted someone asking a question and said “You know what? Stop asking me to explain what I think about this as a native speaker. It’s not my language, it’s your language!” Let’s dismantle elite/colonial ownership of the language first. As facilitators, designers, and decision-makers, we should be considering changes in how we talk about and address what might be considered “errors.” We should also be working to ensure that voices that don’t fit into categories of “standard” English, or that come from bodies that are not expected to be speaking English, are not marginalized or tokenized.

I mentioned the feedback I give in my writing classes: I always try to give some feedback that clarifies why usage is problematic, rather than simply indicating an error. This makes the space (at least partially) a conversation among peers, in which perfection isn’t glorified; it also pushes superficial mechanics to the back burner in favor of intellectual exchange. It may not change the world, but when I shift my guiding principles from accuracy and discipline to compassion and comportment, I do see differences in how participants treat themselves and others. Little moves we make can plant the seeds to shake things up, so that all English speakers are legitimized and empowered.

  •  Are you able to incorporate your interest in using ELF to decolonize in the teacher training programs you facilitate?

I always try! In a way, the ELF perspective is essential because a big part of what I do is build the trainees’ confidence so that they feel comfortable guiding learners. A kind of ownership should go hand in hand with that – and not a general thinking that their English is somehow flawed. I think an awareness of English’s dynamic status as a global language can help them to make sense of their own history with English, and to use their knowledge and training when putting together meaningful and memorable experiences for their students.

  • How did you get into teacher training and what kind of teachers do you train? Do you have any advice for those who might be interested in this kind of career path?

With several colleagues, I lead a language proficiency module of a training course for the Quereinsteiger teachers (coming from another profession and now completing teacher training) for Berlin high schools.

I learned about the opportunity from a colleague, and I think it’s always useful to explore what’s out there, network, and get into contact with people who may be involved with work or projects that interest you.

  • How do you teach the quickly-changing nature of online communication? As a child in school I was taught that if I didn’t know the difference between ‘Yours faithfully’ and ‘sincerely’ it could cost me dearly – now I sweat over which emoticon is the best reply to the *happy-face, embarrassed-monkey, coffee-cup* my business English client has just sent…?

I know what you’re talking about, looking back on the way communication has developed over the past few decades! I try to treat digital communication with an exploratory spirit, so that people can have frameworks for assessing what might be unfamiliar to them (similar to intercultural communication). Recently, I’ve been talking a lot about “digital body language” – what are the different behaviors and cues that we use as criteria for determining meaning and nuance? Things like emojis are arguably quite straightforward even though their meanings can be cryptic and context dependent. Other factors like whether someone’s camera is enabled in a video conference or how long it takes to reply to a message are also elements of “digital body language,” and it’s important to have these many possibilities in mind.

I also like to exploit opportunities that are relevant. In my writing class this past semester, we turned memes into complete sentences that stated the content and captured the spirit of the meme, but did so in publish-worthy academic language! I think this kind of language play helps to practice language for different contexts so that the tools needed for this type of code-switching are more readily accessible.

  • What have been your greatest challenges in teaching EFL to date?

To be honest, with everything I’ve said about ELF and decolonizing, this “mission” also poses the greatest challenge for my work in EFL. Language is what it is, and a mutual agreement on how signs signify meaning is indeed based on rules and standards. While I like to be subversive with the “teacher role,” there are times when that role does constitute decisions about what is “English” and what is not. Even the way that I open a dialogue about various ELF issues may reinforce colonialism as much as rupture it. And most importantly, while English speakers will often find themselves in communications where mutual understanding is highly valued, they may also find themselves communicating with people who are judging them based on traditional or prescriptive standards—and these scenarios can also have consequences. Recognizing all these possibilities and balancing them with encouragement and empowerment can be difficult.

  • You’re from the US, so how did you discover the Eurovision Song Contest? Have you ever incorporated it into your classes? (Also, do you agree that Brooke was robbed?)

Long story short: the internet! This was glorious in the noughties: the EBU hadn’t started geo-blocking yet and I could simply watch the contest online in the afternoon in my Chicago apartment with a bottle of bubbly. IMO Chanel was the biggest ESC robbery victim of 2022!

Edited by Eleanor Johnston