An Interview with Rolf Palmberg

Rolf Palmberg, teacher-trainer at Åbo Akademi University in Finland, shares experiences from his personal TEFL path.

Written by Tara Benwell for TEFL.net
Rolf Palmberg

Rolf Palmberg

Tara: Can you give us a brief rundown of how your TEFL career unfolded?

Rolf: One could say that a series of lucky choices led to a happy end for me. My first choice was whether to study languages or maths. I chose languages. The second one was whether to specialise in applied linguistics or in literature. I chose applied linguistics. The third one was whether to become a language teacher or do something else with my university degree. I came to the conclusion that I wanted to be a language teacher and eventually ended up as a teacher trainer. And no, I haven’t regretted a single day.

Tara: I understand that English is not your first language. Can you describe the challenges of being a non-native English speaker in this industry?

Rolf: One of the major drawbacks of not having English as your first language is that you can never be 100% sure whether something is grammatically correct or not. Then again, I have several friends who are native speakers and who apparently have the same problem. More and more people, luckily, seem to accept that the English produced by non-native speakers need not be pronounced in British or American English – their language can be perfectly fluent and grammatically correct even if the accent is slightly “foreign”. A bad thing is that many schools and universities in various parts of the world seem to consider uneducated native speakers of English to be better EFL teachers per se compared to educated non-native speakers of English even when the latter have various kinds of teaching qualifications and diplomas.

Tara: You have written numerous articles, books, and CALL programs related to linguistics and EFL methodology. What has been your most important contribution to the industry thus far?

Rolf: A very delicate question indeed! I would like to say “everything I’ve done,” but that would of course be untrue. In the 1970s I was very much into Error Analysis, in the 1980s there was CALL and Communicative Competence, in the 1990s vocabulary learning. In 1998 Michael Berman introduced me to Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences (MI) Theory. If I had to pick one of these topics and say that this is my major contribution, it would probably be something of a concoction: the MI Theory applied to EFL vocabulary learning aiming at logical-mathematical language learners in particular.

Tara: As both an author and teacher-trainer are you concerned about the quality and/or quantity of websites offering language instruction and materials online?

Rolf: Internet websites are like books: there are good materials and there are bad materials. The problem with the internet is that the material is so easily available and so many students (and teachers!) are not experienced enough to decide what is rubbish and what is not – and there is so much to choose from. When you are about to buy an EFL book you certainly examine it thoroughly using totally different criteria.

Tara: Are you currently working on any books or research projects that you would like to tell us about?

Rolf: In my non-academic life I just finished writing the last chapter of a border-related travel book. In my academic life I have finally fully realised the significance of “small is beautiful.” So for the moment I have no major projects going on. Instead I get much pleasure in designing small EFL tasks that work beautifully for specific learning objects.

Tara: You have a unique interest in borders and enclaves. Can you tell us where this fascination originated and how you fit this hobby into your busy schedule?

Rolf Palmberg's photograph of the German-Swiss border zone with view of French territory on the left. Taken in 2001.

Rolf Palmberg's photograph of the German-Swiss border zone with view of French territory on the left. Taken in 2001.

Rolf: A very long time ago, as a teenager flying high above Europe and sitting in a window seat, I realised that there were no red-painted borders to be seen on the ground. So I decided to visit as many international borders as possible, especially tripoints, and find out what international borders really look like. I combine my hobby with my work for example by visiting select border areas before or after attending conferences and, in class, by integrating travel-related tasks into my teaching as often as I can.

Tara: Is there a tripoint that you hope to visit and photograph in the future?

Rolf: There are two tripoints with top priority on my “visit list”. In Europe: the two Andorran tripoints with France and Spain. In Asia: the Chinese-North Korean-Russian tripoint.

Tara: What advice would you have for individuals who are considering TEFL as a career?

Rolf: Go for it!

For more information about Rolf Palmberg and to view his photo gallery of tripoints, borders, and enclaves visit: http://www.vasa.abo.fi/users/rpalmber

Photo of Rolf Palmberg by Camilla Fant

Written by Tara Benwell for TEFL.net
June 2009 | Filed under Interviews
Tara Benwell is a Canadian freelance writer and editor who specializes in materials for the ELT industry.