An Interview with Colin Baker

Much excitement in the office this week, as the 5th edition of Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism by Colin Baker has just been published. Foundations is our most widely-read and recognisable book, and copies of each new edition tend to get snapped up pretty quickly, so we’re anticipating a busy couple of months. I had a quick chat with Colin about the book, his future plans, and his ill-fated ambition to be an airline pilot…

How did you first become interested in bilingualism?

I fell in love with the Vicar’s daughter in the University Church. Her family all spoke Welsh and English fluently. For a southern English person, surrounded by monolingualism, this was a revelation. I fell in love with bilingualism, married the Vicar’s daughter, and we raised three children who from infancy became effortlessly bilingual.

Were there any books/scholars that particularly inspired you when you were beginning to study bilingualism?

As an undergraduate student, I was taught by W.R. Jones who was a pioneer in research on intelligence and bilingualism. He is still quoted today.
My first book, ‘Aspects of Bilingualism in Wales’ had an unlikely beginning. I read a book on attitudes and language in a particular geographical location, and thought that I could write one just as good about Wales. From that peculiar beginning, I’ve always been writing the next book.

Where did the idea for ‘Foundations’ come from?

Not from me. I received a letter from the Managing Director of Multilingual Matters rather unexpectedly in the early 1990s. It related that my second book ‘Key Issues in Bilingualism and Bilingual Education’ was beginning to sell as a textbook. I never intended that. Mike Grover wrote ‘Consider writing THE textbook on Bilingual Education’. From receiving that letter, my life changed forever. Thankfully.

Did you have any idea how successful the book would become when you started writing the first edition?

If you had asked me in 1993 when the first edition was published, would it ever reach a second edition or get translated, the answer would have been a massive and definite ‘NO’. I was just very lucky in being the first person to bring together writing and research from different disciplines, summarise and organise it, and get a publisher to market it so well.

How do you keep track of all the new research that’s published between one edition and the next?

As soon as I finish an edition, I immediately start collecting material for the next edition. At first, it becomes one great pile in my room at Bangor University. Eventually, I separate the material into different piles to represent each chapter.
When I start writing, I take a chapter at a time, but not in the order they appear in the book. The smaller piles are completed first to encourage me to continue!
In the early days, it was not too difficult to track new research across journals, books and even the WWW. These days, there are many new journals, an increasing number of books, and an explosion of material on the Internet. Newer topics such as Neurobilingualism, endangered languages and globalism mean that the boundaries are forever expanding.

What are you working on at the moment (apart from the 6th edition of ‘Foundations’!)?

I am currently working with the research team as part of a UK multi-million pound research grant. We are researching: translanguaging, adult language learning, bilingual education at University level, and multilingual pre-school education. That will produce varied publications in journals and books.

Are there any recent books on bilingualism that you’ve found particularly interesting?

A book that is rather novel, original in content, thought provoking and grounded is: Bilingual Siblings: Language Use in Families by Suzanne Barron-Hauwaert (Multilingual Matters, December 2010). This will probably be a book that inspires a new line of research that has both theoretical and practical outcomes.

If you had the time and resources, and a willing publisher, what would be your dream book project?

Looking back, the book Sylvia Prys Jones and I wrote entitled Encyclopedia of Bilingualism and Bilingual Education was hard work as it was completed in three years, but added many meaningful pictures, lively text boxes, stories and even humour to what could have been a tedious publication.  It has a lovely message that bilingualism is beautiful, global and adds colour and diversity to our world.  A new version of that would be my dream book.

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working?

I enjoy working, and leisure time is something of a rarity. But I play a pedal organ occasionally, enjoy refurbishing a large tank of tropical fish, and take vacations in Slovenia.

What do you think you might have done if you hadn’t pursued a career in academia?

I started employment as a teacher in secondary schools, and if my Ph.D. supervisor had not left his post, I guess I could now be a stressed Headteacher/Principal of a school.
If I had a magic wand and could have chosen any career, I would have loved to become a cathedral organist, an expert fisherman or an aeroplane pilot. Luckily for music, fish and safety in the air, Bangor University appointed me.

2 thoughts on “An Interview with Colin Baker

  1. I can really relate to making piles of work and approaching the small ones first; it’s nice to hear how down-to-earth Colin is!

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