Colin Baker and the Bilingual Education

Colin Baker is perhaps best known for being the author of a widely read textbook on bilingual education, Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, which has undergone four editions. The book has sold over 60,000 copies and has been translated into Japanese, Spanish, Latvian, Greek, and Mandarin.

For Baker, early experience was no predictor of his later career. Born on October 1, 1949, in Danbury, a hilltop village in southeastern England, he remembers only one bilingual person in that village. She was a Belgian refugee speaking French and English, considered by villagers as "different." In elementary school, teachers and students were monolingual English speakers, matching his nuclear and extended family.

In high school, Baker learned Latin and French through the grammar-translation method. Conversational French was regarded as nonacademic and insufficient as a brain-developing activity; hence, it was largely avoided. All students were native English speakers and were required to use a prestigious variety called "the Queen's English."

Despite encouragement from his high school principal to attend a top English university, Baker's main interest was walking mountains. Having traversed the highest peaks in England, he wished to walk the higher Welsh mountains. Bangor is located very near those mountains, and Bangor University became Baker's home. The university overlooks a small city. The many surrounding villages are populated with bilinguals, with the great majority of the indigenous population speaking both Welsh and English fluently and some immigrants from England learning Welsh for employment or cultural enjoyment.

University students can take some humanities subjects through the medium of Welsh, and bilingual education is predominant in all elementary and most high schools. In this context, bilingualism is a natural topic for study. One of Baker's tutors, W. R. Jones, was a world expert on the relationship between bilingualism and IQ and on empirical studies of the effectiveness of bilingual education. Jones also taught Baker advanced statistical analysis for his PhD, although Jones' "teaching" mostly meant Baker's self-teaching.

Thus, for young Baker, the foundations had been laid. Another event was probably more influential in precipitating a lifelong interest in studying bilingualism. As a freshman, Baker sang in a church choir and fell in love with his future wife across the choir stalls. Anwen was the daughter of the pastor of that church, and her family lived their lives speaking mostly Welsh. Students were warmly welcomed to the house, and Baker found a second home.

The seamless and effortless movement in that family between two languages, two literacies, and two cultures was in stark contrast to monolingual Danbury. The diversity and value-addedness of bilingualism became apparent and appealing. In years to come, it bore fruit in a thoroughly bilingual Baker household, with three children who were educated in two languages.

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