Stephen Bax, 1960-2017

Academic whose research interests were shaped by an African childhood remembered

December 14, 2017
Stephen Bax

A leading authority on the use of technology for language learning has died.

Stephen Bax was born in South Africa in July 1960 but moved to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) as a baby and lived there until the age of 11. It was at this point that the family returned to Nottingham, England, yet his early days in southern Africa shaped a lifelong interest in languages and other cultures.

After a first degree in English at Peterhouse College, Cambridge, Professor Bax started his career in 1981 by teaching English in Sudan, studying Arabic in Syria and then working in Algeria as part of his teacher training, which led to a postgraduate certificate in education for teaching English as a foreign/second language from the University College of North Wales, Bangor (now Bangor University). In 1985, he was employed by the British Council in Iraq for three years. He would later gain considerable experience in both Asia and Latin America.

Returning to the academy, Professor Bax gained an MLitt and an MSc in applied linguistics from the University of Edinburgh and a PhD from the University of Kent on intertextual reference and reading. He served as principal lecturer and senior lecturer in applied linguistics at Canterbury Christ Church University (1993-2009) before moving to the University of Bedfordshire as reader in English language, learning, assessment and technology (2009-12) and then professor of applied linguistics (2012-15).

Finally, after taking up a position as professor of modern languages and linguistics at the Open University, Professor Bax was appointed director for research excellence there in 2016, at the time of the formation of the new School of Languages and Applied Linguistics. Despite increasing health problems, he remained deeply involved and continued to attend key meetings and research events remotely.

The author of a seminal paper titled “CALL [computer-assisted language learning] – Past, Present and Future”, Professor Bax also did important research on eye tracking in reading and reading tests and won a prestigious British Council award earlier this year for his work on, an online tool that can automatically analyse the difficulty of a written text. Yet his wide-ranging linguistic interests meant that he was equally fascinated by the still-undeciphered Voynich manuscript, carbon-dated to the 1420s, and the disputes about whether it is a hoax or represents a genuine or encoded language.

Theresa Lillis, professor of English language and applied linguistics at the OU, described Professor Bax as “an academic who inspired both students and colleagues to push beyond their immediate understandings and to imagine new intellectual horizons”.

He died on 22 November and is survived by his wife Paloma, two sons and a daughter.

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Reader's comments (5)

My thoughts and condolences are with family and friends of Steven Bax this Christmas. It is odd how Stephen and I followed such similar paths, but never actually met face to face until 2016. He spent his childhood in Zimbabwe whilst I was next door in Zambia. Africa was in our blood and perhaps inevitably we returned as young men. We were both in Sudan at the same time for the first two years of our careers teaching English. Eventually we both ended up in the UK academy, but when Stephen visited my then university for a PhD viva I was out of the country on a marketing and recruitment trip and we never actually met. We shared particular interests technology in language education and TESOL with Stephen’s work significantly impacting on my own thinking and research. It was wonderful to finally meet Stephen face-to-face in 2016, we got on like a house on fire and seemed to have so much to catch up on. It was my pleasure work with him over the summer 2017 to promote, his British Council award winning best Digital Innovation programme – this proved an opportunity to get him back into Twitter for both professional and personal purposes, which he much relished! Alas some of our other shared plans and ideas are now laid to rest with his sad passing and his loss leaves a void in the academy. He will be sorely missed by so many. RIP Professor Stephen Bax. Huw Jarvis, Editor and Founder of
It's very sad to hear the news about Professor Bax's death. I was lucky to have a chance to attend a training course on language assessment by Professor Bax (sponsored by Hornby Trust) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia many years ago. He was a great and enjoyable trainer with a good human relationship. All the trainees from 4 different countries enjoyed all the time at the training course and all the social activities. He will be greatly missed by all of us. RIP Professor Bax. Porntip Bodeepongse, Retired lecturer from Thaksin University, Thailand
I was fortunate enough to have worked closely with Stephen on editing the book "Beyond the language classroom: researching MOOCs and other innovations" and a mobile Chinese character learning project. He was an inspiring mentor with a great sense of humour, who was so passionate about language learning and was generous with his time. He will always be a dear colleague and a caring mentor in my heart. My thoughts are with his family this Christmas. KAN Qian, Senior Lecturer, School of Languages and Applied Linguistics, The Open University.
I have just learned of Stephen's passing, which has upset me greatly. I worked with Professor Bax closely, as I was the first comms person he told of about his work on the Voynich Manuscript. Together we spent the next month arranging interviews with media from across the world, which was great fun - if not a little tiring for the both of us. On the back of the media work Professor Bax held a special talk on the Voynich which attracted people from across the world. It was a real pleasure to work with Stephen and I pass my condolences on to his friends and family - some of whom I met at the night where he was awarded his Professorship at the University of Bedfordshire. You can read more about Stephen's research and the story we worked on together here: Simon Wesson, ESRC Press Manager (formerly of University of Bedfordshire)
I met Professor Bax at a talk he gave, on the Voynich Manuscript. He was graceful enough to listen to my (layman's) views, and courteous enough to comment with great gravitas. He left me with a huge appreciation of his kindliness and erudition, and I was thrilled to have shared a few minutes of discussion with him. I'm very sad to learn of his passing, and I do hope the seed he has planted regarding understanding the Voynich Manuscript, will continue to grow. My condolences to his family - they have lost a great man.