How languages changed my life: Luke Baxter

Why learn a language? read the blog

In the first of a series of insights from language lovers, we introduce you to inspirational individuals with tales of language-learning journeys that have changed their lives for the better. We hope these stories will help inspire your students to opt for a modern language (or two!).

  • Name: Luke Baxter
  • University of Warwick: BA Comparative American Studies, MA Latin American Literature,1992
  • Languages spoken: French, Spanish, German (low level), Korean (no level… I had some lessons (!))
  • Job title: Digital Publisher
How languages changed my life Luke Baxter
Luke braves the Iguazu Falls in Argentina

Gauchos in Argentina

So there I was, 18-years old, at Buenos Aires airport being introduced to two very smiley guys who looked like Gauchos (Argentinian cowboys ) to me. They were going to be driving me the four hours back to the estancia (farm/ranch) where I was going to be spending the next nine months. Ernesto and Juan would go on to become good friends, but I was pretty sure that they didn’t speak much English. Should I have taken a few Spanish lessons before I set off? I realised that the “Arriba, Arriba” I had learnt from a cartoon mouse was not going to be much help.
As we drove through the Pampas (prairies) they would point things out to me. They would point at a horse and say “caballo”, then they pointed at a cow and said “vaca” and they pointed at trees and said “árbol”. And, as there is very little in the Pampas other than horses, cows and the odd, isolated tree, by the time I reached the estancia, I could say caballo, vaca and árbol pretty well.

Learning a third language is easier if you speak a second and I had a French ‘A’ Level, which was a massive help. French and Spanish have quite a few similarities, so as I was learning Spanish I would try things out from French. This worked a lot of the time until the moment that I wanted to say that I was really embarrassed and tried “Estoy muy emabarasado”. My friends looked at me weirdly and told me that was really very unlikely. It turns out “embarazada” means pregnant! Apart from a few fails like this, I picked up enough Spanish to get to know Ernesto and Juan and their families very well over the time I was there. I was there to teach a German family English but I also managed to learn some Spanish.

My time in Argentina got me into all things Latin American and Spanish. I studied Latin American History and Literature at Uni and could take lots of Spanish language modules to get the Spanish I learned in the kitchen of the estancia a bit more formal and “correct”. My degree wasn’t exactly what you would call vocational, being able to recite the poems of Neruda or having a vague idea of what went on during the Mexican Revolution doesn’t lead to an obvious career path in the way that an Engineering or Law degree might. But speaking a language is a skill and that was one that I had so I went off to Madrid to be an English Teacher… well I could speak English too!

Falling in love in (and with) Madrid

And thanks to being able to speak Spanish, I could really throw myself into the culture of the city and Madrid is an amazing city, especially when you are in your twenties – they do go to bed very late! Lots of my English teacher friends came and went but I was lucky enough to have a great friendship group with local Madrileños and got really into barrio (neighbourhood) life. I fell in love with the daughter of the owners of “el bar del barrio” (the neighbourhood bar – bar is bar in Spanish!) We had quite a tempestuous relationship…but she taught me a lot of Spanish.
After a great ten years there, I moved back to the UK and started to work in publishing, working on the kind of educational content that I had used as a teacher. My first job was for a British company but then I had the opportunity to work for a Spanish publisher and suddenly being able to communicate in Spanish is a massive asset in my professional life. My Spanish has also developed enormously since I have been working for the Spanish company. When I was in Argentina, I only learnt to speak and was mostly chatting about food and animals. At Uni, I finally had to learn to read. Then in Spain I have to admit I probably spent too much time talking about football. Now I find myself having to write technical specifications in Spanish and attending endless online meetings where we often don’t get much beyond “¿Me oyes?” (Can you hear me?) “¡No te oigo!” (I can’t hear you!), “¿¿¡¡Tienes micrófono!!??” (Have you got a microphone!!??) again and again! Actually, technical language can be quite easy as words like micrófono are pretty much the same in both languages.

I am also lucky enough to get to go on the odd trip to Latin America. Colombia is my favourite country as it has it all – mountains, jungles, beaches on both the Caribbean and the Pacific, and really lovely people. And at last, being able to recite the poems of Neruda and having a vague idea of what went on during the Mexican Revolution does come in handy. There’s no better way of getting to know people in foreign countries than being able to show that you are interested in them and their culture.

Back to my Argentine home

Last year, after thirty years, I went back to Argentina. I met up with Jakob, the little boy who I had taught back then. He is now in his late thirties and a father and best of all a complete Gaucho. I went over to his for a barbecue (no one barbecues like the Argentinians) and it was amazing how the time we had spent together all those years ago had changed both of us so much, me particularly. It was thanks to him and his family and Juan, Ernesto and their families that I first learnt this language that has become such a key part of my life on so many levels. And I am very proud to say that Jakob speaks absolutely perfect English.

Helpful Notes!

Can you remember what these Spanish words mean?
gauchos
estancia
pampas
caballo
vaca
árbol
embarazada
barrio
¿Me oyes?
¡No te oigo!
¿Tienes micrófono?

Tip from the top: always try to pick up any new words and expressions anywhere you find them.
And don’t you just love those upside down exclamation and question marks that you use in Spanish at the beginning of sentences ¿ ¿ ¿ ¿ ¡ ¡ ¡ ¡ Actually, they are quite handy when you are reading aloud as you know something is a question before you start rather than when you get to the end, aren’t they?

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