Bathroom Linguistics: How Stall Graffiti Can Help You Learn a Language

Bathroom graffiti

Aseo. /a.’se.o/ n. Language: Spanish. Meaning: Toilet. In Spain, “baño” refers to a full bathroom, complete with shower. It’s best to ask for el aseo at a restaurant, so they don’t think you’re trying to bathe before the first course. 

While I was still struggling to become fluent in Spanish during my year abroad in Granada, Spain, I often turned to the restrooms at my university for relief.

Pun intended.

By studying bathroom graffiti, I was killing two birds with one stone: avoiding an unintelligible lecture on Spain’s royal lineage; and closely examining grammar in a casual, street-style context. Er, stall-style, more like.

Every culture seems to deface bathroom walls. It’s like the private time spent in there conjures up deep thoughts that demand an audience. (Bathrooms are like blogs, in that way.) Similar to rap music and clothing trends, bathroom graffiti is a direct channel to understanding youth culture in a particular region. From any given defaced stall, you can glean societal pressures, gender roles, and relationship struggles.

And it goes without saying, this bathroom graffiti can help you learn Spanish. While girls rant about their on-again-off-again relationship with Pablo, or why they chose to study business when their heart lies in fine arts, they’re also employing an exemplary use of varied lexicon, slang, and sentence structure.

My History professor probably thought I had an intestinal disorder for the amount of time I spent in there the first semester.

Bathroom Graffiti at the University of Granada

Like the girls who wrote them, no two bathroom messages were the same. Sometimes they were decidedly uplifting and cheerful:

“Vine a España de Erasmus y encontré el amor de mi vida.” (I came to Spain to study abroad and found the love of my life.)

It’s so wonderful that a foreign girl lived out the fantasy and met her European better half. What a joy it is to mull over the details of such a dream come true as I take a leak, sans toilet paper, in the 95 degree heat. Such are the bathrooms at the University of Granada.

Sometimes the bathroom graffiti presents real moral dilemmas, and you may spend more time in the stall than anticipated trying to figure out how to resolve them:

“Quiero a mi novio, pero no paro de pensar en otro….me atrae mucho mucho, que hago???” (I love my boyfriend, but I can’t stop thinking about someone else….I’m so attracted to him, what do I do???).

Luckily for any subsequent readers, someone has already taken the liberty to respond with some proper advice:

“Fóllatelo y ya está y a seguir con el novio.” (Fuck him and that’s that, and continue with your boyfriend).

If only we all have such a clear moral compass.

I even learned new vocabulary from the bathroom stalls, although I’ll admit I would have liked to discover the word for “bleach” in a context that didn’t involve such a vulgar sexual reference. I haven’t been able to do household chores the same way since.

Then there are those times when it’s like a running dialogue between bathroom users, in which a sort of free therapy service emerges and the entire female university community can benefit. One girl posts something gut-wrenchingly profound, such as was the case in Stall #2:

“In order for long distance relationships to work, you need three things: love, trust, and patience.” Thank you, Dr. Phil.

Then another girl responds, acknowledging the previous claim and adding a personal anecdote:

“I agree with you on this. In my case, we lacked two out of the three.”

A third writer joins in, expressing her condolences that the previous girl’s relationship fell apart, and sharing her fear that hers is heading down the same path.

It’s like a Facebook thread, only with Sharpie.

Then finally, once you tire from the effusive advice columns or from squatting for three minutes straight, your eyes drift to a remote lower corner. From the looks of it, someone (surely in the middle of finals month and at the end of her emotional limits) had enough of the toilet talk:


It’s a wake-up call. This doesn’t quite cut it as “studying,” does it. I head back to my real class, where I’m positive my History professor won’t teach us euphemisms for vagina or slang terms for sex.

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  • Bwahahaa… unfortunately I have never seen a bathroom stall so entertaining as this. I hope to come across one in the future (and hopefully improve my Spanish at the same time).

  • What better way to learn the subtleties of a language! I always wondered why I got funny looks sometimes when I asked where the ‘baño’ was. Now I know.

  • Love this, how clever! Reminds me of how proud I was when my French homestay siblings taught me to swear like a (French) sailor.

  • I will look at bathroom graffiti with fresh eyes from now on, especially when traveling.

  • …Ah, yes–a trip to the ivory throne can entail a good anthropology lesson, indeed!!…

  • Heather @ TravelingSaurus

    These are hilarious, keep ’em coming! It also makes me realize that I really need to brush up on my spanish slang/swear words. I may (now) be able to conjugate and speak, but it’s all too polite…

    • Hahaha you can’t fall into the politeness trap! Gotta pepper that vocabulary with some crude vulgarities for sure :)

  • Why is the toilet paper sideways? A practical joke or a Spanish thing?

    • Hahah the most important thing that has been pointed out in the comments thus far. The answer is none of the above; just some toilet paper holders are vertical I guess?

  • Francesca

    I’m all for immersion in order to learn a new language, but this takes it to an entirely new level. Great idea; very entertaining read!

  • Pedro1312

    toilet graffiti is really an art…..usually the toilet of a pub is nasty and smells badly, but you find masterful and creative writings that make you think of it deeply.

    by the way, some children replace “aseo” and “baño” with “vater” so they say “tengo que ir al vater” (i’ve got to go to the loo)

  • Anne

    I remember the first time I was comfortable to ask my host family about some slang/curse words in Spanish. I just wanted to know what was happening when random people were yelling across Barcelona…if I would have read this post sooner I probably could have avoided some awkward conversations. Haha.

    • Hahaha I’m sure she loved answering those. . . . I always found it hilarious when my students would ask me what slang words meant in English. If only they ever asked what was “hella”…. sigh.