Ceci M. is currently a senior at SYA Spain and a blogger for the Campus Reporter program. She comes to SYA from St. Andrew's Episcopal School in Texas.

If you’re embarrassed, grab a clothespin

ESPAÑOL, CHICOS. This refrain was becoming an earworm. After reaching peak Spanish-usage before Christmas break, the SYA Spain campus had collectively started from scratch. Wanting to connect with the new semester students, we generally welcomed them in English to make them feel comfortable and get to know them better. Yes, we missed out on a great opportunity to set a new precedent to speak only Spanish. Guilty. Luckily, we have gotten creative. The constant reminders to speak Spanish are becoming less and less frequent, and a fashion statement is becoming the new thing: clothespins. 

Here’s how it works: every morning, promise to speak only Spanish, and put a clothespin on your clothes to symbolize your commitment. If you hear someone speak English, say “pinza” and snatch this item–the clothespin–for yourself. The person with the most pinzas at the end of the day wins. Essentially, we’re all playing language police. And it works. 

More than a lack of competence, embarrassment is what keeps people from learning languages. We associate this feeling with mishaps on the playground, a situation as slapstick as splitting your pants in the middle of a cartwheel. That’s kind of what speaking a second language is like. Messing up leaves us feeling vulnerable and isolated, desperate to change into a more comfortable pair of clothes. Embarrassment seems frivolous. And while we normally classify it as a negative emotion, it holds enormous potential for self-transformation.

At the core of this transformation is community. Doing cartwheels without the fear of splitting your pants becomes a whole lot easier when everyone is equally exposed. In fact, it’s kind of fun. The pinzas had THE effect of splitting everyone’s pants, mid-cartwheel, at once. A silly feeling–embarrassment–required a silly solution. In come the pinzas.

We’ve gone back to pre-vacation Spanish speaking levels. But the clothespins have had a more profound effect on the SYA community. Everyone is a bit less embarrassed about speaking Spanish, but also about navigating a foreign culture. Our efforts to speak the language are curing our inevitable case of imposter syndrome. It’s a shared confidence that is making my friendships with my peers irreplaceable. We’ve accepted a shared interest that embarrassment was for too long repressing: we all just really want to learn Spanish. 

My friends and I have started sharing new worlds with each other, listening to the same Spanish podcasts and talking about them, saying, not with embarrassment but pride, “Español, chica.” We’ve been able to have deeper conversations. Over the weekend, my friends and I had a long chat about the difference between the informal “tú” and the formal “usted,” the uses, implications, and speculated futures of each grammatical tense. We diverged into a bigger question: does language shape culture or is it the other way around? That morning we had lunch with my friend’s grandmother, who lives in Barcelona. The conversation flowed between languages, our questions and her answers in the most instinctual terms, whether Spanish or English. 

These conversations are immensely pleasurable because of a shared interest in foreign language and culture, and by extension, humanity. I won’t be able to speak the same language–not just of a shared grammar but of a shared city, shared views, shared experiences and common relationships–with friends at home, and that’s a circumstance that makes me all the more eager to end the day covered in pinzas. 

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