The Madonna Complex

Learning French, Living Abroad

“Ooooh la la, man,” my friend proclaims loudly at the bar.

I am with an expat friend from Central Europe and complaining about a horrific exchange I had with the administrator at a French language school

“Mais oauis,” I respond. “It is totally ridiculous. I mean, n’importe quoi!”

“Defo,” she says, raising her glass. “Na zdravi!”

“Cheers,” I respond, before turning towards MB and saying, “Santé!”

He smiles back, clinking glasses, “Chin,” he says.

In less than two minutes of conversation, we have managed to cover four different cultures and none of us even noticed…

This type of situation is the just the beginning of language confusion for me. Even within English, things can get complicated. I remember returning to USA and visiting friends after 3 years of living “down under.” I hadn’t realized that anything had changed but clearly, I was the only one.

“Give me a break,” one of my friends had said, laughing.

“What,” I was totally confused.

“Oh come on, “Madonna,’” she had continued (Madonna the pop-star, not Jesus’ Mum). “I know you are putting it on – “sweet as” and “suss it out,” what are these phrases you are using, and that accent is ridiculous. We get it, you have been overseas, no need for the theatricals.”

She then exchanged knowing, humorous looks with our other friends.

I stared, outraged. Now, I may be an enormous nerd (eh…”may”…”am”…semantics) but I draw the line at being accused of trying to subtlety create an accent in order to sound cool – I mean, let’s get serious, if I were going to do that, there is no way I would pull off subtlety OR coolness, they are not qualities that I would consider to be my forte. However, there I was, being called a Madonna-esque accent faker! I reacted as any normal person would: I bristled, then drank heavily, started a stupid fight, and went home feeling confused, stupid, and embarrassed.

“I’m not Madonna,” I told myself. “She’s a weird poser, I’m not like that, my accent just changed a bit because I’ve been living overseas…wait, what…oh man…dang it.”

That is the moment when I realized that, even though Madonna behaves absolutely bizarrely in so many ways, maybe we need to lay off her a bit on the accent thing…it may not be in her control, her brain has probably just thrown in the towel (I feel like there is a joke here but I’m going to leave it alone out of respect for the Immaculate Collection).

Language can undergo some weird transformations when you are constantly around different accents or tongues. Here are a few examples:

  1. You start using the vernacular of others around you, such as my Central European friend creating the phrase “oooh la la, man,” a combination of French and American, or my usage of “n’importe quoi” instead of “whatever.” Are these expressions that exist in our languages? Not even close, but after hearing certain words often, they sneak in and set up house in your brain…like little word parasites. Mwahahahahahaha! Sounds ominous, doesn’t it?
  2. Your cadence of speech can also change, something that is so embarrassing for me. For example, I am physically incapable of talking to an Irish person without starting to sing-song every sentence, like the Lucky Charms Leprechaun. It is horrifying and just as cringe-worthy as it sounds.
  3. Your sentence structure can take a beating as well.   After living in France for 3 years, instead of saying things like “are you going to the store,” I say, “you are going to the store, yes?” And MB, is often asked by other French people where he is from because while his accent is obviously French, he structures his sentences like an English speaker (incidentally, he loves this and has no fear of the Madonna complex, instead he looks sneakily happy and smug any time someone asks him).

Basically, the point is that your language, inside of your head, controlled by your brain, spoken by your mouth can go completely rogue without you even realizing it.

Cue screams of terror. A woman covers a child protectively while a young girl raises her hands to her cheeks and shrieks.

“We thought we understood,” the narrator says. “We thought it was all under our control but now…now…”

There are scenes of panic as people push each other down trying to run away.

IT has a mind of its own, nothing we say, nothing we do can keep it in check, it just keeps evolving and changing…like some sick, twisted MUTANT!”

Cue more screams, blah blah blah.

Mutant language on the move!

Now that I am living in a completely different linguistic environment, a whole new layer of weird has developed. Instead of carefully cataloguing and categorizing languages like it did when I was in school, my brain seemingly throws them all into a big box and lets me pick whatever I want. Forget worrying about funny little vernacular differences, now I have to battle it out in my head just to try to arrive at a word in the correct tongue. For instance, last time I was in Italy, Spanish kept coming out of my mouth; and in Munich a few months back, I kept saying things in French (as though my brain were thinking, “oh it is foreign, French is foreign, poh-tay-to, poh-tah-to). There have even been instances in which I have gotten confused with English, like when an American friend was visiting and I kept giving her the translations she was asking for back in French…huh? It didn’t even register to me that I wasn’t speaking to her in English until she told me.

Basically, once I left US soil, my brain decided that it can’t be bothered delineating between different Anglo accents or phrasery (yes, I made up that word, you don’t like it, blame my brain) or which foreign languages belong in what places, it has just gotten utterly lazy.

My Brain: *yawn* I can’t be responsible for keeping all of this straight, it’s just too much. I mean, I’m already spending an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out all the different Game of Thrones plotlines.

ME: But how am I supposed to know what to say?

My Brain: OH my god, you are so high maintenance. Just pick something, I’m sure everyone will figure it out. Here, I’ve put everything into this closet in your frontal lobe, voila!

ME: But it isn’t even organized, how will I ever find anything?

My Brain:Not my problem.

ME: What? Yes, it is. That is basically your entire job.

My Brain: Meh. Now, explain to me again which ones are Baratheons?

*Sigh*

So there it is, I suppose I am stuck with having the “Madonna Complex”…or maybe just “The Chandler.”

 

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