A review of how humour can be exploited in foreign language classrooms

Authors’ rights: Yen Phuong, Vo and I co-author parts of this blog where literature in the field is reviewed. When signaled with ‘I’, the parts are supposed to be only from my personal account.

While searching for songs to warm up my Movers class, one day, I found a funny ABC song. I kept watching some short comedies like that and gradually recalled when I was in a small English class at a language centre. The teacher was teaching us pronunciation in English, and a hilarious and memorable video was used. Unfortunately, I couldn’t remember the exact title and find the video for now. However, here are some lines that I can recall:

           Customer (to the waiter): I want two forks on the table, please?

           Waiter (perplexed): You wanna f*ck … on the table?

Admittedly, it was ‘dirty’, but the teacher succeeded in helping us pronounce the sounds ʌ and ɔː correctly to avoid such confusion. Thinking about that funny class can’t stop me laughing! 

Sadly, some teachers have been traditionally distant from students in the Vietnamese public schools where I studied. In many cases, telling jokes and uttering laughter are not considered polite enough as a teacher. As a result, it has been reported to create a boundary in the student-teacher relationship. From my personal experience, a tense atmosphere in the classroom makes students unwilling to study. In this blog, I want to look at how humour can be exploited in a foreign language classroom.

The categorisation of humour varies significantly. Depending on the context, purposes and forms, humour can be perceived via jokes, teases, humorous stories, and such phenomena as irony, hyperbole, satires and puns (Schmitz, 2002; Wagner & Urios Aparisi, 2011). As regards the classification, while Schmitz (ibid.) divides humour into three types, namely universal, cultural and linguistic humour, Chabeli (2008) together with Darling and Civikly (1986-87) further its classification into “positive” and “negative humour” or “constructive” and “destructive humour”. Wherever the standpoints of categorisation are, humour does have a meaningful role in the classroom settings. Researchers agree to be used as a restricted, understandable and constructive part relevant to the learning environment.

Humour in the language itself

Such researchers in the fields of humour and language teaching as Milner (1972) and Nilsen (1989) have deemed humour typology as within and across the language itself (known as pragmatics). Regarding humour within the language itself, the classification falls into phonology, lexicon, syntax and a combination of syntax and lexicon (Deneire, 1995).

  • Phonology: manifesting the ambiguous pronunciation of the words
Introduced by Nilsen (1984, as cited in Deneire, 1995)
  • Lexicon: deploying linguistic phenomena such as homonymy, homophony, and polysemy, and using puns
Introduced by Vega (1989)
  • Syntax: manipulating the syntax ambiguity of sentences
Introduced by Vega (1989)
  • Combination of syntax and lexicon
Introduced by Vega (1989)

At this point, try to decode the humorous situations presented in the pictures on your own. At the end of the blog, I will give my interpretation in the comment section.

Humour in memes

Besides, visual aids or memes, in particular, play a dominant role in making language classrooms full of laughter. The term “meme” takes its origin from a book by Richard Dawkin, who defined memes as “small cultural units of transmission, spreading from one person to another through imitation” (Dawkin, 1976, as cited in Harshavardhan et al., 2019).

Memes are incorporated in language classrooms as a teaching aid of language and culture education, owing to their content significantly to films and TV shows (Lin, 2017). Famous dialogues converted to memes could serve as an effective tool for attracting students’ attention inside the classroom to the linguistic features. 

However, personally speaking, using memes doesn’t simply mean showing students the pictures or comics. I used to be confused when my friends laughed at memes inspired by the famous Iron Man movies, for I hadn’t watched the series. With that being said, the selection of memes should be made carefully considering students’ prior knowledge and interest. 

Simply put, here are five critical points for a foreign language teacher to bear in mind when using humour:

  • Humour should be incorporated as a normal part of the class. 
  • Humour should arise naturally, in an effortless way.
  • Humour should be introduced through various channels.
  • Humour should be wisely, rather than randomly, chosen.
  • Humour should be adapted to students’ level of knowledge.

Have you ever found yourself more effective in learning and teaching a language with some funny things? If yes, please share with me in the comment section!


One response to “A review of how humour can be exploited in foreign language classrooms”

  1. Decoding humorous situation presented in the blog:

    1. Phonology: Instead of “coming to the hospital today”, the sentence could be mistaken into a hilarious scenario as “coming to the hospital to die”. This situation stemmed from the differentiation between British and American accents.

    2. Lexicon: The misunderstanding happening in this conversation could be boiled down to the variety in the patterns of the verb “serve”, which are interpreted differently by the waitress and the customer.

    3. Syntax: The clause “he’s going to stop drinking on campus” is understood differently by the two
    students, with the former taking it as if the dean will ban the act of drinking among the students within the campus whilst the latter interpreting as though the dean will stop himself drinking.

    4. Combination of syntax and lexicon: To clarify, taking advantage of polysemy of the word “fast”, which is a verb as “to eat very little for a period of time” and an adjective as “moving quickly”, the question both means “how to make a horse running fast?” and “how to make a horse stop eating for a while?” To create such a pun, besides polysemy, the variety in the pattern of the verb “make” does contribute to creating the effect.


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