The Functions of Humor in Classroom Instruction

| October 5, 2006
The Functions of Humor in Classroom Instruction

Keywords: pre-reading activities, learner needs, traditional pedagogic procedures

Wang Muqun & Wang Lu
Yanshan University, PR China

Bio Data
Wang Muqun, Professor of English, now teaches EFL at Yanshan University in P.R. China. His current research focuses on second language acquisition and foreign language teaching methodology. His recent publications include one book, four textbooks and several journal articles. Wang Lu also teaches EFL at Yanshan University in P.R. China. Her professional interest includes applied linguistics and inter-cultural communication.

According to Garrison Keillor,

There are two ways to get to know people well in a short time, one is to work alongside them at a hard and unpleasant job such as cleaning latrines or picking potatoes, and the other way is to tell jokes. (in Danforth, 2001, p. 9)

It can be argued that an English learner truly needs to know, and understand, the feelings of a native speaker or writer before the learner can really understand the intent and meaning of the message. The question is, How might this best be accomplished? Hanvey has described four levels of acculturation, which he calls levels of “cross cultural awareness.” Level one is similar to culture shock. The target culture is seen as superficial and stereotypical. Level two brings more awareness but also frustration as the student realizes s/he does not have the knowledge necessary to deal with the more subtle expressions. If adequately motivated a learner can advance to level three and begin to understand cultural events through the target language as alternative behaviors rather than “wrong” behaviors. Continued study can raise the learner to level four where a learner really understands the target culture and how its members really feel (Hanvey, 1979).

[private] According to Garrison Keillor,

There are two ways to get to know people well in a short time, one is to work alongside them at a hard and unpleasant job such as cleaning latrines or picking potatoes, and the other way is to tell jokes. (in Danforth, 2001, p. 9)

It can be argued that an English learner truly needs to know, and understand, the feelings of a native speaker or writer before the learner can really understand the intent and meaning of the message. The question is, How might this best be accomplished? Hanvey has described four levels of acculturation, which he calls levels of “cross cultural awareness.” Level one is similar to culture shock. The target culture is seen as superficial and stereotypical. Level two brings more awareness but also frustration as the student realizes s/he does not have the knowledge necessary to deal with the more subtle expressions. If adequately motivated a learner can advance to level three and begin to understand cultural events through the target language as alternative behaviors rather than “wrong” behaviors. Continued study can raise the learner to level four where a learner really understands the target culture and how its members really feel (Hanvey, 1979).

The culture shock a learner experiences in Hanvey s first level is often severe enough to retard both learning and motivation to learn. Yet level one must be dealt with so that students can advance in their studies, both in rote memorization and contextual understanding. To this end, it suggested here that introducing English humor as early as possible in the learning process enhances not only the student s ability to learn the words, but to understand their meanings within their cultural context. Keillor’s remark accurately illustrates the benefits of introducing humour in this regard. If an EFL learner is exposed to English humor, that person will develop a better understanding of the target language.

English humor covers every aspect of interpersonal relationships: parent-child, employer-employee, doctor-patient, lawyer-client, teacher-student, clerk-customer, to name but a few. It can provide rich social and cultural knowledge of the target community for EFL students. It has been noted that, “We are incorrect if we think that words possess meaning. It is more accurate to say that people possess meaning and that words elicit these meanings” (Samovar, et al 1998, p.123). It is necessary to use English humor to animate and highlight the verbal interactions of native speakers, helping students to better understand the meanings and applications of words in various socio-cultural contexts.

English humor is one of the most important components of cultural schema of the target community because of its richness in social knowledge. All too frequently a native speaking English teacher will tell a joke to his/her Chinese students and the students respond with blank faces, they do not laugh, even though there is no vocabulary or grammar problem. This is almost always the result of inadequate knowledge regarding the target culture on the part of the students. For example, most Chinese EFL students will be dumbfounded by the following:Mother: Why are you making faces at the bulldog? Small Child: He started it. Students cannot identify the humor in the dialogue because keeping dogs as pets is still new in China. Even those who do have dogs as pets most probably prefer a Pekinese, lapdog, or poodle rather than a bulldog because the choice of breed is also culturally oriented. Most students have never seen a bulldog and therefore have no ability to relate their deep wrinkles with the child s face making. The joke makes no sense because of the cultural gap.

Here is another joke that gets the same blank reaction for the same reason. Wife: Tomorrow is my mother s birthday. What shall we buy for her? Husband: What does she like? Wife: Maybe something electrical. Husband: What about a chair?Again, without the knowledge of certain cultural points, the students cannot find anything funny about this joke. This time the students understanding is constrained by two gaps in the culturally related information needed to understand the joke. First, the electrical chair, used to execute criminals, has never been used in China, nor in most other Asian countries, so the association between “a chair” and “an electrical chair” is beyond the students understanding. They lack the knowledge of the target culture. Second, in China, the relationship between a mother-in-law and her son-in-law is almost always friendly. A Chinese son-in-law would never be expected to imply that his mother-in-law should be given an instrument used to execute criminals. As a result, a coherent interpretation of the humor through inference is very unlikely.

Personal experiences moderate understanding. Effective communication with people from the target culture requires an understanding of how language is used in a socio-cultural context. Samovar, et al (1998) made this same point when he said, “Successful intercultural communication should always begin with gaining a fund of knowledge about another culture” (p. 265). I contend that English humor will contribute greatly to the “fund of knowledge” of the target culture. I also contend that students exposed to English humor will gain in cultural understanding which in turn will increase their ability to learn and understand the target language.

The Value and Functions of Humor in Classroom Instruction

There is sufficient theoretical support for the possibility of developing students socio-linguistic competence in classroom settings. Canale and Swain believe that there are rule-governed and universal aspects of socio-linguistic competence, which can be learned just as there are of grammatical competence and they disagree that “the study of grammatical competence must precede the study of socio-linguistic competence” (Canale and Swain, 1980, p. 6). An integrated approach to teaching English should be adopted which embraces the different skills and abilities that compose communicative competence and these skills should be taught simultaneously.

Information regarding the cultures of English speaking countries is presented and studied in Chinese schools. English majors are offered three kinds of compulsory cultural courses: English and American Literature, Cross-culture Communication, and A General Survey of English Speaking Countries. These courses offer a broad brush view of philosophy, geography, economics, politics, values, attitudes, and other cultural elements which cover cultures from both a big C and little c perspective. However it is a limited band of instruction which does not draw enough of the students attention to the important link between culture and language. It is further reduced by teachers who frequently assume that it is not their job to discuss socio-cultural issues in their classes. These courses, basically intensive and extensive reading and grammar classes, are mostly teacher-centered. The analysis of grammar, syntax, and pronunciation practice play the major roles in classroom instruction. Language items are almost always presented outside of any socio-cultural context.

Word and phrase meanings are very often culturally determined. Samovar et al observe that,

Culture exerts an enormous influence on language because culture teaches not only the symbols but rules for the use of these symbols, but more important, the meaning associated with the symbols. Further more, culture influences the way people use language. (Samovar et al, 1998, p. 125)

The present paper argues that the presentation of language items should be made, whenever possible, within the context of the target s culture and English humor is a very helpful and effective means by which to demonstrate language-culture interactions. I contend that introducing humor into the EFL learning process can overcome some of the present weaknesses in the Chinese EFL teaching process.

I have been using humor, mostly simple jokes, in my reading classes for the last five years, at first to provide cultural knowledge and enliven the discussions, but later for additional functions. For instance, the appreciation of humor can enhance the students own sense of humor which is regarded as an important part of a person s character. The comment, “You don t have a sense of humor” is a very depreciating remark in the West and is becoming so in Asian countries as well. The development of a good sense of humor can improve one s emotional intelligence and personality. A good sense of humor can even support a person through a dilemma. The following example is a case in point.
A woman accosted Lloyd George, the former prime minister of Britain, after a speech. She gushed, Before I saw you in person, I thought you were a much taller man. He carefully replied, Madam, in Wales, where I come from, we measure a man from his neck up, not from the neck down.

The woman’s statement, suggesting that Lloyd George was short, was not a compliment within the context of British culture. Lloyd George’s quick and witty response immediately defused a potentially difficult moment. Had she measured him from the neck up, she would have known immediately that he was indeed a tall man. The use of humor successfully turned a potentially embarrassing comment into a compliment, of sorts.

Keillor has also said, “Your clothes may be disheveled and your life in chaos, you may be of the wrong race or religion, but if you can tell a joke well, you’ll be accepted” (in Danforth, 2001, p. 9). Keillor’s remark sheds light on the valuable interpersonal functions of English humor. I have found that when people, whether Chinese or Western, laugh together after sharing an English joke, the social and psychological distances between cultures are reduced, adaptation is encouraged, and the motivation for EFL learning is improved.

Research conducted during the past half century indicates that students who are willing to integrate into the culture of the target language are more highly motivated and learn more successfully. Harmer maintains, “Integrative motivation was more powerful than instrumental motivation” (Harmer 2000: 8). The results of this can often be seen in language classes. Students who can identify with English humor generally have a more positive feeling toward the language and their interest and involvement in the language is heightened.

Krashen believes that acquirers with a low affective filter seek and receive more input, interact with confidence, and are more receptive to the input they receive (in Richards, 2000, p.133). Keillor assumes that jokes are good for our health and that even ancient jokes can reduce stress (in Danforth, 2001, p.9). I have found that students who laugh often are less anxious learners. Laughter is the best medicine for reducing anxiety and relaxing a high affective filter.

English humor is a touchstone of a learner s socio-linguistic competence. A learner with strong socio-linguistic competence usually has no difficulty in appreciating good humor. Unfortunately, because of the dominance of teacher-centered, product-oriented teaching and grammar translation methods, the socio-linguistic competence and communicative strategies of Chinese English learners remain poor. Fortunately, practitioners in China are striving to experiment with new approaches hoping to fulfill student needs.

Five years ago I attempted to make use of humor to help my students become more aware of the fact that language is inseparable from culture, and to enliven the classes. After one semester during which I used humor as a teaching tool whenever possible, multiple choice questions were designed to measure the students ability to understand cultural points when they were expressed within a humorous antidote. The examinations were given to three advanced English classes each year in 2002, 2003 and 2004. All students were English majors. Analysis of the data supports my contention that the use of humor improves cultural knowledge.

Table 1 2002 2003 2004
Test Score/Term 1 (with no treatment) 43% 48% 49%
Test Score/Term 2 (with focus on humor) 62% 63% 65%
Tble 2 2002 2003 2004
Attendance Rate /Term 1 (with no treatment) 79% 86% 84%
Attendance Rate /Term 2 (with focus on humor) 91% 94% 96%

First term scores, without the English humor treatment, were not satisfactory. Second term scores improved 16.7% when culturally oriented English humor was added to the teaching matrix. Also, the attendance rate during this semester was much higher.

How to Use English Humor in Classroom Settings
Humor Used to Illustrate Language Points in Context

Traditionally, isolated sentences are used as examples to explain the difficult usage of language points in intensive reading classes. The disadvantages of this are obvious. Isolated sentences do not provide enough cultural contexts to supply students with a proper understanding of the meaning of the sentences. Steffensen and Joag-Dev claim that when a students’ response to a language point indicates a lack of understanding, the teacher can probe to identify the reason the student is having difficulty. Frequently the problem can be resolved by explaining the language point relative to its cultural context (Steffensen and Joag-Dev, 1984, p. 61). Additional appropriate interpretation can be encouraged by contrasting the event to a functionally similar situation within the Chinese culture, should such a condition exist.

Whenever possible I apply humor to illustrate difficult language points and I frequently achieve positive results. For instance, in A New English Course, Book 5, Unity 11, the usage of “Sir” is a difficult point for Chinese learners (Li 2004a, p. 134). Before I begin to explain the meaning of “Sir” as in “Sir Winston Churchill,” I provide a joke to show differences in usage. (This is one of the typical mini-cloze tests I use to test students cultural knowledge)
Teacher: (to a new boy) What is your name, my little fellow?
New boy: Elbert Arras
Teacher: Always say sir please, when you are speaking to the master. It is more polite.
New boy: (apologetically) ________. (Students choose from the following choices.)
A. Elbert Arras, sir B. Elbert Arras C. Sir Elbert Arras D. Arras Elbert, sir

The students who make the right choice, C, are asked to explain why C is correct. If they understand, they ll explain that the British teacher expects the schoolboy to address teachers respectfully saying, “Elbert Arras, sir.” But the school child puts the title “Sir” before his name making it “Sir Elbert Arras.” Then “Sir” becomes a title, that of a knight. It seems the child does not understand that when used before a name “Sir” is the title of a knight or baronet. So, if we choose answer A the humor will be lost. It is answer C that provides the humor. Since most of the students are unfamiliar with the use of titles indicating nobility, and because in China we don’t expect the schoolboy to address teachers respectfully by using “sir” at the end of a sentence, the comparison is valuable. Most important of all, seeing the usage of “Sir” in a real social context is much more helpful compared to an explanation using isolated sentences such as “Will that be all, sir.” “Thank you, sir.” or “This is Sir Harold Wilson.”

To Provoke Interest in the Topic
Humor can be used as a pre-reading activity to warm up a class or rouse their interest in the topic under discussion. The title of the text of Unit 9 in A New English Course, Book 6, isA Red Light for Scofflaws which is about minor crimes in the United States. Nowadays there is amazing variety of scofflaws. Infractions include double-parking, running red lights, drunk driving, speeding, and freeway violence (Li 2004b, p. 122). To prepare students for this topic I use two different jokes:
Why were you speeding? asked the traffic cop. Well, officer, came the reply, my brakes are bad and I wanted to get home before I had an accident.
The motorist provides a funny and paradoxical excuse for his excessive speed. It is ridiculous to think that he could be so aware of the potential for an accident and at the same time be so unaware of how dangerous it is to drive a car whose brakes are not in proper order. Using this joke as a set up for some statistics regarding driving speeds in the United States, the student will both appreciate and remember the survey information indicating that on many interstate highways 83% of all drivers exceed the federal 65 M.P.H. speed limit (ibid).

A father was driving home with his young son. Suddenly the boy asked, What is the meaning of the word drunk, Dad? His father replied, Look, there are two policemen standing over there. If I look at them and I see four policemen, then I am drunk. The boy said, But, Dad, there s only one policeman there!

The father is seeing two policemen where only one exists. The father is drunk by his own definition. However, he seems to be unaware that he is, in fact, drunk. This increases our concern for the safety of his son and the would-be victims of the father s drunken driving. The father’s irresponsible behavior in the joke help explains why drunk driving in America kills over 17,000 people annually and injuries over 250,000 others (ibid).

There are a vast number of Chinese students who believe the United States is a paradise in which everything is perfect. These jokes, though short and simple, enable these students to adopt a more balanced frame of reference toward the target culture which in turn helps them better understand language points involving cultural issues. English humor can play an important role in aiding comprehension and understanding when normal explanation and description fails or is incomplete.

Examples to Illustrate a Typical Social Phenomenon or Issue
English humor can be used to discuss and expand on typical life experiences, exemplifying typical social phenomenon of the target culture. For instance the title of the text of Unit 2 inA New English Course, Book 6, is The Fine Art of Putting Things Off. The author of the article remarks ironically: “psychologists maintain that the most assiduous procrastinators are women, though many psychologists are (at $50-plus an hour) pretty good delayers themselves” (Li, 2004b, p.18). Many students have a difficult time understanding parenthetical comments. The comment above implies many psychologists delay the resolution of a client s problem in order to collect more fees. While psychological counseling is common in the United States, it is rare in China and the delay issue is easily lost on students. This is also true when lawyers and physicians are part of a language point. I provide jokes to enlighten students to these, and other, cultural issues.
1) Client: Do you charge by the hour?
Lawyer: No, I don t.
Client: Then, how do you charge for a consultation?
Lawyer: I charge by the number of questions asked.
Client: How much do you charge for one question?
Lawyer: Thirty dollars.
Client: That s expensive.
Lawyer: Yes, and you now owe me ninety dollars.
2) Patient: I ve decided to commit suicide.
Psychiatrist: Don t do anything rash until you ve paid my bill.

There are psychologists, physicians, and lawyers in the United States who are not honest. They cheat their clients and a huge catalog of jokes has developed as a result. From these jokes we know why some people are sensitive to the word “charge.” They are afraid of being overcharged by money-grubbing people like the lawyer who charged his prospective client ninety dollars for three questions. The patient in the second joke was desperate and ready to commit suicide but at this critical moment the only concern of the psychiatrist was the payment of his bill.

Steffensen and Joag-Dev claim:

Cross-cultural experimentation shows that reading comprehension is a function of background cultural knowledge. If readers possess the schemata assumed by the writer, they understand what is stated and effortlessly make the inferences intended. If they do not, they distort meaning as they attempt to accommodate even explicitly stated propositions to their own preexisting knowledge structures. (Steffensen and Joag-Dev, 1998, p. 60)

These jokes are valuable in that they help the student make sense of the typical behavior of these business minded people while enriching background knowledge of the target culture, which in turn lends support to their schemata and improves their reading comprehension.

The topic of the text of Unit 7 in A New English Course, Book 6, is Beauty. The author of the article aims to trace the conventional attitude which defines beauty as a concept applied today only to women and their physical appearance. The author is trying to prove that the way women are encouraged to preen is to make women feel inferior to what they really are, as the saying goes, a woman’s body but a man’s mind which is valued (Li 2004b, p. 89). I use the following religious joke to show that women have been considered inferior to men from the very beginning, which can be used as a starting point for a discussion of the topic.

The Sunday school teacher asked one little girl if she knew the story of Adam and Eve. The girl said, First God created Adam, then he looked at Adam and said, I think I can do better. So he created girls.

The little girl s answer implies that God was not satisfied with his first creation and He made Eve as an improvement over Adam. However, according to the Bible, God first made Adam but Adam complained of being lonely. So God took a rib from Adam and with it He made Eve. Eve later tempted Adam into eating the forbidden fruit and the pair was driven out of Eden. The story suggests that Eve, as the first woman, is the source of evil and women are therefore inferior to men, and have been from the beginning. The humor makes use of the little girl s voice to challenge the conventional wisdom, thus criticizing a deeply rooted social problem. Understanding and appreciation of the joke provides students with a deeper understanding of a typical social issue, gender bias in the target community. Samovar, et al suggest that on a less transparent level, gaining cultural awareness might be as simple as learning cultural differences (1998, p. 264). As China is a non-religious country, it is necessary to make comparisons between the two cultures so that students have the opportunity to learn something about the religious traditions of the target culture. Jokes are very helpful in this regard.


Based on the above examples, and many more I have tried during the past five years, I have learned that English humor is a practical and reliable means for raising awareness in EFL students that language is inseparable from culture. I sometimes ask my students to recall a joke we used before to focus on another point. Often just a slight reminder will trigger a vivid recollection of a joke or antidote and the culturally relevant information. My teaching experience had proven to me that recalling a joke is usually accompanied by the remembrance of the accompanying situation, time, place, and people involved. This is invaluable for proper language acquisition because to decode the real meaning of the words we must understand the social and cultural frame in which they are used.

Furthermore, the understanding and appreciation of humor can enhance the students own sense of humor which is an important part of a person s character. What is more, I have found that when people laugh together while sharing an English joke, the psychological distance between the target community and the students is reduced, which in turn contributes to more learning. Also, students who laugh often are less anxious learners. English humor has the power to give students a more positive attitude toward their target language and to provoke interest and involvement in the use and application of their expanding language skills.

Using humor in a classroom can increase learning. Humor can be used to support and illustrate the text as long as the topic of the humor is in accord with the subject. We should avoid forced analogy that might overshadow the lesson. Finally, some jokes are very good at illustrating social events while others distract from the lesson. Attention must be paid to the selection of the type of the humor used. Good selections have the power of killing two birds with one stone, they teach both the language and the culture.

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Category: Teaching Articles, Volume 15