LANGUAGE - A Nurturing Potential series

Part VII - Even More Fun With Words 

by Joe Sinclair


On a visit to America, an old British lady, wary of slang words, asked her American-born granddaughter: "Promise me that you will not use two words while I am around. One is swell and the other is lousy".

"Why sure, grandma", replied the girl "what are the words."



Winston Churchill, himself a product of mixed British and American parents, once remarked that America and Britain were two countries divided by a common language.  The Irish wit Oscar Wilde had his own version of this: "We have many things in common with the Americans except the language".

Many a  true word spoken in jest as the adage has it, and the fact is that from common beginnings the English language has taken several different paths in America from those pursued in Britain.  It seems somewhat ridiculous  that an Englishman in the USA could be accused of "jay-walking" for walking on the pavement rather than the sidewalk; absurd, too, that that same Englishman in the underwear department of a store, asking for a pair of pants, would be directed to the outerwear department to purchase trousers, when what he wanted were shorts.   Most embarrassing of all might be a visit to the office supplies department for a rubber and be re-directed to the drugstore.



English, whether British or American, is a living, evolving language.  It has evolved principally over the last two or three centuries by the influx of various ethnic groups and the cross-fertilisation of cultural differences.  In America in particular it was necessary to develop a means of quick and easy communication as the waves of immigrants flooded the country.  Noah Webster, who compiled the first major American English dictionary, far from reluctant to accept or acknowledge this "corruption" of the language, actually welcomed it and approved of the idea of America developing its own language distinct from the language of the country from which America had won its independence.

But even Webster might have qualms about some of the directions the language has taken, and particularly in slang usage, so that something that is praiseworthy and attractive may be simultaneously described as "hot" or "cool". 


A language teacher was addressing her class on the double negative.  "Two negatives make a positive," she remarked, "but it's interesting to note that two positives do not make a negative."

"Yeah, right!" commented one of her students.


And in both versions of the language one has to marvel at the weird contradictions that we all accept unquestioningly, yet do not stand up to logical analysis.  How, for instance, do you explain a house burning up as it burns down, or a form being filled in by  being filled out, or an alarm clock that goes off by going on?  How is it that writers write, but grocers don't groce?  If the plural of tootth is teeth, why isn't the plural of booth beeth? If teachers taught, why didn't preachers praught?  How can oversight effectively be the opposite of overseen?

These are the apparent contradictions that make the English language so stimulating to students of linguistics for whom English is their native tongue.  But it can play merry hell with someone who is teaching English as a foreign language and prove totally bewildering to the students whose language is so dissimilar, with sentence structure and grammar so at variance, and with a complete lack of comprehension of what passes for humour in English.


The Use of Humour in Teaching English as a Foreign Language

It ought to be axiomatic that if we can make someone laugh, then we will be well on the road to achieving rapport with that person and to removing barriers to communication and comprehension.  Alas, laughter is no guarantee of understanding.  Frequently, indeed, it denotes precisely the opposite and reveals an embarrassing failure to understand.

Ricardo San Martin Vadillo[1], a teacher of English as a Foreign Language in Spain,  in an article spotted on the internet, states that he has been using humour as a way of promoting student interaction in the classroom.  Much literature on the subject, he suggests, stresses the importance of humour as a means of enhancing student motivation to learn English as well as reducing student anxiety.  

In Learn English with a smile (P. Leal, 1993) the author gives as one useful means of  teaching English the device of making the students listen to and understand the punchline of a joke. Another suggestion is to translate Spanish jokes into English.  Both of these suggestions are fraught with difficulty as anyone who has listened to a joke translated from a foreign language will have discovered.  English jokes involving word-play, as so many do, would prove particularly difficult.  But another list of advantages (deFelice 1996) has some merit.  These include the experience that jokes are liked by the students and therefore motivate them; they induce a relaxed atmosphere in the classroom; they are usually short enough not to demand over-long attention; they present useful cultural aspects of the language; they are easy to tell and usually easy to understand; they integrate psychological, psycholinguistic, sociological and strategic components; and they employ the three skills of reading, speaking and listening.


"Classrooms in which laughter is welcome help bring learning to life."  - Dickinson, D. Humor and the Multiple Intelligence, 2001


Here is another list of benefits of humour in teaching English:[2]

       Creates a positive classroom environment

        ►  Reduces anxiety

        ►  Encourages learner involvement

        ►  Holds learners’ attention

        ►  Fosters intrinsic motivation

        ►  Promotes comprehension and retention

        ►  Fosters cognitive development

        ►  Manages undesirable behaviour

        ►  Builds self-confidence

        ►  Enhances quality of learners’ and teachers’ lives

There are, of course, many excuses made by teachers for not using humour in a language classroom.  Frequently they are unwilling to take a perceived risk, protesting that they are "unable to tell a joke", or that they "don't wish to appear foolish".  They may also express fear that it could lead to loss of control and encourage disruptive behaviour by the students.  But such excuses merely reveal, as a rule, that the teacher simply does not know how to use humour effectively in the classroom.


"So long as there's a bit of a laugh going, things are all right. As soon as this infernal seriousness, like a greasy sea, heaves up, everything is lost."   -D.H.Lawrence


Humour in the classroom, however, has a number of further advantages.  It encourages participation by those students who, for whatever reason (and it is usually shyness), do not ordinarily participate fully in class activities, to feel less vulnerable and less exposed. Because it reduces anxiety and stress, it encourages students to take risks in the second language without fear of criticism and ridicule.

It is important for the teacher to plan the lessons thoroughly and to ensure that the examples of humour will be readily appreciated by the students, whether verbal or by means of cartoons.  Here are two examples:


 A schoolboy runs home from school and arrives in the kitchen, breathless. His mother asks him why he's exhausted, as he usually comes home on a bus. The boy says:

"I ran after the bus and saved my money."

She smacks his ear, and tells him to run after a taxi next time - and save even more money.

This is a typical international joke. Its humour depends on something sounding possible, but being completely impossible.  It is the sort of joke that will be readily accessible to students of any native language.


A man takes his very big dog to the veterinarian . He tells the vet that the dog's eyes look unhealthy. The vet picks up the dog and takes a good look at the dog's eyes, and says:

"I'm going to have to put him down."

"Why? Just because he can't see well?"

"No, because he's too heavy."

This joke depends on a phrase having two meanings. When a vet says he will have to put an animal down he means put it to sleep, permanently or kill it.  Not just put it back down on the floor.

In Switzerland, where there are four official languages, the Swiss are naturally very aware of the need to communicate in a way that will ensure total comprehension.   As someone who lived for more than three years in a small town in the heart of the German-speaking part of Switzerland I know only too well how often they fail in this endeavour.  Particularly with the use of humour which, in my experience, was always at a very basic level.  Innuendo, allusion and obliquity was generally lost on them.  So it was particularly interesting for me to discover that the Kantonsschule Luzern has provided specific examples of English humour to illustrate their own belief in its benefit in teaching English as a foreign language.  Click here to view their list of jokes which are perfect examples of the type of basic humour that might appeal to people of any age and any nationality.


A Swiss motorist, looking for directions, pulls up at a bus stop where two Americans are waiting.

"Entschuldigung, sprechen Sie Deutsch?" he says. The two Americans just stare at him.

"Excusez-moi, parlez-vous français?" The two continue to stare.

"Parlare italiano?" No response.

"¿Hablan ustedes español?" Still nothing.

The Swiss man drives off, extremely disgusted.

One American turns to the other and says, "Maybe we should learn a foreign language."

"Why?" says the other. "That guy knew four languages, and it didn't do him any good."



[1] Sr. Vadillo's description of his use of humour may be found at:

[2]  Powell, J.P. and L.W. Andersen, "Humour and Teaching in Higher Education." Studies in Higher Education, 1985