Why language learners don't have to miss the punchline

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Humour can help you get to grips with another language – even if this just means laughing at your own mispronunciations.

Heard the one about the grass mud horse? The alpaca-like animal doesn't look immediately hilarious. Cute, but not exactly a rib tickler. So why does the cuddly critter have the Chinese in stitches? The secret lies in how the "cao ni ma's" name is pronounced. Say it one way in Mandarin and it's a harmless creature, say it another way and it means "Fuck your mother".

Don't worry if you missed the punchline. According to Mandarin teacher Dr Gerda Wielander, head of modern languages and cultures at the University of Westminster, there's more to understanding a joke in a foreign language than comprehension of vocabulary and grammar.

She explains: "It is not just a question of linguistic ability but of a profound understanding of the cultural context of the humour." In tonal tongues such as Mandarin, for example, symbolism and satire are built on the fact the language features lots of homonyms – words that sound the same but are written differently. Wielander claims for someone to see the funny side of a gag which exploits that linguistic feature, you need to have a very high level of proficiency in the language.

Hannah Ashley, a PR account manager in London, moved to Madrid when she was 19 to immerse herself in the Spanish language. Despite reaching a level of fluency where she could communicate clearly with her peers, an understanding of humour remained depressingly out of reach.

"I always felt that humour was this ceiling that I could never break through," she remembers. "I could never converse with people on the same level as I would with a native English speaker and it was a barrier for making friends. I almost came across as quite a boring person because all I could talk about was factual stuff."

Heather Roberts, academic director of the Language Gallery, believes introducing these culturally embedded jokes into the classroom are an opportunity for learning, not a barrier. Misunderstanding puns, repetition, and absurdity is a chance to repair confusion. While explaining a punchline might initially kill the joke, Roberts claims it can shed light on the use of humour in language and help students remember the gag for future use.

Comedy may frequently end up lost in translation, but that doesn't mean learning a language should be deadpan. Whether it's mispronouncing a word to comic effect or using a term out of context, the ability to laugh at your mistakes is vital for overcoming the challenges of mastering a foreign language.

Polyglot Gaeten Hinojosa admits his initial confusion of the words "tong" and "thong" when learning English made people laugh for all the wrong reasons. The 26-year-old native French and Spanish speaker says he still has to think before he speaks, despite now being fluent enough in the language to study a postgraduate course in the UK.

Having a sense of humour when you make mistakes also helps tackle hesitancy, explains Wielander. You are frequently making a lot of strange noises that you may not have made before and that can be a little embarrassing.

She says: "When learning Mandarin, for example, we spend a lot of time practising the different tones in the initial stages. If you pronounce a syllable in the wrong way then you are saying something really different to what you were intending. Pointing that out to students has a great comic effect. That then stays in students' minds.

Whether you're trying to communicate in French or Mongolian, humour is undeniably a great way to lighten the mood and laughter can help fill any awkward silences when practising conversation with strangers. But if you haven't quite got to grips with the cultural nuances of the language and you're afraid of getting tongue tied over a joke, physical humour such as slapstick tends to translate better than verbal gags. Slipping on a banana skin might be the oldest gag in the joke book, but it is a great place to start for a beginner.

The guardian.com


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