How Laughter Can Help Us Learn A Foreign Language

Language teachers often attempt to foster a relaxed atmosphere conducive to the easy flow of conversation. One of the best tools for this is humour. Used wisely, humour can close the social distance between teacher and student, and helps remove the fear of speaking. George Oliver looks at how humour helped him both learn and teach languages.

When I look back to the halcyon days of GCSE French, one of the main phrases I remember is, “Je ne suis pas un putain, je n’avais pas sexe pour l’argent.” Translation: “I am not a prostitute, I do not have sex for money.”

Wait! Come back! It isn’t as sordid as it sounds. Cast no aspersions on Wells Blue School language department, s’il vous plaît.

In the Spring of 2000, two of my friends and I had a well-structured (if not strictly adhered to) revision regime: two hours of hitting the books followed by a one hour break. The breaks frequently consisted of drinking tea, eating biscuits and watching Eddie Izzard videos. This is where I picked up the slightly adult phrase I tried so valiantly to crowbar into my oral exam. Izzard often talks about learning languages in his comedy, slipping in and out of English, French, German and Latin in the process. My French was fairly limited — I still couldn’t grasp what the hell the conjunctive was (some kind of gross eye infection?) — but I could recite every word of Izzard’s routines effortlessly and, crucially, I found that I understood most of it instantly. Eddie Izzard did something French Grammar Vol. 1 didn’t: he made me laugh!

How laughter helped me learn languages

The familiar structure of a comical anecdote meant I could quickly decipher and comprehend what it was all about. It aided my understanding of another language, and the potential to imitate and induce laughter in others made me want to retain it. Sentence structure, verbs, tenses and vocabulary — it was all in there. I didn’t realise it at the time, but the supposed break from revision was doing as much to improve my French as the colour-coded Post-it notes we trudged back to once we’d polished off our cups of tea. I’m not saying that I would have got anything other than a big fat FAIL if I’d simply watched videos and ate biscuits in preparation for my exam, but I cannot overstate the importance of the enjoyment I gleaned from “le singe est sur la branche.” It’s no coincidence that, sixteen years later, I work for a theatre company which tours French colleges and puts on comedy plays for French students to improve their English prior to sitting their Baccalaureate exams.

Leaping off the stage mid-performance to try and gauge the dopamine levels of a terrified French teenager is one of the unspoken taboos in theatre.

There have been many articles written on humour as a device in education, including scientific research into the cognitive benefits of increased oxygen and dopamine levels. I’m afraid I do not consider myself qualified to play the role of a credible source of scientific information: Leaping off the stage mid-performance to try and gauge the dopamine levels of a terrified French teenager is one of the unspoken taboos in theatre. I have been doing these tours for quite some time though, and I can confidently assert that if you are laughing, you are more likely to be relaxed and receptive to what is being presented to you. You’re more likely to be enjoying yourself and concentrating, watching and listening for what’s coming next. You’re more likely to be in the moment, and while that might mean that you’re not thinking specifically of which past tense should be used, you are likely to be caught up in the story, its characters and, consequently, the language.

How humour helps build a context around learning

The specifics are certainly important too, and that is where more structured tuition comes in useful, but the immersive nature of comedy and theatre gives a newly learned language a context — one that is fun to experience and to recall. A large amount of communication in a play is nonverbal, the story is told (and largely understood by a foreign audience) through physicality, staging, costume, music, facial expressions and intonation. All of these elements provide a familiar and engaging framework which facilitates the understanding of new words and phrases.

Humour is universal. You don’t have to spend long in any playground, office, pub or retirement home to find people sharing anecdotes, jokes and funny stories. For children, the ability to speak is often followed swiftly by the desire to share a laugh. Our first exposure to complex, abstract and anarchic speech patterns is through jokes. I worked in a nursery for three years. I learned a lot during this time: that there is a finite number of times I can listen to The Wheels on the Bus before having a compound nervous breakdown, that I should always keep my mouth closed and breathe through my nose during flu season, and that children will instantly remember and repeat anything they think is remotely funny. Every time a funny new word, rhyme or story made its way into the classroom it would spread like a virus, instantly retained and shared out loud every five seconds until the next funny thing came along to replace it. Younger kids often laughed hysterically at things they patently didn’t fully understand, but the desire to laugh, to understand and to communicate meant they played with the language and gradually came to understand the specific words and nuances.

How laughter can be a companion on your journey to fluency

And that’s key to learning a language. Yes, humour is universal, but it’s also diverse and idiosyncratic. It can accompany you the whole way through the process of learning a language, from initial provoking interest, to lubricating the first awkward conversations with some casual (truly universal) slapstick, to demonstrating a detailed understanding of the cultural nuances and context of another language through its jokes. So don’t forget to laugh while you learn, and learn while you laugh!

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