We’ve all been there. Someone tells a joke to a group and everyone laughs. Except you.
If you share the same language and culture with this group, you might not think anything of it. Maybe it was just a stupid joke. Perhaps you never got around to watching that TV show the joke was about. Whatever it was, you probably moved on fairly quickly.
However, when a different language and/or culture is added to the mix, it becomes a different sort of situation. Perhaps you didn’t understand some of the words used in the joke. Or maybe you weren’t familiar with the cultural context that would have made it funny. It’s hard not to feel at least temporarily confused or inadequate, especially if you’ve been learning this foreign language for a long time. Don’t be so hard on yourself though.
Translators like to think they have a sense of humor, but professionally they don’t because humor doesn’t translate (Mr. Bean excepted). An ancient piece of advice from interpreters to clients: skip the joke. Your humor doesn’t translate.
If you think learning new grammar and vocabulary are difficult, humor will always be more so: it’s much more of an art than a science. Yet, that’s exactly what language learners should be trying to learn, a recent article in The Guardian suggested.
In any language, humor helps people make connections with others, especially when making new connections or forming deeper bonds. Learning the humor of another language or culture; however, helps make transitions that much easier.
In addition, you’ll remember the jokes that you learn in a foreign language. This isn’t just because they’re funny, but because they become a testament to your language-learning progress and they can help pave the way for understanding more jokes in the future.
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 humor in language and help students remember the gag for future use.
“Once the student has gone through that repair process of understanding something funny, it will probably stick with them forever,” she adds.
Don’t forget to laugh at yourself too. No matter how perfect we wish to be, language learning inevitably involves making some mistakes along the way. Being able to take your errors in stride as you get better can make the journey much less stressful.
So a call to language learners everywhere: Can you explain what’s so funny about your favorite second-language joke? It’s always funnier after you explain it. Mr. Bean bonus below.