The lighter side: A look at humour in the language classroom

Written by: Roger House

Humour doesn’t always have to be culturally bound: it can be universal and uniting.

This presentation looked at humour from the perspective of both the language teacher and the language learner and at ways in which we can all ‘lighten up’ and enjoy ourselves a little more in the classroom.

It began with a joke.

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The joke book joke.

A man spends his first day in prison and is befriended by one of the long term prisoners. During lunch in the prison canteen one of the other prisoners stands up and shouts, “ Ninety- three”. At which point there is hysterical laughter all around the canteen.

Later that day, while exercising in the yard, another prisoner shouts, “ Forty-five”, and all the prisoners fall about laughing.

“What’s going on ?” asks the man to his new friend.

“Well, you see,” says the long term prisoner, ”there is only one joke book in the prison library and we have all been here so long that we have learnt all the jokes by heart. So, instead of telling the whole joke we just shout out the number – it’s easier.”

Over the next few months the man learns all the jokes in the joke book by heart so that he is able to join in the fun. Eventually, he feels he is ready to call out his favourite joke, so at lunch in the canteen he stands up and shouts, “Sixty-seven.”

Silence.

“What went wrong ?” he asks his friend.

“Well,” he sighed, “ I’m afraid it’s the way you tell it.”

I found this joke in Peter Medgyes’ book ‘Laughing Matters’ ( Cambridge University Press  2002 ) and it serves to illustrate that telling jokes in itself does not necessarily constitute humour in language teaching. Firstly, for a number of reasons, your students may not get the joke, and secondly, a good joke has to be told well and not all of us feel able to do this. Most importantly for us as language teachers, however, is the fact that telling a joke is very teller, or rather, teacher centred and our students are merely listeners, not participants.

So here are some suggestions for getting our students more involved in the process of creating humour in the classroom.

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“That’s just the name of the shop.”

Some years ago, when I was teaching at a language school in the UK, I was given a book entitled ‘Situational English’ or ‘Situational Dialogues’, I can’t remember the title exactly, to use with my students for fluency practice. The book consisted of a series of role play scenarios along the lines of  ‘At the Railway Station’, ‘In the Supermarket’, ‘At the Post Office’ etc.

The following activity is my attempt to enliven the material based on a joke by the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band.

Give out the following dialogue to your students:-

Assistant:  “ How can I help you, sir?”

Man:  “I’d like these two pairs of trousers cleaned, please.”

Assistant:  “Certainly, sir. Would you also like them pressed?”

Man:  “Yes please. When will they be ready?”

Assistant:  “ In about two weeks.”

Man:  “ Two weeks !  But it says…………………………..”

Assistant:  “Yes sir, I know, but……………………………”

Elicit from the class what type of shop the dialogue takes place in ( a dry cleaner’s ) and what may go in the spaces. Establish the idea that the customer is making a complaint.

Divide your class into pairs and ask them to think of a shop and give a name to it. The name of the shop must include an adjective to describe the product or services it is offering.

eg.   Reliable Computers,  Tasty Sandwiches,  Same Day Photographs,  High Quality Shoes  etc.

This is a good opportunity to practise / revise suitable adjectives. Encourage them to use their imagination. Now ask each pair to prepare a dialogue similar to the one above in which the customer makes a complaint related to the name of the shop.

eg. the computer is not reliable, the sandwiches are not tasty etc.

When they have finished, give each pair the following lines on a slip of paper to add to their dialogues:-

Customer:  “But it says …( name of shop )…. on the sign outside.”

Assistant:   “Yes sir, I know, but I’m afraid that’s just the name of the shop.”

If necessary, they can change what they have prepared to fit these lines in.

Get the students to act out their dialogues in class so they can all share the joke.

I have found that students can be quite imaginative and humorous with their dialogues, especially when they incorporate the punch line at the end.

The original is as follows:-

Assistant:  “ How can I help you, sir?”

Man:  “I’d like these two pairs of trousers cleaned, please.”

Assistant:  “Certainly, sir. Would you also like them pressed?”

Man:  “Yes please. When will they be ready?”

Assistant:  “ In about two weeks.”

Man:  “ Two weeks !  But it says ‘24 Hour Cleaners’ on the sign outside.”

Assistant:  “Yes sir, I know, but I’m afraid that’s just the name of the shop.”

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Alternative titles

Not all students, and  this especially applies to teenagers, find the course book they are using very inspiring. This is not necessarily the fault of the writers or publishers but it does give us the opportunity for a little useful fun in our teaching.

Make a list of course book titles from publishers’ catalogues or even give the students the catalogues themselves if you have enough and want to use some authentic material.

Elicit from students the words or phrases with positive connotations used in the titles. All course books have titles associated with success, progress and dynamism ( Reward, Get Ahead, Move On etc.) and this can be effectively exploited.

Get students to work in small groups to make alternative titles for the course books using opposites or words and phrases with negative connotations. This can be used as a means of extending their vocabulary as well as utilising their creativity. They can write out their alternative titles and you could display them as a wall poster. Here are some of my samples:-

‘Failure At First Certificate’,   ‘Losers’,   ‘Switch Off’,   ‘Punishment’,   ‘Dead End’,  ‘Unnatural English’,  ‘Going Backwards’

The same thing can be done using only their current course book as a source and changing the titles of the units instead. Most recent course books follow a similar pattern of topic related titles for each unit and the result could be something like this:-

Unit 1  Going Places    -    Going Nowhere

Unit 2  People Around me    -    People I Don’t Want To Know

Unit 3  The World Of Work    -  The World Of Unemployment

Unit 4  Entertainment    -    Boredom

Unit 5  The Environment    -  Destroying The Planet

The scope for amusement is quite large and for de-motivated learners the activity can prove to be cathartic.

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Alternative texts.

This is really an extension of the above activity using the short texts often found in course books as samples or models for language work. To give you an idea I have used the following text from ‘New Headway Intermediate’ ( Oxford University Press  2003). Obviously, present simple and adverbs of frequency as well as a contrast with the present continuous are the main teaching aims here.

Sidney Fisk, 45

Sidney Fisk is a lawyer. He’s paid very well, but he usually has to work long hours. He works for an international company in Dallas, Texas, so he travels a lot in his job. At the moment he’s working in Mexico, and next week he’s travelling to France

This is all very nice for Sidney Fisk but I don’t think it really engages our students that much. Asking them to write about their own lives, as the course book does, will probably induce yawns

or the complaint that they don’t know what to say. Rewriting the text with Sidney Fisk as a criminal, on the other hand, may produce more invention and hopefully more humour. Other roles Sidney Fisk may given are:- a pet dog or other animal, the president of another planet, a rock star or even God ( although you may need to be careful with this ! ). The idea of using less conventional characters for language work I found in an old publication from Oxford University Press called ‘Streamline English’ and it contained a great deal of incidental humour as a result.

Other short texts, especially descriptive ones, can be rewritten in a similar way. Thus ‘My Ideal Holiday’ becomes ‘My Holiday From Hell’ or ‘How I Spend My Free Time’ becomes ‘Why I Enjoy Doing Nothing’ or ‘My Favourite Place’ becomes ‘Reasons You Should Never Go To Plovdiv’. The possibilities are almost endless and if you find yourself short of  inspiration, get your students to come up with some suggestions; I’m sure they’ll have some.

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A letter of application.

Writing tasks tend to be regarded with far too much seriousness by students and teachers alike. It may be that you will find possibilities for humour in even the most mundane of exam type tasks. Take the letter of application, for example. Consider asking students whether they actually want the job or summer camp organiser role being advertised. If not, and this will usually be the case, get them to write a letter to avoid any possibility of  ever getting the job. This example is in response to an advert for a journalist.

I am writing in response to your advertisement in yesterday’s ‘Daily Planet’ for a part-time journalist.

As you can see from my CV I have absolutely no interest in journalism and no previous experience whatsoever. I don’t even read newspapers.

As regards academic qualifications, I was thrown out of school at 15 having passed none of my exams. I can’t speak any foreign languages and, in fact, I can barely speak my own mother tongue ( someone else wrote this letter for me ).

I believe I am not the right person for this job because I am lazy and incompetent. I hope to be rejected in the near future.

I look forward to never hearing  from

Although this may seem facetious, useful language work is going on and students can use their joke letters a model for the real one. They just have to rewrite it seriously. It can also be an entertaining exercise to work out which other writing tasks can be dealt with in the same way.

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If my neighbours were zombies.

I once tried to demonstrate to teachers on a training course an effective way of eliciting the hypothetical meaning of the second conditional by using an example of neighbours who were having a party and neighbours who were very quiet. The target sentences were ‘If they made a noise, I would ……’ and  ‘If they make a noise, I’ll………’. Puzzled, one of the trainee teachers asked, “Yes, but what if my neighbours are zombies?”  This is a good idea and can be done as a kind of ‘consequences’ game in the class. Divide the class into small groups of four or five students. Give each group a piece of A4 paper and tell them to write at the top ‘If my neighbours were zombies…..’ The first student completes the sentence and then passes it on to the next student who begins a second sentence following on from the first and beginning with ‘If..’

eg   If my neighbours were zombies, I would move to another town

If I moved to another town, I wouldn’t be worried about zombies

If I wasn’t worried about zombies………..etc.

When every student in each group has written a sentence, they exchange their pieces of paper with another group. Alternatively, you could put them up around the classroom for another class to read.

Absurd situations like this work well with younger learners and activate a sense of the surreal that is conducive to learning.

Grammar activities are, of course, focused on getting the correct answer but there is humorous potential in deliberately making mistakes. Here is a grammar practice activity from ‘New Headway Intermediate’ again.

Match a line in A with a line in B and a line in C.


A

1. If you go to Paris,
2. If we can afford it,
3. If I don’t hear from you today,
4. If the music is too loud,
5. If we don’t leave soon,
6. If there’s nothing interesting in the window,
7. If she has to work late, the Eiffel Tower
8. If Daniel rings


B

we’ll be late for school.
go inside the shop.
tell him I never want to see him again.
we’ll buy a new car soon.
she’ll phone you from the office.
you can turn down the radio.
you must go to the top of
I’ll phone you tomorrow


C

She might not be home until 9.00
The views are fantastic.
The one we have now is very unreliable.
It’ll be the second time this week.
He really hurt my feelings.
I need to talk to you about something.
I don’t mind.
You might find something you like

Consider making the wrong matchings in this exercise.

eg    If the music is too loud, go inside the shop. The views are fantastic

There is still some sort of strange sense to it and it can be funny. Try some yourself and then get your students to do some. These they can give to another class to either correct or improve.

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Errors and language misuse.

Give students these three vocabulary items:- underestimate, life-long, neither. Ask them to use their dictionaries to write their own sample sentences illustrating how these words are used.

Now give them the following three sentences on the board or on a worksheet:-

“It’s not that we underestimated them; it’s just that they were better than we thought.”

“How long have you had this life-long ambition ?”

“They have to concentrate, not only when they have the ball or when their opponents have the ball but also when neither of them have the ball.”

Ask students to consider what is wrong in these sentences. What is being focused on here is the misuse of the language by it’s native speakers resulting in comic or absurd effect. Students can then be invited to misuse the words in a similar way and create their own comic sentences. These can then be given to other students to read and comment on. The activity can be done with any number of vocabulary items and is an entertaining way to revise or recycle vocabulary. Sports commentators are a rich source of this kind of  tortured language as are poorly translated public notices. I have taken my examples from the satirical magazine ‘Private Eye’ but you can find a plethora of them on the internet. Students can either correct them, which is not so amusing, or write their own, which can be fun.

Learners’ own mistakes are also a source of humour, although this has to be treated with a great deal of sensitivity as you don’t want to alienate your students. You could collect some of their more amusing errors over the course of a term or academic year and present them on a worksheet or in a booklet. Contributions must remain anonymous, however. Here is one of my favourites, which I have been using for several years now. It was written as the introduction to an essay which followed on from a class discussion on women’s role in modern society. See if you can work out what was actually intended.

“In nowadays society women still find it difficult to penetrate in the management position.”

Humour can be a very effective teaching tool if handled right. However, always make sure that your students understand that you are laughing with them, not at them.

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