Humor is a natural part of human interaction in many environments. As teachers and learners of English, most of us are used to experiencing some moments of joking and laughing in our classrooms. But what is the role of humor in the language class? Does it have any implication for learning itself?
Humor in class can benefit teacher-student interaction, as it motivates the student’s participation and help them
to build on and sustain their interpersonal relationships as a community of English language learners(…) (Hall & Walsh, 2002:193)
Once that learning in our classrooms is accomplished through interaction, humor can create an environment where students may feel they belong to and overcome the natural barriers that they face in learning a foreign language as it relates to their self-image, etc.. That means that the use of humor in class can be an inclusve tool to promote participation and learning.
This humor many times may happen as a playful approach to the language itself:
The final characteristic of the language used in successful lessons is that of richness and occasional playfulness as well ... The teachers in successful classes tended to use language in ways that called attention to the language itself. (idem: 194)
Because of some Latin roots that Portuguese and English share in many cases, it is interesting to see my students in Brazil playing with the use of some suffixes of Latin origin. For example, they will add -ation to an English verb or adjective and see if it works as a noun, as in modernization or acceleration. But in case the process fails to produce an existing word in English, the outcome is a humorous play with the target language, moving away from the labels right and wrong. The same happens when they translate idiomatic expressions or pronounce local words with an English pronunciation.
As Simon Andrewes points out,
The intervention of the mother tongue in the foreign language learning process through such actvities as code switching, free and direct translation (...) can be(2007: 8)
extremely enlightening, as well as enjoyable
Given the bias that still exists in our field concerning the use of mother tongue, however, this humor and playfulness using or refering to elements of the mother tongue may be perceived by some teachers as not beneficial to learning or, at least, a waste of time. That is of course a misconception.
Humor can not only "break the ice", but also raise awareness about the language, and focus on it as a real means of communication.
Hall, Joan Kelly & Walsh, Meghan. Teacher-student interaction and language learning. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics (2002) 22, 186-203. Cambridge University Press.
Andrewes, Simon English, Foreign languages and language. Modern English Teacher (2008) Volume 16, number 04.
Picture by Marc Ducrest