Humor’s a funny thing. It’s an unconscious, unfakable, universal form of communication all humans share, no matter what culture they’re from or language they speak. Yet, perhaps counterintuitively, humor emerges less from the crack of one-liners than it does from the uncertainty that emerges from shared experiences and relationships with others. What if, as language teachers, we bring more laughter into the classroom. And if we did, could it actually help them remember grammar better?
Before delving into the language classroom, let’s start by exploring where laughter might have originated from in the first place. Evolutionary psychologists talk about laughter as a kind of “social glue” that bonds people and communities together. Back in the day, it likely evolved as a way to communicate to others that one was not a threat, before humans could express so through spoken language. Laughter helped build larger communities of people, who felt they could trust one another, thus improving their chances of survival. It became an alternative and more humane solution to just “flight-or-flight.”
Today, humor expresses itself in many ways, from inside jokes, sarcastic remarks, and slapstick, to everyday conversations with friends, which on the surface may not be appear to be inherently humorous when taken out of context, but still produce the majority of our laughing moments.
Psychologists agree that humor makes people feel better and more connected. It can reduce the stress felt in tense situations, which perhaps makes it an ideal strategy for the language classroom, where students can feel self-conscious about their accent and errors made in front of their peers, and frustrated from not being able to fully able to communicate what they want to say.
Whereas humor in the classroom has the potential to break down emotional, “affective” filters, studies have also suggested that it may also increase cognitive functioning. Labeled “the humor effect,” researchers have found that students are more likely to remember and later retrieve new information when they learn it through humorous contexts. One study, for example, found students better able to recall humorous sentences compared to non-humorous ones because they naturally paid more attention to them. Another found, though the tracking of people’s eyes movement, that the brain gives preferential treatment to humorous information, which in turn makes it more likely to encoded in long-term memory and successfully retrieved later on.
To date, however, little research has investigated the beneficial effects of bringing laughter into the ESL/EFL classroom. Where it has, it has focused on instructors delivering information in a humorous way, such as through the telling of jokes and plays on words, both of which seem to help students feel more relaxed and motivated to learn, so long as the content of the joke is directly relevant to the lesson being delivered.
But what if we allow for the humor to emerge from students’ social interactions themselves? And how might we as grammar teachers afford them these opportunities? Over the past year, we have been experimenting with setting up kinesthetic grammar activities from which laughter can naturally emerge through roleplays, tableaus, miming activities, drawings, and games. This experimentation has resulted in our upcoming book from Alphabet Press, 60 Kinesthetic Grammar Activities.
The activities work on two basic premises of humor. The first is that there is humor in the unexpected (which explains the “punch lines” of jokes). In an example taken from a lesson on the comparative, one of our students, the only male, was asked to compare two hand-drawn aliens, one scary and one not. Shaking his head, he said, “Women are scarier than all aliens!” Not surprisingly, his unexpected response got many laughs from the females in the classroom!
The second premise is that humor is often the result of shared, imagined scenarios, which can sometimes border on the absurd, a process referred to as “joint fictionalization.” Ask students to practice used to in a role-play two old people in a retirement home talking about their past, and you can probably already imagine where the conversation might go, “Back in my day, we didn’t use to have smartphones! We used to have one phone, in the living room, tethered to a wall!”
Perhaps if we can allow students to construct humor together through these kinds of social exchanges, while at the same time target specific grammatical structures, we can take advantage of the cognitive and emotional benefits of humor on their learning. Students may end up paying more attention to the grammar and feeling more at ease, all while enjoying a few more laughs in the process.
Askilson, L. (2005). Effects Of Humor In The Language Classroom: Humor As A Pedagogical Tool In Theory And Practice. Arizona Working Papers in SLAT, 12(1), 45-60.
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Savage, A. & Ward, C. (2020). 60 Kinesthetic Grammar Activities. Alphabet Publishing (in press).
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