By Emma Greenhalgh

24 February 2014 - 10:28

'Humour has been found to play an important part in academic contexts.' Photo of laughing students (c) Mat Wright.
'Humour has been found to play an important part in academic contexts.' Photo ©

Mat Wright.

Can English language students be 'trained' in humour? Ahead of her live-streamed British Council seminar on Wednesday, 26 February, teacher and English for Academic Purposes (EAP) specialist Emma Greenhalgh tells us why humour should be incorporated into language-learning.

Why did you decide to research this topic?

While teaching on various English for Academic Purposes (EAP) courses, it struck me how much laughter there was in the classes. Aren't universities meant to be serious, no-nonsense domains of learning and debate? I’d never come across any 'humour-awareness' training, or even vaguely humorous material in EAP textbooks. I was keen to find out more so I made it the subject of my dissertation while studying for an MA in Applied Linguistics. The results of my investigation were intriguing!

How often do people laugh in university seminars?

Humour has been found to play an important part in academic contexts. Informal study groups and tutorials have been shown to contain the most laughter, and lectures the least. However, we should note that laughter does not necessarily equate with humour. For example, when we laugh it may be the result of nerves rather than amusement. The reverse is also true - when we find something funny we do not always laugh. Nevertheless, laughter is something quantifiable, i.e., it can be counted. As such, it provides a useful first step in analysing humour in spoken discourse.

An investigation into laughter episodes at a UK university found evidence of laughter occurring on average every three minutes during lectures. Laughter episodes recorded at an American university averaged a laugh every two minutes. My own research into laughter in a university seminar in Austria - where all the participants were using English as a second language - recorded a laugh every 30 seconds! This data certainly seems to support the idea that laughter is common in academic talk. It also challenges the perception many have that academic spoken discourse is stuffy and serious.

What kind of humour is prevalent in university seminars? 

Humour can be cultural as well as linguistic in nature. For example, in her research on laughter in university lectures, Nesi refers to the British stereotype of hard-drinking and party-loving students - and the humour associated with it. She also notes that the British trait of self-depreciating humour is particularly difficult for international students to understand. So while it is true that international students need to understand the vocabulary used in a humorous episode, it is also clear that cultural knowledge is vital for comprehension. There are important implications here for teachers of English as a second language.

Can humour be 'taught' in an English language classroom?

I would not advocate that we ‘teach’ humour as such but rather make a conscious effort to incorporate it into our lessons. When thinking about the types of humour to include we should bear in mind our students’ proficiency level in English. Schmitz says that universal humour - humour that can be understood when translated - should be introduced from the onset of language learning while cultural humour is suitable for intermediate level students, and linguistic humour (involving wordplay, for example) is most appropriate for advanced level users. I would argue that both cultural and linguistic humour can be successfully incorporated at earlier stages in language learning.

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