Brits are known for their dry wit, but students learning English as a foreign language don’t always understand the UK’s trademark sarcasm, explains Jon Green, an English teacher at the British Council in Warsaw and one of the stars of ‘The Five Gentlemen’ series of English language teaching videos.
In all my years of teaching English in Poland, I have observed many funny, interesting and absurd things. In a recent video series called ‘The Five Gentlemen’, four of my fellow teachers and I shared a few of the highs and lows of teaching English, common errors we have observed in and out of the classroom, and our impressions of being English native speakers and living in a country such as Poland.
We talk about things like celebrity names, classic student mispronunciations (and how to put them right) and other language errors common to all learners and some specifically to Polish learners. But when the video intro starts with a shot of us in our dandy Victorian clothes — now given back to the virtual wardrobe — most people (of a certain age) would think of Monty Python.
Now, remember this joke?
"My dog’s got no nose."
"How does he smell?"
In fact, this is the joke from ‘The Funniest Joke in the World’ sketch by Monty Python. I created a lesson using the video clip from this and his ‘Dead Parrot’ sketch, and I have to say that it is one of my favourite and most well-received lessons. Brilliant, clever and hilarious, with a good dose of dry wit and interesting vocabulary!
The humour that often doesn’t work in the classroom is sarcasm. We are a sarcastic nation, and it often gets lost in translation. I often find myself saying, ‘I’m only joking,’ when I see a strange look on a student’s face after I’ve made a sarcastic comment.
In Britain, sarcasm is approved of, even appreciated, whereas in some cultures, it simply doesn’t exist. Teachers need to be able to adjust their language and humour, unless they like putting up with that awkward silence!
On a final note, two weeks ago I asked my Polish class, ‘What’s happening this weekend?’
‘It’s Christmas,’ someone replied.
The class burst out laughing as the student meant to say Easter, but it got lost in translation somewhere down the line!
Watch all the videos in The Five Gentlemen series.