J is for Jokes

Ken BeattyDr. Ken Beatty

It felt like hours.

The joke my student was trying to tell perhaps took no more than three or four minutes, but it involved many clarification moves on my part (“I’m sorry, do you mean …?”) and repair moves on his part, hesitating, saying the wrong word, and then backing up to explain (“I mean ….”). At the end of it all, the disjointed story (“Oh, before that, I meant to say ….”) coalesced into an anecdote he’d read about a diner receiving a free meal at a restaurant after finding a cockroach in his soup. Afterward, the apologetic server humbly escorts the diner to the door and helps him with his coat when, unfortunately for the diner, a bottle full of cockroaches spills from the coat’s pocket.

I smiled weakly and nodded, but the student was far from finished; he felt compelled to explain the obvious: the bottle meant that the diner doubtlessly made a regular practice of obtaining free meals by this same deception. I nodded again, then gently steered the conversation back to the topic of the class.

Plateaus of language learning ascend from a base of knowing a few words and phrases, to asking yes/no and simple information questions, to using language to learn more about language (“How do you say ____ in English?”). Above those plateaus tower the mountains of dreaming in the target language and making jokes.

In part, jokes are challenging because they may violate some or all of Grice’s (1975) four maxims of how to best share information, summarized below:

Quantity—be concise
Quality—be accurate and truthful
Relation—be relevant
Manner—be clear, brief, and orderly

In the case of my student, there were several impediments to his telling the joke successfully. I suspect he hadn’t mentally rehearsed the story in English and was translating on the fly, so he was not concise. He did not have all the necessary vocabulary items at his disposal, so he was not accurate. In a conversation one expects a speaker to be truthful although in a joke the opposite is often true. But the context—or setup—usually needs to establish the fact that a joke is to follow, as with a well-known opening phrase like, “Three ____ walk into a bar and ….” This is akin to recognizing that the phrase “Once upon a time” signals the start of a fairy tale.

Alternatively, a joke might be introduced with a phrase such as, “Have you heard the one about ….” But the student did neither, so there was nothing to indicate that my class or I should suspend disbelief and understand that an untruthful story was being told for amusement. In the context of the classroom where the joke was delivered, I would have expected the student’s talk to focus on the learning of English as a second language, so it didn’t appear relevant. And because he rambled, he wasn’t clear, brief, or orderly.

However, many forms of jokes can be exploited in various ways in the language classroom. Continue reading