October 2015
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Anne Pomerantz, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA & Nancy D. Bell, Washington State University, Pullman, Washington, USA

Anne Pomerantz

Nancy D. Bell

Teach humor? You’re kidding, right? This is the response we often get from fellow teachers when we argue that humor merits a larger place in additional language instruction. Humor, many language teachers contend, is just too nuanced, too unpredictable, and too tangential to the serious business of language learning to warrant our attention as instructors. Why should we focus on humor when there are so many other important—and more teachable—aspects of communicative competence to address? After all, should not we be attending to our learners’ primary communicative needs and desires?

As teacher-researchers, we too recognize the pressure our colleagues in language classrooms are under to prioritize serious instructional goals. At the same time, sociolinguistic studies have long documented the central role of humor in initiating and managing social relationships in both casual and professional settings (e.g., Bell & Pomerantz, 2016). Humor’s not-so-serious veneer seems to mask the breadth and depth of its social functions. For example, the ability to appreciate and join in humorous banter can ease an individual’s entry into a new social group. Sharing a laugh—whether it be around a common experience or at the expense of another—often serves as a way to communicate solidarity and to mark social group boundaries. And, when tensions do arise, a well-placed joke or witty remark can quickly diffuse them. Whether the interlocutors are children engaged in a heated game of hopscotch in the schoolyard or adults hammering out the details of a multimillion dollar contract in a boardroom, humor can serve as a resource to release emotions and restore good relations.

Second language (L2) learners, however, often report difficulty in managing just these kinds of social interactions. From international students who can have trouble forging meaningful relationships with their domestic peers, to newly arrived immigrant children who find themselves the victims of unwanted teasing, to workers in a multinational corporation who struggle to access the jokes their colleagues find so amusing, conversational humor remains a challenging and seemingly impenetrable facet of social life. L2 learners, research tells us, would like more help in not only identifying and understanding the instances of humor they encounter outside the classroom, but also some guidance with respect to when and how they might join in this nonserious talk. Thus, in the remainder of this article, we describe some of the key microskills related to the identification, comprehension, production, and appreciation of conversational humor and provide examples of instructional activities.

Identifying Humor

For L2 learners, one important microskill related to accessing conversational humor entails the ability to differentiate between serious and nonserious utterances or texts. As people interact with one another—whether face-to-face or in written form—they use an array of contextualization cues to indicate how what they are saying or writing should be interpreted. That is, they signal that their language use is funny or serious, sarcastic or sincere. Sometimes, these contextualization cues are overt, like when someone prefaces a narrative with a statement like, Here’s a funny story. Other times, however, the contextualization cues may be less direct and listeners/readers may be left wondering about the key of a particular utterance or text. Thus, one teachable aspect of humor entails helping students to detect the contextualization cues used to signal the presence of humor in particular contexts.

Film and television clips, for example, are a useful source of material for activities focused on the identification of contextualization cues. To this end, examples of scripted interaction can be shown to students, who can then attempt to identify the linguistic and paralinguistic features that signal humor. Teachers can easily adjust the complexity of the examples and the saliency of the contextualization cues to meet their students’ needs, making the development of this microskill appropriate for both novice and more advanced learners. Moreover, teachers can extend their instruction to include written language as well, so as to help learners recognize humor in email, online chats, newspaper articles, and literary texts, among other genres. Finally, recognition tasks can be combined with production tasks in which learners are asked to rekey or reframe a particular instance of spoken or written language as humorous or playful.

Comprehending Humor

Beyond identifying the presence of humor, L2 learners may also benefit from support with humor comprehension. That is, they may detect the emergence of a humorous key or play frame, but find themselves unable to comprehend or appreciate the joke. Much humor, for example, involves recognizing the incongruity created through the pairing of incompatible scripts (Raskin, 1985). In such instances, the humor derives from violations or juxtapositions of the “cultural scripts” that form part of peoples’ shared, though not necessarily fully overlapping, interpretive repertoires. This humor may poke fun at expectations for actions, identities, or stances in a particular situation, or indicate something about the kinds of scripts that are even available for playful manipulation in a given context. To understand humor derived from script opposition, one has to engage with both what is actually present in an interactional moment and one’s assumptions and expectations about what should have been there. This can be particularly challenging for L2 learners, as their interpretive repertoires may differ from those of other users of the language of instruction. And, L2 learners may “get” certain jokes, but not find them funny.

Despite these caveats, script oppositions are often an accessible entry point for helping learners to comprehend humor and can lead to broader discussions of intercultural norms and values. Classrooms offer a safe, structured space for discussions of cultural scripts, as learners can ask questions and test out hypotheses without fear of losing face. And, once again, television, film, and even self-produced video clips or those gleaned from the web can be excellent pedagogical resources for engaging students in analytic activities around script opposition.

Producing Humor

A third area ripe for instructional intervention is the production of humor. While L2 learners do not need to become comedians, opportunities to create and perform humor can help to develop learners’ communicative repertoires, as well as their overall confidence as (humorous) language users. Being funny, however, requires careful attention to what can and cannot be joked about in a particular context. Thus, it is incumbent upon teachers to help learners to understand the degree of risk involved in exploiting certain themes for mirth. For example, teachers can encourage learners to conduct their own ethnographic investigations of humor in the communities of practice in which they engage, so as to develop both the necessary content knowledge about humor and the intercultural competence to recognize when, where, why, and with whom it might be ok to use particular expressions or joke about particular topics.

In addition, the microskills related to humor production also include careful attention to particular aspects of performance. Sequence, turn-taking, volume, timing, and prosody (including intonation, rhythm, stress), among others, are all important areas related to the successful cuing of a spoken utterance as humorous. Likewise, kinesthetic features such as gaze, gesture, expression, and posture figure into the contextualization process. Although humor is notoriously difficult to translate, funny personal stories do tend to be easily shared across languages and may be one of the easier ways that L2 users are able to share humor (Bell, 2007). Translating and performing such a narrative can allow learners to hone their ability to use humorous cues and techniques, as well as practice basic conversational skills like getting and maintaining the floor.

Responding to Humor

Closely related to our discussion of recognizing humor is an emphasis on helping learners to respond to humor. To fully support an attempt at humor, the hearer must express recognition of the presence of a joke, understanding of it, and appreciation (Hay, 2001). There are a variety of conventions by which interlocutors indicate each of these levels of support, and some may be particularly helpful for L2 users. For instance, L2 learners might benefit from explicit attention to and practice with formulaic phrases for indicating that they have detected the presence of humor. Likewise, they might benefit from an introduction to common ways to indicate that they recognize the presence of humor, but do not find it funny (Bell, 2015). Finally, some attention to how to handle humor that the L2 learner finds offensive is warranted, as expressions of humor support generally imply that the listener is complicit with the message, values, or attitudes contained within it (Hay, 2001). Thus, teachers may want to include in their instruction an emphasis not only on humor appreciation, but also humor rejection. Here, an array of activities ranging from awareness raising tasks involving transcripts and/or videos, to scripted and spontaneous role-plays can be used to develop learners’ abilities to respond to humor.

It is hard to imagine a world in which communicative competence would not entail the ability to engage in and with conversational humor. In highlighting some microskills related to conversational humor, it is our hope that this discussion has convinced you that humor is not only a desirable instructional focus, but also a possible one.


Bell, N. (2007). Safe territory? Bilingual women’s humorous narratives. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 40(2/3), 199–225.

Bell, N. (2015). We are not amused: Failed humor in interaction. Berlin, Germany: Mouton de Gruyter.

Bell, N., & Pomerantz, A. (2016). Humor in the classroom: A guide for language teachers and educational researchers. New York, NY: Routledge.

Hay, J. (2001). The pragmatics of humor support. Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, 14(1), 55–82.

Raskin, V. (1985). Semantic mechanisms of humor. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Reidel.

Anne Pomerantz is a senior lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania, Graduate School of Education. Her research focuses on the role of humor in classroom discourse and language pedagogy.

Nancy D. Bell is an associate professor at Washington State University and author of A Student’s Guide to the M.A. TESOL (Palgrave Macmillan) and We Are Not Amused: Failed Humor in Interaction (De Gruyter Mouton).

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