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Humor: The Key To Teaching English As A Second Language

There are a variety of methods and recommendations for teaching English as a Second Language. The prevailing one is the communicative approach, which aims for a targeted language (e.g. grammar) and demands ample time for students to first practice the targeted language and then use it in seemingly real-life simulated activities during class. This approach is adequate and effective as it provides a structured foundation for delivering instruction in a language learning environment. However, the adult ESL classroom or any type of language class is ultimately determined by the approach of the instructor.

As far as structure goes, following the norm in the classroom is fine. There is no reason to abandon the communicative method. However, within the structure, there need to be some elements which enhance the class. Spontaneity, creative activities, and open discussion are all vital for a successful ESL class or any language class for that matter. Beyond these add-ons, the most important in my opinion is the injection of humor into a class. From my experience as a teacher and what I’ve seen of other teachers, humor trumps all when it comes to language instruction.

Just as we need laughter and banter with our friends and colleagues to get through the day, the same is required in the language classroom. It will not only make your job easier and enjoyable, but the students themselves crave it. Remember, Americans and native English-speaking Westerners tend to be too uptight at times. This is particularly true when we are presiding over a group of non-Westerners, who are willing to learn our language. This is kind of ironic because Westerners, particularly Americans, like to pat ourselves on the back for our bold sense of individuality. In reality, our Western-centric views whether intended or not, tend to incline us to forget about humor and be entirely too serious, cautious and politically correct.

This path is a fatal mistake for an English as a second language instructor. Teaching and studying a language needs to be tackled from a different angle. Learning a language is not only about soaking up the grammar and nuances of it, but more importantly about learning a foreign culture and further understanding our own. Humor is the key which can bridge a mutual understanding from one culture to the other. In the West, I believe that our superficial sense of individualism inclines us to forget that people in other countries are generally more easy-going and less worried about offending someone.

More importantly, people outside of English-speaking countries love to laugh and be playful. Of course, they are serious about studying, but they expect the English classroom to be fun, energetic, open and engaging. For many students, the ESL classroom is a way for them to temporarily escape from the stress, repetition, and chaos of life. This is true in parts of Asia. However, the same even applies to adult ESL immigrant students in English-speaking countries.

No ESL student wants to be lectured about political correctness or sensitivity. They are there to learn the language, so do your job, have fun and laugh. If you can employ humor throughout your lesson, your students will be happy and you may even enjoy yourself from time to time. I’ve seen far too many ESL teachers make the mistake of being far too serious. Look at it this way, eventually, you are going to get burned out from teaching English as a second language. It is just inevitable and the nature of the business. But it should be an enjoyable experience while you are doing it.

Whether you are teaching adults, children, the global affluent, the global poor, immigrants, housewives, business elites, priests, university students or old people, you and your students should be laughing periodically throughout the class. Sure, you might just get a miserable class once in a while, but most of the students I’ve encountered (a lot of students), while eager to learn, love to laugh, be sarcastic and poke fun at things. Whether you want to teach or are just doing it to pay the bills, learn to laugh. In fact, if you cannot have a few laughs while teaching adults in your mother tongue, you definitely should not be teaching any subject and are probably socially deficient. Below are a few reasons why humor is the key to any ESL (English as a second language) or language class.

I emphasize the teaching of languages in general in addition to ESL because I strongly support the idea that all tongues should be taught in a similar fashion, one that assigns humor, creativity, speaking and a relaxed environment as the foundation. While studying Japanese and Spanish, I’ve also encountered similar issues with instructors of these languages.

Humor allows students to relax

Studying a second language can be a daunting experience for many people. This is not much of a problem for children as they don’t seem to care either way. By the time a person has reached adulthood, he or she has quickly morphed into a self-conscious creature. One fearful of ridicule, failure, and rejection. In other words, we like to conceal our flaws, limitations, and short-comings rather than putting them on display to be castigated by our peers. The reality is that every student in the ESL or language classroom is going to make a ton of mistakes. While some students are comfortable with consistently making errors, others feel threatened, lacking and insecure.

It is amazing how quickly adult students, regardless of socio-economic background, can revert back to childhood tendencies in the language classroom. The same person who is a well-educated professional in his or her country can suddenly become limited and easily frustrated in an English as a second language classroom. This is no different for anyone studying Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, Russian and so on. As a teacher and student of languages, I’ve seen plenty of individuals become derailed and ultimately dejected in only 30 to 40 minutes.

It is inevitable that even your best students are going to become impatient, frustrated and unmotivated at times. Learning a language is not only a challenge, but making mistakes in front of others is quite embarrassing for the majority of individuals. Therefore, it is your job as a teacher to minimize discomfort, negativity, and frustration in the classroom. In fact, most of being a successful language teacher is merely creating an environment in which your students feel relaxed. One where they won’t feel ridiculed by their mistakes, but learn to accept them, laugh about it and move on. A good laugh at the beginning, end or anywhere in between during class will allow students to feel at ease.

Laughter is the best medicine for just about everything in life. Of course, your main job is to teach the material and give your students enough time to practice throughout the class, but don’t be afraid to crack a joke, be playful and even laugh at yourself. I remember one class of younger students in their late teens to early twenties. I had been teaching them for a few weeks and they were a charming group. I purposefully came to class one day wearing a new shirt that still had a price tag on the back.

As the class went on for 30 or 40 minutes, I could see them giggling and laughing at each other with their eyes. Being a polite group, it wasn’t until their faces had turned red and they were on the verge of bursting into nonsensical laughter that one of them finally said something. I played it off as if I was oblivious and at that point, the entire class was practically rolling on the floor. Keep in mind that this was a quite friendly group, but even a class of stonefaced will still appreciate a little laughter here and there.

Humor bridges cultures

If you are teaching ESL domestically, you are most definitely going to have diverse classes with several nationalities and languages. Although your classes when teaching abroad will be homogeneous, there is still that cultural divide between yourself and your students. I say ‘cultural divide’ because there are legitimate differences that separate us. Regardless of how open-minded we claim to be, each student and teacher walk into a new classroom with perceptions and false assumptions of students based on nationality, language, religion, gender, and physical appearance.

Domestically, I’ve had classes in the United States that were as many as 10 different countries and representatives of each continent with the exception of Antarctica and Australia (it is debatable if these are even continents). In these situations, students tend to quickly find someone of the same country or language. It is only natural as humans that we tend to gravitate towards groups that are similar to us. On the other hand, students of a diverse class will eventually have to interact with each other. At this moment, humor, laughter and good fun can really lessen the tension and create an open environment. Remember that smiling faces are more likely to interact with each other.

If you are teaching abroad and in a situation where the class is the same nationality, this bridging of cultures between yourself and the students can take some time. Although you are the teacher, you are still existing within their culture. In other words, you are the foreigner and it’s on you not to horribly offend anyone, which would lead to a poor relationship. On the other hand, an ESL class is a language class and students cannot acquire the language if they are not speaking the majority of the time.

When I lived in Japan, there were times when I had classes of adult students, but nobody seemed willing to talk to their peers. It was as if they were all waiting for me. This is definitely a problem and can make for a long class. Again, humor, in this case, is the best solution. Make them smile, make them laugh and they will start talking.

Humor allows us to learn the language faster

If you are an ESL or language teacher, you may find the idea that humor helps us learn a language faster a bit humorous in itself. So go ahead and dismiss my argument because it is easy to do so. The reality is that you can prepare for a class all day, but if it is dry, boring and facilitated by the dictator that resides deep within your psyche, your students aren’t going to learn much. Humor keeps them on the edge of their seats. If they leave the class with a smile on their face, then they will be back for the next one. Learning a language is not equivalent to learning mathematics or computer programming. Learning a language touches our emotions and perspective of the world.

More importantly, humor allows for the understanding of sarcasm and the minor nuances of slang, expressions, and jokes within a language or culture. Speaking of which, isn’t language and culture really the same? Each a reflection of the other. Therefore to learn a language means that one must learn a culture, but to learn a culture, one must understand the sense of humor, phrases, and ways of thinking within a language. Personally, I’ve always used a lot of sarcasm when teaching. This includes dry humor, which is deeply rooted in English-speaking culture.

I feel that the injection of humor has benefited my students over the years. This cannot be empirically proven, but I believe so based on anecdotal observation. This is not to imply that you must adjust your personality in the classroom to become some sort of comedian or entertainer. Nor do you need to go out of your way to make a joke or act like a clown, which should never be done. Although students outside of the US and other English-speaking countries are generally not as PC and sensitive as we are, be careful not to offend. There is a fine line between being funny and offensive. The best advice is just to take every opportunity during a class to laugh with your students.

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About James Soller

James Soller taught English for four years in Japan and traveled throughout Asia and South America. These days, he spends most of his time building Wordpress sites, blogging and teaching others the nuances of digital marketing.

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