English writer J.B. Priestley said, „Comedy, we may say, is society’s way of protecting itself with a smile.” We all love to smile and we all love to laugh. Jokes and the world of comedy have a very large potential to help English language learners perfect their story telling skills, as well as gain new vocabulary and heighten their cultural awareness.
I started learning Polish when I was 25 years old and I quickly realised that living in the country provided amazing opportunities for learning. I was learning in almost every interaction that took place. Even just sitting on the bus and reading signs – I was learning. Nevertheless I discovered that when I was tasked with trying to recount a humorous anecdote to dinner guests or talk about something amazing that had happened to me it was as though I was hitting a huge linguistic barrier. My communication skills just shut down. I could conjugate verbs and tell you that a ‘zszywacz’ was a stapler in English but I couldn’t tell a basic story. I realised that I had very poor speaking skills and no fluency.
To solve this problem I developed an interesting strategy. I would wake up every morning and learn the basic gist of a joke from my favourite website at the time – humorki.pl. I would then go out to the shop on my way to work and tell the joke to the shop keeper. Once I got to my work I would tell the joke to the receptionist. On my way home I would stop off at the shop once again and tell the joke to the shopkeeper’s wife who had taken over for the evening shift. That’s at least three opportunities to practise retelling the same anecdote in order to build up the skills needed for narrative tenses.
Telling a story in English is a very challenging process for learners because it uses the co-called narrative tenses which differ slightly from a kind of quick-turn speaking or listing that occurs very often in English.
- A:Hey Bob.
- A: How’s it going?
- B: Not bad.
- A: You going to the match?
- B: No I can’t.
- A: Why? What’s up?
- B: I have to work.
- A: What did you do this weekend?
- B: Oh I just stayed at home, watched a movie, ate some pasta and went to bed. The next morning I woke up early and went for a jog.
*notice that only one tense is used in the answer.
Last night when I was coming home from work a strange looking guy approached me and asked me for some money to buy food. I could see that he had been drinking and I didn’t think he would buy food with it.
*notice the grammatical complexity
The Anatomy of a Joke
A joke can be divided into two main parts; the set up – the long story which gets us ready for the 2nd part of the joke – the punchline. The punchline is the single most important part of the joke and it is crucial that it is ‘delivered’ flawlessly, with great confidence and with the expectation of success. The ‘delivery’ is what comedians call the ‘way’ in which you tell the joke. It has been said that a good comedian with an exceptional delivery could just read a menu and it would be funny.
In English if you develop the skill of joke telling then you are, by default, good at story telling. Telling a joke requires you to focus people’s attention on certain parts of the joke that may be important for the punchline to be fully understood and other parts can be de-emphasized as just ‘filler’ in the anecdote. By becoming a great joke teller, you have developed your narrative tenses as well.
Listening to stand-up comedians is a great way to broaden your vocabulary (obviously) even more than you may know. The language is usually of a colloquial/very informal nature and you get a variety of sentence constructions and vocabulary that you don’t often find in textbooks. What’s more, humour is where language and culture become deeply intertwined and often the ability to ‘get a joke’ means that you have to understand the culture as well.
Puns are jokes that require that you know two potential meanings of a word. Consider the joke:
Did you hear about the doctor that had to shut down his clinic? Yeah he didn’t have any patients. (patience)
That is a relatively simple example of a pun but they can become increasingly sophisticated in terms of level of irony, surprise and word play all intertwined.
My grandmother loved following Zodiac. She was a Cancer which is quite ironic when you find out that she actually died because of ….a giant crab
The second pun needs you to know what Zodiac is and what the two potential meanings of ‘cancer’ are.
Some comedians are fast and energetic and some are slow, cerebral and dry. Regardless of what makes you laugh listening to comedians can really help you develop your vocabulary and listening skills and if you have the skill to emulate what they do then you are a large step closer to becoming a better speaker. There is a strong argument that perhaps comedians are the Master Speakers of their language.
If you enjoy watching stand-up comedy in English or have a favourite comedian then let us know in the comments below. Have you ever tried telling a joke in English? It’s not as easy as you may think but don’t let that stop you from giving it a try.
Cerebral – requiring you to use your brain
Flawless – without mistakes or physical shortcomings