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Can Humor Help Language Learners?

Memes, the viral pictures and videos shared widely on social media, might offer more than just a chuckle. They could be one of the most effective ways to incorporate humor into language learning.

A new study by Dr. Peter Neff, a professor at the Faculty of Global Communications at Doshisha University, looked at the ways humor can be used in language learning classrooms.

This is not the first study to focus on humor in language learning. A 2011 study found that humor in the classroom can improve the classroom atmosphere. But this was one of the first research endeavors to examine different humor strategies, such as props, memes, and cartoons.

After surveying 243 participants, Neff and his team found that certain humor strategies work best in foreign language classrooms.

“[S]tudents like their humor to be spontaneous and enjoy verbal humor more than any humor that employs element of artifice, which may be perceived as childish,” Neff said in a press release.

Laughter is Allowed

For this study, the researchers wanted to determine if foreign language students have a preference when it comes to humor strategies and if these strategies actually enhance the language learning experience.

To answer this question, the researchers surveyed foreign language learners from around the globe. About half of the participants were studying English as a second language.

The survey provided exciting results. Overall, foreign language students were open to humor in the classroom as long as it didn’t feel forced.

Cartoons and memes were some of the best ways of using humor in the classroom environment.

This is consistent with a 2021 study that also supported using memes to enhance language teaching. For this study, memes were incorporated into a vocabulary lesson. The researchers found that the memes “could spark moments of laughter” and helped promote “the students’ proficiency level.”

Another research project from earlier this year found that memes could help with grammar teaching in foreign language classes.

Foreign language teachers could consider using memes or cartoons as an engaging project. Language students could create their own memes using vocabulary words, for example. But as the research shows, for this to be effective, teachers should not make the use of humor feel over the top.

Don’t Try to be a Comedian

In the study, the researchers found that students appreciated it when teachers joked about something that went wrong instead of criticizing their mistakes. This made the language learning experience feel lighthearted and fun instead of dry and stressful.

However, this can also go too far. Students really don’t like it when their foreign language teachers try to be the center of attention.

According to the study, language teachers shouldn’t use props or make faces when trying to convey humor. Ultimately, humor should be used to break any tension and connect with students. It can be used to encourage experimentation in language learning – but not as a dress rehearsal for the teacher’s stand-up routine.

If students are focused on their language teacher’s cringy jokes, it will be much harder for them to engage in the actual lesson and build their foreign language skills.

Want to read other fascinating language stories? Check out the ALTA Beyond Words Blog for more.

Stephanie Brown is a New York City-based travel blogger and freelance content creator.
You can find her at The Adventuring Millennial.

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