Humour in the Second Language Classroom

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The advantages of the presence of humour in everyday routine are unquestionably evident. Humour has often been said to cause the reduction of stress level, the increase of creativity and productivity, and, as a result, the general sensation of fulfilment.

Following Goodheart (1994), humour is the most efficient physical exercise. Psychologically, humour lowers anxiety, improves self-worth and self-esteem, increases motivation, and last but not least, it helps displace disruptive feelings with pleasurable emotions. Physiologically, it lowers blood pressure, improves circulation and respiration, reduces muscles tension, and releases endorphins - hormones responsible for the feeling of relaxation and enjoyment (ibid).

Throughout the years, educators and researchers saw no possibility to adopt humour into a foreign language classroom. They perceived humour as both nonessential and inapplicable. Korobkin (1988) states that before the 20th century dawned, lecturers found seriousness essential to be applied in the classroom. They regarded humour as a trivial and pointless activity that lured students off what was to be achieved and acquired. During the late "˜70s, however, researchers began studies on the role of humour in education. Those works proved the benefits of the humour implementation in education. Researchers confirmed that humour could significantly reduce stress and anxiety, which resulted in creating a convenient learning environment. The outcomes were also evident in the form of increased motivation, student-teacher rapport, learners' attentiveness and engagement, comprehension and retention of information.

This chapter provides an overview of recent research on the lecturers' use of humour in the second language classroom and students' responses to the studies. The literature review is divided into three main sections: the benefits of incorporating humour into the classroom, types and importance of using appropriate humour, and the presentation of recent case-related research findings.

The role of humour in the second language classroom

Most researchers support engaging humour as a tool for both: teachers and foreign language acquirers.

Humour represents a cognitive, emotional, and motivational stance toward incongruity, as inherent in funny artefacts, but also in inadvertently amusing situations, our fellows' behaviours, and attitudes, in fate and life and human nature and existence in general. The playful reception, enjoyment and generation of non-serious communication, the composed and cheerful view on adversity that allows to derive a light and positive side in a serious situation, maintaining good mood and enabling oneself and others to smile at it and be amused by the funny aspect, the purposeful use of wit to affect emotional state in others and regulate social relations (Ruch 1998: 19).

Torok, McMorris and Lin (2004), on the basis of their study imply, that appropriately used classroom humour "has the potential to humanize, illustrate, defuse, encourage, reduce anxiety, and keep people thinking" (2004: 19). The researchers agree that the use of humour can help establish the positive classroom environment, which fosters increased participation and learning, as well as a cooperative atmosphere. Such teaching strategy effects let the acquirers of a target language focus more effectively on the applied material as a result of increased motivation and self-confidence. It further leads to the improved ability of solving linguistic problems and developing memory and retention.

According to Deneire (1995), the superlative role of the use of humour in a foreign language classroom is to reduce tension, to gain student's interest, and to view teacher as a human being. Deneire notes, there are instructors that avoid exhibiting their "˜humanity' in a fear of losing their credibility or provoking chaos in a classroom. He, however, assures that it is not humour per se that brings about disruption and lack of discipline, but the inappropriate use of the humorous material. Furthermore, he implies that the judicious use of humour not only builds a positive relationship between students and their instructor, but also acts as an additional, effective strategy for teachers, and thus it is worthwhile employing in the second language teaching process.

Berk agrees with Deneire by persuading that humour "chops down, smashes, demolishes, even vaporizes the pre-existing barriers that separate [teachers] from [their] students" (2002: 4). He further adds that due to the lack of fear or intimidation there is a positive, constructive and relaxed communication between learners and instructors. It is based on respect and trust; it brings about satisfaction, as well as it fosters retention. Berk states that humour successfully develops communication, but also students' engagement, which he perceives as a key factor in learning. As he describes, the role of humour is to let students forget about their "˜distractions' and concentrate on the lesson target. This effect is obtained by engaging the incongruity as a basic form of humour presentation. The incongruity theory of humour states that humour comes from inconsistency between what one has been led to believe and the real state of the presented situation. This structure was introduced by Immanuel Kant and further studied by Victor Raskin (quoted after Berk 2002: 6) who distinguished between two elements of the incongruity structure: an expected content, which in terms of educational purpose is the lesson topic to be learned, and an unexpected twist or punchline, which describes an "outrageous spin or "¦ an outcome" (ibid). Following Berk, through the incongruity as a form of humour engagement students are taught in a way that systematically draws their attention to the content of the lesson, which ultimately improves their problem solving skills: divergent thinking and creativity.

Researchers and methodologists advise adopting humour in order to facilitate syntax and grammar acquisition. Trachtenberg (quoted after Pollak and Freda 1997), for instance, proves that humour not only promotes oral fluency but also has a great impact on the awareness of linguistic rules. Humour, as the researcher claims, acts equally efficiently as a methodological tool to provoke discussion and to introduce and practice new methods of expressing ideas. It, however, cannot be taught (Woolard 1996), as the explanation of humorous items makes them no longer funny. Woolard advises to let students discover the humour by and for themselves. In such situations, as Woolard states, learners develop problem-solving ability and are more likely to remember the content of the lesson. The author of Lessons with Laughter recommends not providing the students with any explanation of the humorous content. He notes, that when the student does not understand the humorous item, the solution should be discussed among the other students as such a response develops communication and decreases anxiety.

Types of humour in the second language classroom

Theorists distinguish between three main types of humour used for the purpose of a language classroom. They categorised various humour forms into textual/verbal, visual/figural and physical (Shade 1996: 4). A verbal type of humour engages words in a written or oral form, e.g.: jokes, wit, anecdotes; a visual humour employs various sources of images, e.g.: cartoons, comics, caricatures; a physical sort of humour involves the use of action: e.g. mimes, pantomimes, slapsticks (ibid). All the types of humour can be successfully implemented into the process of teaching/learning, provided that they are carefully chosen (do not harm) and lesson-related.

The age of students should be taken into consideration while deciding upon the type of humour to be implemented in the acquisition process. Bryant (Zillmann and Bryant 1983) claims that visual humour is the best type for young learners who respond with confusion when given verbal sort of humour (e.g. a satirical or ironic one). Bryant further posits that this group of students responds negatively to the related humour and thus it should be presented with humour not related to the subject matter to increase motivation and interest without evoking distraction. Older students, on the other hand, are able to think abstractly and distinguish between reality and the aspects of humour that are designed to be perceived as an exaggeration or an instance of sarcasm. These students respond well to the verbal type of humour and manage to acquire information best when the humour is related to the lesson subject. Radomska (2007) conducted a study to analyse the reception, understood as appreciation and comprehension, of humour with reference to the following ways of communication: verbal, visual, and verbal-visual. The research subjects were 10-year-old children and 15-year-old students. The findings clearly confirmed Bryant's observations. It turned out that visual humour was best understood and considerably better comprehended than verbal and verbal-visual one by the younger students. Within the adolescents verbal humour was understood and appreciated far better than the other two types.

Jokes and anecdotes

Jokes and anecdotes belong to a verbal type of humour. Students are given a written or an oral form of humorous items either to implement or practice a new TL material. Verbal humour is said to work as a stimulus that adds interest to the content of the lesson and helps memorize language structures. As Alexander argues (1997: 183), boosting learners' motivation constitutes the major function "for which verbal humour can be put to good use" by the teachers of a foreign language. As the author further explains it, humour may enliven a lesson if it does not overstretch linguistic abilities of the learners.

Jokes are examples of a verbal type of incongruity humour. They are told or written to bring about laughter, but also amusement, curiosity and reconsideration. Alexander (1997: 15) defines jokes as "the setting of the scene followed by the punchline; or a build-up culminating in a release or triggering process". Following Shade (1996: 3), this sort of humour can include "comprehending the multiple meanings of words, idioms, and metaphors; discovering ambiguity; and appreciating the unexpected or sudden change of perspective". Shade lists several types of jokes with reference to language-related humour (ibid). A phonological joke relates to the phonological formation of words, e.g. (Shade 1996: 3): -What is this? -It's bean soup. -I don't care what it's "˜been.' What is it now? A lexical joke comes from the variety of meanings of a certain word, e.g. (1996: 4): -What has 18 legs and catches files? -A baseball team. A surface structure joke is connected with the possibility of an alternative grouping of words, e.g. (ibid): -What kinds of flowers like to be kissed? -A tulip [two lip]. A deep structure joke is based on possible interpretations of phrases or words, e.g. (Shade 1996: 4): -What animal can jump higher than a house? -Any animal. Houses can't jump. A metalinguistic joke places its interest in the language form and not meaning, e.g. (ibid): -What's at the end of everything? -The letter "˜g'. As Shade explains (1996: 4), the language-related types of jokes help teachers develop students' "cognitive, linguistic and metalinguistic abilities" that are primarily engaged in "appreciation and comprehension" of these jokes.

A short text beginning with: "˜A man comes to a doctor and says"¦' would be a joke; a short monologue starting with: "˜Once, there was a man who came to a doctor and said"¦' would constitute an anecdote. Anecdotes are short stories that describe a single event, or occurrence and finish at a surprising, shocking or hilarious point. According to Plum (1989: 225 quoted after Christie 2002: 49), anecdotes are similar to narratives: they both focus on "a crisis element", which raises the listener's/reader's tension. Yet, while the narrative includes the resolution of the crisis (the tension finally falls), there is no such an element in the anecdote and its success depends on "a shared but essentially non-verbal response to the crisis, acknowledged by the interlocutors in a burst of laughter, a gasp of shock, or even a sudden silence" (Christie 2002: 49). Anecdotes are said to be related to real life and people; there are, however, examples of fictional anecdotes.

According to Cornett (1986), using jokes or anecdotes at the beginning of the lesson helps instructors gain students' attention and "put them in a more active mental state" (1986: 16). Following the author, students working on the humour-based texts show more engagement in the reading and the subject matter; they also find the lesson material more enjoyable and easier to comprehend and recall.

The importance of appropriate use of humour

Zillmann and Bryant (1983) revealed that merely adopting humour in a TL lesson is not sufficient to improve language acquisition and comprehension. Their research results showed that students' acquisition is mostly affected by the sort of humour as well as its applicability to the subject matter. Furthermore, they note that the relevant content of humour applied to language lessons increases retention of the ideas being taught.

The researchers also indicated that under certain circumstances humour can become damaging to the treatment: if implemented at the wrong time, it may bring about distraction; if humour is overused it can get out of the instructor's control and alter the classroom into a comedy stage; if it is engaged inappropriately (e.g. sarcasm, irony), it has the ability to ruin student's self-esteem, motivation, or cause distraction. Zillmann and Bryant (1983) insist that instructors ought to use humour as a natural part of a lesson plan in order not to evoke the effects of abuse or inappropriateness. Those teachers who do not find themselves comfortable with the employment of humour in the lesson should, as the authors claim, avoid forcing it into their classrooms. Additionally, if humour is not subject-related, the limited, thus priceless, lesson time may appear to be wasted, the students may misbehave and the acquisition of the information may be hindered. Zillmann and Bryant conclude that humour should always serve a specific purpose; it should not be aimless in terms of the lesson content (ibid).

Powell and Andersen (1985) have noticed that the misuse of humour, especially the verbal one, in the language content implementation carries another element of risk. Humour, due to its character, may seem completely opposed to the seriousness that usually defines teaching. The manner of verbal humour delivery, accordingly to Powell and Andersen, should be spontaneous, but most of all, adjusted to the instructor's personality. Furthermore, language teachers must avoid implying humour through insult or sarcasm. Only then will learners pay attention to the lesson without any unnecessary and unintended misunderstanding.

An unfavourable influence of the inappropriately used humour on the classroom atmosphere has been also observed by Loomans and Kolberg (1993), who studied the aspect of making a student the aim of ridicule. They found out that students who were the target of wit experienced various negative emotions, which resulted in adverse reactions including deterring students from further studying of the target language.

To conclude, the careful use of humour by teachers is a strong and effective tool to establish a positive environment, to promote creativity and to reduce tension. As Korobkin (1988) claims, instructor that engages humour judiciously sets students at ease and decreases essentially the inequity of the teacher-student interrelationship. Contrarily, inadequate use of humour develops an unfriendly learning environment that promptly disturbs communication and lowers self-esteem (Loomans and Kolberg 1993).

The recent research on the role of humour in SLA

A variety of research has been carried in the field of engaging humour in the classroom. Researchers comprehensively prove that employing humour in the process of language acquisition is pedagogically beneficial. Still, there are studies that outline no positive effects of using humour in the educational area. The aspect of humour as a pedagogical tool within the foreign language classroom rises numerous questions. Therefore, it is essential for the topic to be further examined and analysed from a diversity of contexts.

This section will present the recent findings on the role of humour in education, with regard to the issue of creating a positive learning environment, the impact on students' motivation, creativity and retention of information.

Humour and second language classroom atmosphere

Humour, as previously presented, has the ability to relax students, to reduce tension, and thereby to create a comfortable, unthreatened atmosphere beneficial to communication and acquisition. Kristmanson (2000), through his studies, confirms that foreign language learning takes place most efficiently in a supportive classroom.

In order to continue your language learning, you need to feel motivated. In order to succeed, you need an atmosphere in which anxiety levels are low and comfort levels are high. Issues of motivation and language anxiety are key to this topic of affect in the second language classroom (2000: 1).

The positive atmosphere in a target language classroom is one in which students are encouraged to actively use the second language in the lesson, and are respectively praised for their attempts and achievements. Ridicule, sarcasm and negative criticism are to be avoided by both the teacher and students. A properly used type of humour is the one that does not insult students. This supportive classroom, by decreasing anxiety and stress, encourages learners' desire to take part in class conversations (students are not afraid to speak and the language is perceived in realistic, yet funny situations). It also establishes creativity in the target language (Sever and Ungar 1997) and forms the positive relationship between the teacher and students (Loomans and Kolberg 1993).

Furthermore, Burgess (2000) affirms that establishing a humorous classroom (through judicious use of humour) helps prevent disciplinary problems before they appear. When teachers confront "˜difficult students' (disobedient ones) with humour they often notice its effectiveness in diffusing students' anger and hostility. A classroom that is transferred into a warmer and a more inviting one evokes positive associations, optimises acquisition and serves better retention. The reduction of tension creates a classroom where students are not afraid to try and to experiment. They are not taught and tested under rigorous expectancies, but have the ability to feel satisfaction from expanding their knowledge.

Ziv (1988) conducted a study, which let him agree that an engaging classroom, where students enthusiastically look for new challenges, enhances creativity and imagination, as well as it develops problem-solving skills. The results of Ziv's research proved that language acquirers who were provided with humourous materials and who were asked to use humour in their responses to the test questions achieved significantly better results on creativity tests than the students in the control groups (1988). Ziv finds that humour, creativity and cognition are closely related. The use of humour, as the researcher posits, increases the likelihood of students' developing the creative thinking process involved in problem-solving and hypothesis-testing activities (essential in inductive teaching of second language grammar). The substantial character of creative thinking is the ability to perceive situations from various points of view. Due to humour learners can perceive mutually incompatible frames of associative contexts (Pollak and Freda 1997). In other words, humour can help the language acquirers see a situation (e.g. rule) in two rational but drastically different perspectives (a learner is capable to look at one thing and see another).

Stirling (2004) conducted a study on the use of humour by graduate teaching assistants' (GTA) in the college classroom and its impact on students' behaviour and learning. Subjects involved a sample of 455 19-year-old students and 13 graduate teaching assistants. The surveys in the study lasted six months. The students were asked to answer seven questions that were designed to measure their humour orientation, their cognitive and affective learning and the GTA's humour use. In order to evaluate their cognitive learning the students were asked to answer two questions. The first one, for instance, expected students to assess their level of studying in the class they were attending through a scale from zero, being nothing, to nine, being everything. To measure their affective learning, students were asked to fill in a questionnaire consisting of five open-ended questions. The results presented that the use of humour in GTA's classroom proved to be a practical and helpful instrument for cognitive learning. The positive influence of humour on the learning environment was observed if the forms of humour were topical and appropriate (content-related). The favourable relationship was also observed between humour implementation and affective learning, and thereby learners' ability to recall and retain the lesson information. This confirms the researcher's hypothesis that humour-based lecture content, by forming a relaxed and creative learning environment, increases acquirers' ability to gain knowledge more efficiently.

Steele (1998) was another researcher that examined and successfully proved the positive influence of humour on decreasing students' anxiety and stress as well as supporting a learner-friendly environment. The subjects involved a sample of 65 second-year students of U.S high schools. They were presented a four-point scale and asked to respond in accordance to their agreement or disagreement with ten statements that concerned humour use in managing stressful school situations. The survey consisted of ten statements and responses in the form of numbers from one to five, with one being "˜strongly disagree' to five being "˜strongly agree'. The research questions were as follows (Steele 1998: 78): 1. Does humour reduce stress and tension in the classroom? 2. Does humour foster a more positive environment? 3. Is the student/teacher relationship enhanced by a degree of humour in the classroom? 4. What are the negative forms of humour that should not be incorporated into the classroom? 5. Can humour improve attention and facilitate learning and retention?

The researcher hypothesized that a humour-based classroom reduces the stress and tension and, as a result, is a significant classroom management approach. Findings supported the hypothesis; more than 55% of the students agreed that using humour by their instructor helped the learners in reducing their anxiety and stress. Students felt more at ease in participating and attending the classes. Students also reported the positive relationship between employment of humour in the classroom and creating a positive learning environment. The use of humour also resulted in forming a favourable rapport between the lecturer and the learners. The results proved that 65% of the students found the instructor who engaged humour in the lesson approachable. Furthermore, almost all students responded that humour increases their engagement and interest in the subject matter. The survey also examined the effect of using humour in the classroom on facilitating learning and retention with reference to a more complex subject matter. Majority of the students agreed that humour succeeds in accomplishing this goal and only 2% disagreed. Negative aspects of using humour in the classroom were also examined. More than one-half of the learners admitted that humour should not aim to embarrass or ridicule. To sum up, Steele's (1998) investigation indicated that students perceived humour as an effective tool in the classroom environment.

Parrott (1994) conducted a research on the role of humour in modelling acquirers' motivation towards learning. He proved that humour, indeed, positively acts on motivation by promoting comprehension, by increasing concentration and participation. The use of humour in a language class also showed influence on productivity, invention and abstract thinking. Provine (2000) also implies that among many arguments for engaging humour in the classroom there is the one, which discusses motivation. Due to the appropriately used humour, those students who are fearful or timid are enabled to take part in the lesson with the whole class by being given the perception of approval and unity within the group.

Askildson (2005) investigated the effect of employing verbal humour into a second language classroom. A Likert-scaled questionnaire was used to proceed with the study. The participants were 236 TL learners and 11 TL instructors. They were all studying or teaching at a postsecondary school. For gaining a variety of perspectives on humour, the participants were deliberately solicited from several language courses including: Italian, Spanish, English, French and Japanese. Answering a voluntary and anonymous questionnaire, research participants were questioned qualitatively on their perceptions of the effects of humour application within the target language classroom. The findings of Askildson"˜s research were as follows: Seventy eight percent of student subjects answered that humour significantly reduced affective obstacles to learning in the classroom. The use of humour by the teacher was the reason for students' feeling of relaxation. Sixty four percent of teacher respondents stated that the humour-based teaching approach made students more relaxed during the lectures. Eighty two percent of student participants and 100% of teacher participants indicated that humour engagement established a generally comfortable atmosphere conducive to learning. Seventy two percent of student respondents agreed that humour in the classroom raised their participation in language learning from a noticeable to a considerable degree, and 100% of teacher respondents indicated a corresponding perception. Eighty percent of student participants and eighty-two percent of teacher participants stated that the lecturer's use of humour built a positive and more approachable relationship between students and their instructor. Seventy four percent of student responses and seventy three percent of teacher responses confirmed the hypothesis that linguistic humour stand for a particularly helpful tool as for the acquisition of a target language is concerned.

The presented studies indicate that humour is successfully used as a didactic means for fostering positive, effective and tense-free communication. The use of humour raises the whole language class involvement, thus the learners participate in the humour-based process of language learning with the feeling of mutual trust and respect. The researchers proved that humour facilitates efficient acquisition of a second language, which carries no fear or intimidation (Berk 2002).

Humour and retention in second language acquisition

Several studies have been conducted to investigate the correlation between humour and the learner's capability to recall information. Researchers found out that while humour indeed brings acquirers' interest and regard to the language classes, it can also improve the long-term retention of the lesson information (Powell and Andresen 1985). Burgess (2000) implies that laughter and humour is an effective didactic tool, which attracts course participants' attention, and therefore helps them retain the information they receive. Furthermore, Ziv (1988) presents results, which imply that if the introduction of a theory is followed by a humour-based example, and next an explication of the theory is provided, test results are highly improved. Ziv therefore confirms the hypothesis that humour fosters recall and retention. As Korobkin (1988) explains, humour "creates unexpected images that become memorable because of their graphic oddity" (1988: 157). Korobkin also holds that information presented within a classroom gets longer retention when implied in a humorous manner.

There are also examples of research that showed no positive influence of humour use in the classroom on the retention of given information. Most of those studies, however, were carried out during one day and tested only a short-term memory. They are not, therefore, qualitatively objective as for the overall impact of the target language humour use in the classroom (Ziv 1988).

To follow with an example, Kaplan and Pascoe (1977 quoted after Desberg 1981) conducted a study in order to evaluate the results of using the lesson-related ("˜relevant') humour in the process of teaching and its impact on retention. The research instruments were two kinds of tests on comprehension and recall. The first test was administered right after the lesson and the second one was carried out six weeks after the treatment lesson. The findings showed no positive relationship between immediate comprehension and humour-based teaching approach, thus the researchers concluded that humour does not affect acquisition of information if the results are taken right after the treatment. Nonetheless, the outcomes of the second test indicated that the retention of information given in a humourous way was considerably more advanced than the one resulted from the nonhumourous lesson.

Desberg (1981) examined the effects of humour-based concept repetition on retention of the presented material. The subjects involved a sample of 100 undergraduate students. Research participants were randomly divided into four equal groups within each class. The subjects were next given dissimilar versions of a videotape lecture referring to a linguistic development. All four lectures involved presenting the same content but using different types of humour. One of the lectures engaged humour directly related to the items further tested. Another lecture used humour that was not related to the items being tested. "A joke was considered related if it was associated with the concept to be learned and recalled. The unrelated joke was not associated with the concept of the lecture" (1981: 2). The third lecture discussed the subject matter with no humour implemented. Finally, the fourth lecture aimed at repeating the concept, which preceded the related joke. It served as a repetition control condition (ibid). The research instruments involved a 20 multiple-choice items test. It was designed to compare the degree of recall between the concepts with and without jokes. The researcher employed also a five-point scale attitude questionnaire to gather data referring to subjects' attitudes towards the treatment and the lecturer. Desberg's study resulted in conclusions similar to those made by Kaplan and Pascoe. In certain circumstances, the use of humour was proved to facilitate retention of information. That is, repetition, whether or not through the use of humour, enhanced recall. Furthermore, the analysis of the questionnaire responses proved that the research subjects found the jokes in the related humour lecture more enjoyable and humourous than the ones engaged in the repetition lecture. Still, both the related and the unrelated humour lectures were perceived as more humourous than the repetition or the nonrepetition control ones. As Desberg concluded (1981: 4), "in the cases of rote learning, related jokes contribute by both repeating the concept and making the learning process more enjoyable".

Concluding remarks to chapter two

Findings imply that humour can operate as a positive motivation tool that reinforces learning and influences students' attitude toward lesson content. The use of humour in the classroom plays an important role in increasing students' self-esteem, as well as in reducing stress and tensions. It is also very significant in fostering retention, thus raising the amount of information acquired by students. Humour, as presented, is successfully employed to build an environment conducive to learning. It also creates a positive relationship between students and the instructor.

The studies on humour in the classroom prove a favourable bond between the implementation of humorous items and improving learners' participation in course activities. Research showed, that students get little benefit on their acquisition of immediate information when being taught with humourous methods. Their long-term retention of the lesson content, however, was remarkably improved by the use of humour.

The studies have demonstrated that humour, as a pedagogic device, is worth not only implementing in the classroom, but most of all, further exploration of its usefulness in improving second language acquisition.