J is for Jokes

Ken BeattyDr. Ken Beatty

It felt like hours.

The joke my student was trying to tell perhaps took no more than three or four minutes, but it involved many clarification moves on my part (“I’m sorry, do you mean …?”) and repair moves on his part, hesitating, saying the wrong word, and then backing up to explain (“I mean ….”). At the end of it all, the disjointed story (“Oh, before that, I meant to say ….”) coalesced into an anecdote he’d read about a diner receiving a free meal at a restaurant after finding a cockroach in his soup. Afterward, the apologetic server humbly escorts the diner to the door and helps him with his coat when, unfortunately for the diner, a bottle full of cockroaches spills from the coat’s pocket.

I smiled weakly and nodded, but the student was far from finished; he felt compelled to explain the obvious: the bottle meant that the diner doubtlessly made a regular practice of obtaining free meals by this same deception. I nodded again, then gently steered the conversation back to the topic of the class.

Plateaus of language learning ascend from a base of knowing a few words and phrases, to asking yes/no and simple information questions, to using language to learn more about language (“How do you say ____ in English?”). Above those plateaus tower the mountains of dreaming in the target language and making jokes.

In part, jokes are challenging because they may violate some or all of Grice’s (1975) four maxims of how to best share information, summarized below:

Quantity—be concise
Quality—be accurate and truthful
Relation—be relevant
Manner—be clear, brief, and orderly

In the case of my student, there were several impediments to his telling the joke successfully. I suspect he hadn’t mentally rehearsed the story in English and was translating on the fly, so he was not concise. He did not have all the necessary vocabulary items at his disposal, so he was not accurate. In a conversation one expects a speaker to be truthful although in a joke the opposite is often true. But the context—or setup—usually needs to establish the fact that a joke is to follow, as with a well-known opening phrase like, “Three ____ walk into a bar and ….” This is akin to recognizing that the phrase “Once upon a time” signals the start of a fairy tale.

Alternatively, a joke might be introduced with a phrase such as, “Have you heard the one about ….” But the student did neither, so there was nothing to indicate that my class or I should suspend disbelief and understand that an untruthful story was being told for amusement. In the context of the classroom where the joke was delivered, I would have expected the student’s talk to focus on the learning of English as a second language, so it didn’t appear relevant. And because he rambled, he wasn’t clear, brief, or orderly.

However, many forms of jokes can be exploited in various ways in the language classroom.

The restaurant-cockroach joke my student told is an example of a genre of surprising narratives, one that illustrates aspects of human nature. Teaching such a joke might involve slicing the sentences into strips and asking students to reassemble them into a coherent story. In terms of key vocabulary, beyond the opportunity to illustrate simple restaurant terminology, students might be directed to focus on the various emotions experienced by the actors in the joke.

A related genre of joke is one that illustrates something thoughtful. A story can be shared, but rather than entertaining one with a ridiculous outcome, one learns something, often seeing an issue from a new perspective. An example of this kind of joke is told in Mark Haddon’s (2003) novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. The story is about an economist, a logician, and a mathematician traveling to Scotland when they see a single cow in profile outside their train window.

And the economist says, “Look, the cows in Scotland are brown.” And the logician says, “No. There are cows in Scotland of which at least one is brown.” And the mathematician says, “No. There is at least one cow in Scotland, of which one side appears to be brown.” (Haddon, 2003)

Part of the humor of the above story is the principle of the mighty brought low; seemingly intelligent professionals are shown to have flaws in their thinking. It’s the same slapstick humor seen when a dignified, wealthy man in a tuxedo slips on a banana peel and has an embarrassing fall. However, the same fall by a beggar or a child would be seen as pitiful or tragic. Jokes in which highly intelligent or otherwise able people are shown to be ignorant are a popular genre. And while Haddon’s joke is entertaining, it is also pedagogical; in the language classroom, one might use it to explore occupations or, more importantly, how logic works.

Far more popular in language classrooms are jokes, riddles, and puns that play on words. The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud wrote a book on humor and, among different types, he listed those with double meanings:

  • meaning as a name and as a thing
  • metaphorical and literal meaning
  • double meaning proper (play upon words)
  • double entendre
  • double meaning with an allusion (Freud, 1960, pp.76–7)

Double entendre jokes of a sexual nature are not used in the classroom, nor are jokes that include obscure allusions that students cannot be expected to know. But Freud’s other types are. For example, consider the riddle, “Why couldn’t Cinderella be a good soccer player?” The answer is that she lost her shoe, she ran away from the ball, and her coach was a pumpkin.

It is not the funniest riddle, but it illustrates the complex prior knowledge necessary for such a joke to be appreciated. One must know that Cinderella is a fairy-tale character and that her magical narrative involves a glass slipper (the shoe) and a trip to a formal party (a ball) in a carriage (a coach). We naturally think in images, and each of these images is, in turn, shattered by the answer to the riddle. The shoe is not a formal high-heel affair but rather one of a pair of soccer cleats. The ball is not a party but rather a faux-leather sphere to be kicked and the coach is not a thing but a person: an athletics instructor.

The humor of the Cinderella joke can be understood in terms of homonyms. Homonyms are words that have the same spelling and pronunciation but have different meanings. They are suitable for riddles that can be read. Other jokes and riddles rely on homophones—words with the same pronunciation but that feature different spellings and meanings, such as tale and tail. For this reason, they are best spoken.

Acquainting students with homonyms and homophones through jokes, riddles, and puns can make learning both more memorable and more enjoyable. However, the great enjoyment of any joke is seeing the point or reaching the conclusion on one’s own; explaining a joke is the best way to kill it.

“That’s all,” the writer said finally.

Tasks for Teachers
1. Here is a version of the restaurant-cockroach story. Slice each sentence into a strip and mix them up, challenging students to put them together into a coherent story. What strategies do they need to do so?

A man walked into a restaurant and ordered a bowl of soup.
The server brought the soup, but later, the man screamed.
The server went to see what the problem was.
The man pointed to a cockroach in his soup.
The server was embarrassed.
He gave the man an expensive meal for free.
As the man was leaving, the server helped him with his coat.
A bottle of cockroaches fell from the coat pocket.

Ask students to act out the story. Ask students to explain the story in their own words. Ask what emotions each character has at different points in the story, including anger, embarrassment, and happiness.

2. Ask students to collect and translate jokes from their first languages. Together, try to see how you can categorize them to create a typology of jokes. For example, some may be stories while others may be plays on words. Use these as a bridge to help students better understand jokes, riddles, and puns in the target language. Identify jokes that are the same in the target language and the students’ first languages.

Tasks for Learners
1. Homonyms are words that have more than one meaning. What are the different meanings of these seven words? How could two meanings be used in a joke or a riddle? For example: “Time flies like the wind; fruit flies like bananas.”

  • band
  • fair
  • ground
  • lie
  • pound
  • ring
  • toast

2. Homophones are words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings. Think of a riddle or a joke that uses one or more words from the following pairs. For example, “I wanted two pieces of fruit, but when I asked for a pair, she gave me only one.” (pair/pear).

  • ant/aunt
  • brake/break
  • close/clothes
  • flea/flee
  • horse/hoarse
  • paws/pause
  • toad/towed

Dr. Ken Beatty, Anaheim University TESOL Professor, has worked in secondary schools and universities in Asia, the Middle East, and North and South America, and lectures widely on language teaching and learning from the primary through university levels. Author of 130+ textbooks, he has given 300+ teacher-training sessions and 100+ conference presentations in 25 countries. His most recent books are in the Learning English for Academic Purposes series.

Freud, S. (1960). Jokes and their relation to the unconscious (J. Strachey, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton.
Grice, H. P. (1975). Logic and conversation. In P. Cole and J. Morgan (Eds.) Studies in syntax and semantics III: Speech acts, New York: Academic Press, pp. 183-98.
Haddon, M. (2003). The curious incident of the dog in the night-time. New York: Random House