Can Humor Be Taught in a Second Language

Douglas Wulf – Can Humor Be Taught in a Second Language?

Humor has a reputation for being unteachable. It’s hard to understand jokes in another language—usually people just, somehow, pick it up. It doesn’t help that humor was seen as a frivolous thing to teach when people could be learning more communicative skills.

But humor is a really important social skill. Verbal skill is an important tool for status. Without humor, second language learners lack a certain ability to attack, to defend (with humor to soften it), and to bond.

People have increasingly come to recognize this, so Dr. Wulf wanted to do a study to see if humor could be taught.


The participants were sorted by their language speaking level (with native as control) into beginner and advanced, according to the level they were in. All of the participants were given a copy of the pretest (with question order and answer choice order randomized), where possible punchlines were given to a short joke setup. Then, the subjects, other than the native speakers, were given an instruction on common humor patterns in English. After, all of the subjects were given the post test.

The categories of humor taught were: hyperbole, irony, misdirection, ambiguity, and banter. (Banter is defined as following a silly comment with a related silly company.)


Overall, everyone improved! Even better, the non-native speakers improved more than the native speakers. The group who was more advanced at English improved more than the less advanced group, and the irony group improved the most. Notably, misdirection saw some decrease. The controls sometimes did a little better and sometimes did a little worse.

Most significantly, everybody mostly ended up in the same place. In the pretest, people with different native languages performed very differently, ranging from 33.3% (the Thai speaker) to 64.2% (the average of the eight Chinese speakers), but by the end they were all from 71.1% to 80.8%. This heavily suggests the instruction had an impact.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *