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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.

Why Nerds Shouldn’t Make Languages

This meeting we were talking about constructed languages, so naturally, we wanted to try our hand at making our own language. It turns out that if you take a bunch of crazy nerds and tell them they can make up the rules…yeah.

We didn’t finish making the language, but there’s a basic structure. So far there are five sounds in the alphabet: ‘bo’, ‘ma’, [click], [ascending hum] (denoted as “m/”), and [descending hum] (denoted as “n\”), with more to be added as needed.  We collectively decided immediately that conjugation was stupid/boring (I’m possibly projecting…).

The first sentence we translated was: “I am shopping”.
I = [click]
shopping = bo-ma-m/

Now, tense. Tense is fun. We thought that it would clearly make the most sense for the word order to determine tense. If the verb is before the subject, past tense. If the verb is before the subject, future. Nobody really needs more specificity than that. Oh yeah, present. Present’s simple: You put the subject inside the verb. Duh. I guess that means all verbs are more than one syllable long…

I was shopping: [click] bo-ma-m/
I am shopping: bo-[click]-ma-m/
I will be shopping: bo-ma-m/ [click]

Best of all: I was shopping a long time ago = [click][long pause][bo-ma-m/]

I’m not sure if pauses can actually have meaning in language (I feel like that’s problematic), but we’re going with it.

This structure makes recursion odd, but fortunately, we figured out a simple solution. When a clause finished, we used a popping sound (made like kissing, except you’re kissing yourself) to denote that the next clause was nested inside.

For example, if you were to say “The store I was shopping at sucked”, you would say “the store sucked [pop] I was shopping there”.

Next time, we’ll either translate some more sentences or do NACLO puzzles.

History of Linguistics

Linguistics has a long and storied history…that mostly consists of people in other fields doing language-y stuff. But then Chomsky appeared! Because Chomsky. See the slides or read the notes below for details. Also, check out these links:

Finding patterns in language:

Recurrent neural nets are weirdly and awesomely effective:

Continue reading History of Linguistics