English Language Humor Training (Word Play) for Non-Native English Speakers

In the March 30 article devoted to the 4th Humor Habit, Learning to Create Your Own Verbal Humor, I noted in passing that non-native speakers of English generally have an especially difficult time learning to understand jokes in English.  I saw this problem first hand while living in Paris (for three years) and when providing humor programs in Sweden, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and France.

When I provide programs on improving your sense of humor in the English language to an international audience, there is always an obstacle with the 4th Humor Habit because I can only demonstrate it in English.  Since playing with the language system itself is always the last thing mastered when learning a second language, my approach is to use English word play examples as a model and then ask people in my audience who are fluent in two languages to think of an analogous word-play joke in the other language (e.g., German or Swedish).  This helps communicate what needs to be done to improve this part of one’s sense of humor in the audience’s own native language.

The Impact of Using English as the International Language for Business upon YOUR Sense of Humor

As English increasingly became the international language used in connection with the increasing globalization of all kinds of business, it became very clear to me that a tool was needed to help employees of international companies develop a key skill that has almost always been lacking—the ability to understand and create jokes in English.  I have seen endless numbers of international employees (for whom English is a second language) who have achieved a high level of mastery of English and can meet all of the basics demands of communication required for their job—except one!

What is lacking is the ability to engage in informal “bantering” and joking around within English.  This leads them to be judged as very serious and formal people—even though they may not be like this at all when speaking their native language.  I have discovered that two tools—which I actually initially developed for native English speakers—turn out to be especially effective in building the (language-based) humor skills of noon0native speakers of English.

The Tools Non-Native English Speakers Need to Build English Verbal Humor Skills

These tools are presented in my books, Stumble Bees and Pelephones and Small Medium at Large.  (See “Books by Dr. McGhee” for ordering information.)  Each book is designed to build skills at playing with the English Language.  The former was actually written for seven- to eleven-year-olds, while the latter was written for teenagers and adults.  After writing the book for children, I recalled that during my years living in Paris, puns in French (jeux de mots) were actually much funnier to me than the same kind of pun in English.  My own early research with children established that the amount of mental challenge required to “get” a joke played an important role in determining its funniness.  Jokes are funniest (other things being equal) when they’re neither too easy nor too difficult to understand—somewhere in the middle, so that they pose a bit of a mental challenge to understand.  Puns in your native language aren’t very funny, because they’re just too easy to get; we process them too quickly.  Put the same kind of joke into your second language and it becomes funnier because you have to work just a bit harder to get it.

So if you are a non-native speaker of English, you can expect the kinds of puns you find in children’s humor to be funnier than they would be in your native language.  This is important, because I have learned that this is exactly where you need to begin to boost your ability to play with the language system in English.  Among adults who have English as a second language, and who have used each of these two books to build their verbal humor skills, the outcome is always better when the children’s humor book is used first.

Just as you learned to enjoy and create basic puns in your native language before moving on to more sophisticated forms of verbal humor, learning to create the same kind of basic puns in English (as a second language) is the stepping stone you need to then move on to building skills at other kinds of (adult) verbal humor in English.  A few examples from each book are provided below to show you how this program works.

The biggest obstacle with any new language and culture is having the knowledge required to get the joke.  These two books presume that you do have the required knowledge.  In some cases, however, this will not be true for you; you will lack a key piece of information required to get the joke.  But even when you DO have the knowledge needed to understand the punch line, the problem is that you don’t have the HABIT IN ENGLISH of quickly moving back and forth in your mind between the two meanings of the key word that forms the pun (or other ambiguous phrase).  What Stumble Bees and Pelephones does for you is build that habit is quickly accessing both related meanings of the key word or phrase.  And, quite simply, the more often you do this with many different words and phrases, the more accustomed your brain gets to accessing the necessary information in English.

Completing the children’s jokes and riddles prepares you to then move on to the adult-level jokes in Small Medium at Large.  After completing the 500 jokes in that book, you’ll be well on your way to spontaneously playing with the English language.  You will find yourself actually thinking of puns and coming up with other types of verbal humor in the midst of spontaneous conversations in English.

Building Skills at Playing with English: The Basic Approach

The basic concept behind the programs for developing both children’s and adults’ verbal humor skills is the same; namely leaving out a key word or phrase in the punch line of a joke and then providing one or more clues to get you thinking in the right direction without giving you’re the answer.

For the children’s riddles and jokes, three clues are given, getting you a little closer with each clue to the “ah ha” insight that occurs when you understand the joke (which, in turn, leads to the “ha ha”).  For this to work as a skill-building tool, you must be sure to cover up the next clue in each case so that you are obliged to search your mind anew with each clue.  This helps develop the quick and automatic brain search of the information you already have in your head.  This is well developed and happens automatically in your native language, but must be actively cultivated in English.

For the adult jokes in Small Medium at Large, only one clue is give to get you thinking in the right direction.  For both the children’s and adult jokes, it is essential to always make the effort to think of a joking answer yourself before checking the joking answer provided at the end of the book.

Children’s Jokes and Riddles

[Remember, these are jokes for seven- to nine-year-olds.  Don’t worry about how funny they are to you.  The goal here is to build the mental habit of having all the extra meanings associated with an English word quickly pop into your mind.  Doing several hundred of these does just that.  For the jokes below, be sure to cover the answer to # 2 when you check the answer for #1, etc.]

1. (A simple kids’ joke)  What boats can you always buy at a reduced price?  _____ boats.  (Answers to all jokes are given below.)

First clue: These boats have no motor.

Second clue: What do you call it when a store lowers its price for an item?

Third clue: These boats are powered by the wind.

2. (A medium-difficulty kids’ joke)  Mary: “You’ve had a headache all day.  You should take something for it.”

John: “OK, I’ll take ______.”

First clue: It’s not a medicine.

Second clue: Focus on an extra meaning of the word “take.”

Third clue: How much is it worth?

3. (A more complex kids’ joke)  There was a man who loved only two things in life, baseball and poetry.  But he was terrible at both.  No matter how hard he tried, he went from _____ to _____.

First clue: If you understand baseball, use the first word to swing.

Second clue: The first word is also a flying mammal.

Third clue: The second word is another word for poetry. 

Adult Jokes

4. (An easier adult joke)  Why are surgeons funnier than other doctors?  Because they keep their patients __________.

Clue: Another way to say they keep their patients laughing.  (This joke is very culture-bound.)

5. An elderly woman, assumed to be unconscious, is wheeled into the emergency room.  The paramedic says, “She’s critical!”  The woman opens her eyes and says, “_________!  __________!”

Clue: How might she react to the other meaning of “critical?”

Answers to jokes:

  1. Sail (sale)
  2. $20 (or any other amount of money)
  3. bat / verse (a familiar phrase in English is to go “from bad to worse”)
  4. in stitches
  5. I am not!  You’re doing fine!

Final reminder: If you get either of these two books, be sure to use an index card (or something similar) to cover the item you’ll be working on next.  Otherwise, you’ll accidentally see the answer to the next joke, and this will rob you of the chance to use it as a skill-building exercise.

Copyright owned by Paul McGhee.  This article may not be reproduced without written permission granted by Paul McGhee.