When trying to learn a language, a great way to go beyond simple comprehension and pained conversation is to learn how to tell and appreciate jokes in the language.
Learning a language is far more than simply comprehending vocabulary and grammar rules. Trust me – in my translation services work I’ve known colleagues who know every word of vocabulary and can explain in detail the most obscure grammar rules of a language, but do sub-par work anyway. The problem? They don’t have a deep understanding of the language and the culture behind it. Having a ‘feel’ for a language is just as important as an academic fluency.
So, if you’re learning a language, how do you get this deeper understanding? Especially if you can’t simply go live in the country and immerse yourself in the culture for a few months? I have a suggestion that might surprise some people, also drawn from my language translation work: Learn some jokes.
The Mysterious Engine
The old saying ‘dying is easy, comedy is hard’ is an absolute truth – as anyone who has ever opened a presentation with a joke that fell flat knows all too well. I can’t tell you how often in casual conversation I have said something that made the whole table burst into guffaws, and I have no idea why what I just said is considered so funny. Humour is a mysterious engine. That’s why plumbing some depths of how jokes work can be an amazing insight into a language’s soul.
When you can understand a joke and tell a joke and get laughter in response, you’re using language in a subtle way that goes far beyond simply imparting information – it’s like the difference between knowing a few phrases that get you through a few days in a country and having actual fluency where you can communicate your actual thoughts and feelings. Being able to master the fine art of the joke is like a master class in a language.
Just as important, learning jokes makes you feel like you’re part of the culture, because you understand why things are funny. Telling a joke successfully in another language – not just repeating words you’ve memorised, but actually composing a joke people find funny – means you’re ‘in,’ and that sense of inclusion is a powerful force that can inspire you to even higher levels of comprehension and comfort in the language you’ve chosen.
Just as important, displaying a sense of local humour will also make others in the country feel more comfortable with you, and they’ll speak more openly to you and be more tolerant of mistakes – and more willing to help. Being able to tell jokes in a language is very much like knowing the secret password to an exclusive club. Not only is it a good overall exercise in true comprehension instead of just rote memorisation, but it’s a lot more fun than studying dictionaries and repeating phrases about ordering coffee over and over again.
Image courtesy thescop.com