Funny In Two Languages

 In Cultural Immersion

The first weeks, months, maybe YEARS of your study of the English language may have been filled with false laughter.  Yours.  As an ESL student studying in the US you probably sat comfortably chatting with groups of native English speakers many afternoons and evenings.  But, I’m sure that there were moments when someone would tell a joke, and everyone would laugh.  Including you, even though you had no idea what was so funny.

Now that you’ve mastered English and have a deeper understanding of American culture, you are actually laughing along because you get the joke.  Congratulations!  You’re able to be funny in two languages, and you have a whole new set of jokes to tell back home.

Humor And Cultural Context

Humor is a natural part of communication.  It’s also a serious way to diffuse tension, challenge the status quo, and let people examine their innate bias.  According to some scientists even primates love a good laugh.  What humor isn’t—is universal.  What’s considered funny is culturally specific.  It takes an exceptional level of language and cultural understanding to “get” most jokes.

Physical humor is more easily understood across cultures.  Think of Buster Keaton in all those early silent films, or Chevy Chase in SNL.  This kind of broad humor has been around forever because it’s funny and accessible.  Even babies laugh when you make faces, and dance around.  Now, babies might be an easy audience, but it does point out how physical humor can help sell a joke.

Humor has cultural context.  When you’re translating an American joke you found especially sidesplitting bear that in mind.  Make adjustments, after all, a joke isn’t funny if you have to explain it.

Understanding humor is kind of the gold standard in language learning.  It means you have not only a fantastic level of language understanding—in this case English—but you also have a nuanced cultural understandingHumor and cultural context are inseparable.  Be mindful of this fact, and you’ll amuse, not offend your friends back home.

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