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A joke may be fun in French, rude in German and dire in English. But wit, explains Michael Worton, doesn't have to travel to work

A joke may be fun in French, rude in German and dire in English. But wit, explains Michael Worton, doesn't have to travel to work

We all have our blind spots in the literature of the countries that we study and love. In my case, it is Voltaire's Candide. One of the greatest satires of the Enlightenment, it has defeated me for years because a well-meaning teacher kept telling us in a Scottish-inflected French accent that Voltaire was "tres amusant". Week after week, we stared blankly at her, as she dissected every joke and witticism, explained every historical reference, and decoded every veiled assault on religion, government, philosophy, etc, while inevitably pronouncing solemnly after each explanation that Voltaire was "le plus grand des ecrivains comiques". That was it: I fled comic writing, taking refuge in what I saw as the more exciting labyrinths of contemporary hermetic French poetry.

I was also scarred as a teacher by this episode. For a few years, I warily avoided anything "comic" in the classroom lest I, too, should become a pedagogic bore, so eager to demonstrate encyclopedic knowledge or illuminate cultural context that all enjoyment vanished from the reading of literature. However, language teaching is intrinsically fun. And, because it is all about communication and the difficulties that we have in understanding each other, it is always a two-way process, full of slips and slippages of meaning, graspings and losses of grammar, difficulties of expression and moments of joy at being able fully to say something complex in another language. Once we understand that every language, no matter how complex its grammatical structures or how vast its vocabulary, is simply one particular way of expressing the world, we are liberated not only to explore it enthusiastically but also to play with it. And all young people love playing with language.

So I cannot understand why so many people say that learning a language is difficult, since children love manipulating language, roaring in laughter at jokes and puns and creating new ways of using language, notably in "SMS-speak" and private slangs. By taking a playful and humorous approach to language teaching, we draw attention to the nature of language and to the cultural contexts that it underpins and makes possible. I am in no way suggesting that teachers should become stand-up comics in the classroom; that would be counter-productive since it would merely maintain them as the main focus of attention (and power). Rather, that the language being studied should also be the means of engaging pupils, encouraging them to participate in linguistic activities where laughter is a driver of learning.

When jokes and wit are part of the normal learning process, rather than being the subject of the learning, confidence grows and pupils use their own cognitive abilities to understand what is funny and why. Importantly, they discover this in a non-competitive atmosphere where mistakes and limitations have their place. Punning, beloved of children of all ages, is a particularly useful tool as pupils can laugh at examples in their native language, but then gain more enjoyment from working out just how and why the pun does not translate into the foreign language and vice versa. Through doing interrogative and interpretative work themselves, pupils learn that the relationship between language and meaning is arbitrary and culturally specific, and it encourages them to explore what it is about different cultures that makes people laugh at some things and not others and enables them to say some things but not others.

So much can be done when laughter is consciously incorporated into language-learning that it is astonishing that it is not more widely used. Part of the problem comes from the fact that teachers often fear losing authority in the classroom - and being "laughed at" is a sure-fire way of bringing that about. Many teachers are also nervous about how exactly to "be funny", and "humour in the classroom" is not a module found on most PGCE programmes. Furthermore, the scholarly literature on it is fairly sparse and often heavily theoretical. After all, humour has a long and very distinguished philosophical past, with theories of humour being developed by Plato, Aristotle and Homer onwards through Henri Bergson's 1900 magisterial tract on laughter to contemporary behaviourist and post- psychoanalytic theories. Of course, humour and laughter must have a serious pedagogical justification if they are to be used in teaching.

However, we all are familiar with - and rely on - laughter as a communicative lubricant. And it is precisely this ordinary, everyday dimension of humour that justifies its place in the successful language- learning classroom. Whether teachers operate through shared joke-telling, punning games, cartoons, wit or whatever, the ripples of laughter will liberate all pupils to learn better and be more cognitively alert. Above all, teachers and pupils will repeatedly discover together that languages, like the world they represent, are strange and complex and that language learning really is fun.

Michael Worton is vice-provost and Fielden professor of French language and literature at University College London. He led the Government's recent review of language provision in HE

I say, I say, I say.

1. Puns

T'as deux poussins. Tu n'en veux plus qu'un, qu'est-ce que tu fais? T'en pousse un (poussin).

2. Tongue-twisters

Pupils can also experiment with tongue-twisters (des virelangues), seeing how well they can manipulate the spoken language, as with: Ce chasseur sait chasser sans son chien, dit le sage garde-chasse, chasseur, sachez chasser sans chien!

3. Culture clashes

A class on fairytales could be enlivened by discussions of whether jokes arising from them transcend specific national cultures, as in the case of Little Red Riding Hood (Le Petit Chaperon Rouge):

- Grand-maman, as-tu de bonnes dents?

- Malheureusement non, ma petite.

- Tres bien! Peux-tu surveiller mes caramels?

4. Rhymes

And a class on poetry could study the difficulty of finding rhymes:

Le professeur demande a Guillaume, lors d'une lecon sur les rimes, de donner un exemple. Alors Guillaume dit:

- Dimanche, je suis alle a la chasse aux grenouilles,

et dans le ruisseau j'avais de l'eau jusqu'aux. genoux.

- Mais Guillaume, ca ne rime pas du tout!

- Ce n'est pas ma faute, il y avait trop d'eau!

Top language resources

These have all been tried, tested and reviewed by MFL teachers on TES Resources:

KS1 - Balloons, numbers and coloursA quick and fun way to help pupils remember the basics. Shared by Janice Horricks

KS2 - ClothesVetementsA great resource for introducing items of clothing and adjective agreement. Shared by emilie89

KS3 - Les Vacances - Le Passe ComposeA colourful worksheet about a past holiday that helps pupils practise the passe compose and verbs formed with etre. Shared by hmgibson

KS4 - Booklet for conversationThis resource provides GCSE French pupils with useful revision for their oral exams. Shared by flora79

A-level - L'histoire de RachidaA great reading comprehension exercise on immigration. Shared by Aureliebh

All resources and links can be found at



1. You have two chicks. You want to have only one, so what do you do? You push one of them out.

2. This hunter knows how to hunt without his dog, says the game-keeper. You, hunter, should learn to hunt without a dog.

3. "Grandmother, do you have good teeth?"

"Alas, no, my little one."

"Great! Can you look after my toffees then?"

4. The teacher asks Guillaume in a lesson on rhyme to give an example, so he says: "On Sunday, I went fishing for frogs,

and in the stream the water came up to my. knees"

"But, Guillaume, that doesn't rhyme at all!"

"It's not my fault, the water was too deep!" (Chevilles - ankles - would have rhymed).

Original print headline: Pourquoi le poulet a-t-il traverse la rue.?

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