The Most Difficult Things to Learn in Any Language: Humour

Learning a new language comes with a multitude of challenges: unfamiliar sounds to wrap your tongue around, a different set of words to express your ideas with, and a new grammatical system, as well as all of the exceptions that come with it. Plus, if you’re learning a language that uses a different alphabet to your native tongue, you may even find yourself learning to read and write all over again.

But many of the most difficult things to learn actually come after you’ve got a pretty good understanding of grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. This is the first post in a series called “The Most Difficult Things to Learn in Any Language”, where we’ll discuss some particularly tricky aspects of language learning and how to tackle them. So let’s kick it off with one of the trickiest, no matter what language it is that you’re trying to learn:

Understanding humour.

A joke is never funny once you’ve had to explain it, but let’s give it a go anyway.

There’s actually a whole area of study dedicated to how humour works and what makes things funny. Really. All of these theories differ somewhat in the details, but most of them suggest that humour involves some element of incongruity – after we’re presented with a “typical” situation, something absurd happens and challenges our expectations.

To clear things up, let’s take a look at an example. Linguist Victor Raskin often uses the following one to make his point:

“Is the doctor at home?” the patient asked in his bronchial whisper. “No,” the doctor’s young and pretty wife whispered in reply. “Come right in.” (Raskin, 1985)

The typical situation? A patient with a bronchial whisper asks if the doctor is in.

Our expectation? He wants to see the doctor.

The incongruity? The wife says the doctor is not in, but asks the patient to come in anyway.

How does this challenge our expectations?  We assumed that the patient wanted to visit the doctor, but it seems he might be about to spend an afternoon with the doctor’s pretty young wife instead.

So what is it about all of this that is so difficult when we’re learning a new language?

Well, in order to understand the joke, we need to be able to follow what the joke-teller is saying, even when something unexpected happens.  And that means that we can’t simply rely on context to understand what’s going on. That can be a little scary, because context is a really important tool for language learners. Even if we’ve never heard a word before, our knowledge of context can help us make sense of the situation anyway.

Here’s an example. Imagine I’m standing in the kitchen with a German friend, who turns on the kettle and says:


Maybe I don’t know the word “Tee”, but I know that the kettle has just been turned on. I link the question to this event, and I know that there are only a few reasons to turn a kettle on. Even if I can’t be sure if I’m being asked if I’d like a cup of tea or some instant coffee, I at least know that I’m not being offered a towel, or a tractor, or even orange juice.

Will this reliance on context ever fail me? Sure. Is it still a valuable tool? Absolutely, and if I’m new to a language it might be one of the few tools I have to understand what’s going on.

When it comes to humour, on the other hand, there’s often a reference to something unexpected given the original context. Alternatively, that context has a different implication than what I initially realised.

There are some additional complications, too. Jokes in a new language often involve allusions to well-known elements of the culture – famous musicians, films, works of literature, etc.

We’ve also got puns – plays on word which exploit the fact that a word has more than one meaning, both of which I need to know in order to get the joke. For example:

Jokes about unemployed people are not funny. They just don’t work. (Source.)

The joke? “Work” can mean “to labour” or it can mean “to function”. (Whether you find it funny or not might be another story…)

See? Humour is really complicated! It can involve surprising twists, cultural references, and words with multiple meanings.

Does that mean that we’re doomed to a colourless, unfunny life in our new language? Of course not. Let’s talk about what we can do to improve our ability to understand humour.

Tip Number 1: Get familiar with children’s jokes

Can you think of a segment of the population of native speakers who have a smaller than average vocabulary and knowledge of cultural references? A group that just hasn’t been around long enough to learn all of those things just yet?

That’s right. Children. Children have a limited vocabulary. Most children probably don’t know who Claude Francois, Michael Bolton, or Lena Meyer-Landrut are. They usually don’t know what it means to be “unemployed” and can’t tell you how many meanings of the word “work” exist. Not yet at least. And yet most of them will turn into adults with a fully-developed sense of humour.

Even before that, children love jokes. Often, they’re jokes that involve fewer cultural references and less advanced vocabulary, so to train your sense of humour and learn more about what’s funny in your new language, take a look at some good children’s jokes.

Tip Number 2: Immerse yourself in the culture

Your knowledge of the culture surrounding the language will grow as your experience in a new language increases, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get a head start. Ask some native speakers (or Google) what music, art, and literature is particularly famous amongst speakers of that language. For many languages this might depend on the variety of the language that you want to learn.

Let’s take English as an example. Try asking a British person if they’ve ever heard of the Canadian television show “Corner Gas”, and prepare yourself for some blank stares. If you’re planning to live in the UK or intend to communicate mostly with speakers of British English, then you may not find Canadian cultural references particularly useful, so consider concentrating on British culture first.

Tip Number 3: Challenge your sense of context

As I mentioned above, humour often involves a shift in perspective that affects the way that we understand the original context of the joke. To some degree, we simply have to understand the language well enough to follow what’s going on, but sometimes, we understand all of the words perfectly.  We’re just caught off guard because we were expecting something else to happen.

As with anything, practice makes perfect – so find a few jokes in your new language. Read about half of each one, and see if you can figure out what direction the joke is heading in. Explore all of the possibilities you can think of, and try to find alternatives. This critical analysis may also give you some insight into what speakers of the language find particularly funny and identify patterns in what they tend to joke about.

Not feeling the critical analysis approach? Then expose yourself to as much comedy as you possibly can. Attend comedy nights, watch funny shows and films, read funny books, and listen to satirical songs. The more exposure you get, the faster you’ll crack the humour typical to that culture.

Tip Number 4: Don’t get discouraged

This one is really, really important: don’t get discouraged if you don’t understand a joke. The more you live a language, the more experience you will gain, and that experience will improve your understanding of all aspects of the language, including humour. Sometimes a joke might go over your head, or sometimes you won’t realise until later that it was a joke at all. That’s ok, it happens, but with experience it will happen less.

But remember: just like in your native language, there are some things that you will get, but simply never find funny. And that’s ok, too.

What’s your experience with humour and learning a new language? Ever had a joke just go way, way over your head? Are puns ever funny? Let me know in the comments below!

Image by THOR (Laughing in Cannes) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

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