The idea for this dissertation evolved from the following question: why do second language learners find it so difficult to understand and appreciate humour in the target language? Many learners, even those with a high level of proficiency, confess to being perplexed by jokes or witty stories in the target language. Understanding of a joke may come with explanation but the humorous effect is destroyed in the process. What is it about humour that proves so problematic? Does the problem lie in the mechanisms at work in humour, in the structure of humour itself ? Does it stem from more general linguistic difficulties, such as poor listening or reading skills on the part of a learner? Or does the problem reside in extralinguistic factors, in elements of humour which are pragmatic or sociocultural in nature?
Taking English as the target language to be discussed, I first considered sociocultural factors. Clearly a non-native speaker would not be privy to a vast store of knowledge, a lot of which might be the subject matter of jokes. A lack of familiarity with, say, political figures in the target language environment would restrict the learner’s appreciation of political satire. Without this background knowledge, huge areas of humorous interaction would be inaccessible to the non-native speaker.
Next I thought about problems within the language itself. Obviously, if a language learner had not attained a fairly high level of proficiency, the problems associated with understanding humour would be the same as those associated with overall language comprehension. So if a learner has real problems with her listening skills, these problems will manifest themselves whether she is listening to someone recounting a funny anecdote, or to the television news. Likewise, if a learner possesses a somewhat limited vocabulary, the presence of unfamiliar lexical items will hinder that learner’s comprehension of any spoken or written text, regardless of whether or not it is humorous.
Clearly the initial question had to be modified slightly. It was important to focus only on learners of English with a high level of proficiency. Such learners still have difficulties understanding humour, yet in many other areas of target language interaction they can function almost as well as native speakers. I decided, therefore, that any subjects employed in the course of my research would have to be highly proficient; have been living in an English-speaking environment for at least a couple of months prior to this study; preferably be working or studying in the target language environment; and be able to function in most of the interactive situations that would be commonplace for a native speaker.
The purpose, therefore, of this dissertation is to address the question: what problems do advanced learners of English face when trying to understand English language humour? My aim is to highlight certain areas which repeatedly cause difficulties for students of English. I will not be addressing pedagogical implications of my findings. There is insufficient space here to tackle the question of how humour can be made more accessible to learners in the classroom context. As I will explain throughout the dissertation, for now it is simply necessary to focus attention on the problems (linguistic and non-linguistic) posed by target language humour. I shall examine these problems in some detail, highlighting the following points:
(a) sociocultural knowledge is important in understanding much humour. Lack of such knowledge is a barrier to non-native speakers; but
(b) the role of linguistic (or systemic) features of humour tends to be underestimated by language teachers and, indeed, language learners themselves. There are large gaps in the linguistic knowledge of even advanced learners which make an understanding of target language humour difficult to attain;
(c) pragmatic humour is not based on systemic features but operates at the level of discourse. Claims that this brand of humour might be more accessible to language learners may be premature.
I shall now give an outline of the structure of the dissertation.
The purpose of Chapter One is to construct the theoretical framework within which the issues arising from the empirical study will be discussed. I have had to be selective in my treatment of the theoretical study of humour. The subject of humour has proved a fertile one for many thinkers down through the history. Numerous philosophers, from Aristotle and Plato, through Hobbes, Kant and Schopenhauer to Henri Bergson, have pondered the nature and purpose of humour and laughter. With the publication of Freud’s Der Witz (Jokes and their relation to the unconscious) in 1905, the analysis of humour entered the domain of psychology. It is beyond the scope of this dissertation to discuss all the theories that have been proposed. I shall concentrate on the linguistic analysis of the mechanics of humour. Accordingly, Chapter One will look at humour as a linguistic phenomenon.
In section 1.1 I shall outline what it is learners have to know in order to be able to understand humour in a second language. I will emphasise that humour is a complex network of elements. I will make the points that advanced learners of English have not mastered all of the systemic features of the language and that these features are vital in decoding English language humour.
In section 1.2 I will situate the discussion of humour within the context of incongruity theory. The concept of schemata will be introduced. Schemata are the patterns we impose on events in the world. I will show how experiences which do not fit into our schemata create an incongruity, which often leads to humorous results. In section 1.3 I will look at another of the foundation stones of humour - the phenomenon of ambiguity. I shall describe how ambiguity can operate at different levels of linguistic analysis, from the phonological to the semantic. Following on from this, section 1.4 will examine the role of punning in humour, referring again to the notion of schemata.
In section 1.5 I will look further at the structure of humorous utterances by giving an overview of Palmer’s (1987) idea of what it is that constitutes an individual gag. The purpose of section 1.6 is to bring together the disparate threads that wind through the chapter - the notions of schemata, incongruity, and ambiguity - and use them to highlight the linguistic difficulties confronting non-native speakers of English in their attempt to understand humour.
In section 1.7 I will discuss pragmatic humour. I will show how violation of Grice’s (1975) maxims of discourse can have humorous consequences. I shall also consider the idea (Richardson 1989) that students of English may find pragmatic humour easier to comprehend than humour which revolves around play on systemic features of language.
Having looked at the theoretical issues in the first chapter, Chapter Two will examine issues relevant to the particular mode of empirical research to be employed. In this chapter I will have to take into account any factors which will have a bearing on the empirical study, and decide how important these factors are. In section 2.1 I will explain my choice of medium for the study - video. I shall look at how video is a useful medium for showing examples of language in context. I shall also explain why it is highly suitable for classroom use. The section will conclude with a brief description of the important characteristics of television situation comedies.
Section 2.2 will contain an examination of the potential influence of non-verbal cues to laughter on the subjects’ responses in the study. This is an important section, as it makes the transition from the more abstract treatment of the mechanisms of humour in Chapter One to an examination of the specific factors at work in the empirical study. In section 2.3 I shall explain why I chose Fawlty Towers as the sitcom to be used.
In section 2.4 I will give a detailed description of the empirical study. I will explain the format and duration of the study; the background of the subje; and the purpose of the questions asked in each session. I will look at each questionnaire in turn, pinpointing the particular moments in each episode that I was interested in focusing on.
In Chapter Three I will present the findings of the empirical study. I will note the subjects’ responses to all the questions, as well as my interpretation of their reactions to the programme in general. Undoubtedly, a lot of fascinating data will surface, yet I will be selective with regard to what I analyze in depth. Above all, I will be looking for anything suggesting that the subjects had problems with incongruities or ambiguities. Of course, I will not ignore the host of other factors affecting the subjects’ ability to understand the programme’s humour. These will include: difficulty understanding certain regional accents; lack of familiarity with the programme and its individual style of humour (especially in the first session); characters speaking quite fast at times; not being able to rewind and rewatch any scenes (with the exception of two scenes in the final session); and the motivation and interest levels of the subjects. Where subjects have difficulties I will examine the role of factors like those listed above. However, I will need to look a bit deeper than these surface issues. I will need to show whether the systemic features of problematic scenes are such as to render comprehension difficult. I will be hoping that the results show that the problems the subjects face are not just sociocultural in origin.
In Chapter Four I will evaluate the results of the empirical study, drawing the most important findings together and discussing them in the light of the overall aim of the dissertation, as stated in this introduction. I will discuss the conclusions I have drawn from my research, and point to areas which may be worthy of further study.