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Chapter 4 - Conclusions

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In this chapter I will discuss the empirical findings in the context of the overall argument of the dissertation. I will draw my conclusions from the findings and see how well they fit into the framework outlined in Chapter One. I shall stress the importance of linguistic knowledge for the advanced language learner, in her attempts to understand humour in the target language. I shall demonstrate how the empirical findings suggest that advanced learners still have significant problems with systemic features of target language humour. I will highlight the linguistic challenges posed by the presence of incongruities and ambiguities. I shall also evaluate the subjects’ appreciation of pragmatic humour.

During the course of this dissertation I have drawn attention to what I feel to be an underlying assumption concerning humour and the advanced second language learner: the idea that, once a learner attains a sufficiently elevated level of proficiency, the problems associated with understanding target language humour are predominantly sociocultural, rather than linguistic, in origin. It has been a principal purpose of this dissertation to question this assumption.

As reported in Chapter Three, the subjects’ responses to question 7 on the preliminary questionnaire (Do you have any problems understanding jokes or funny stories in English? If yes, why do you think you have this difficulty?) indicate that advanced learners themselves feel that lack of sociocultural knowledge is the main bar to an appreciation of humour in the target language, so the “underlying assumption” mentioned above is a widespread one. This is reflected, not only in the opinions expressed to me by teachers of English as a Second Language, but also in the apparent paucity of literature which directly addresses the question posed in the introduction: what problems do advanced learners of English face when trying to understand English language humour?

I have already commented in this dissertation on how few studies I found in the course of my research that directly addressed this question. I have talked about Richardson’s (1989) study of pragmatic humour. Another study, conducted by Morain (1991), outlined some ideas on how to incorporate the study of humour into the language classroom, though it emphasised the importance of cultural understanding. Perhaps the ability to understand target language humour is seen as something that cannot be cultivated in the language classroom, but can only be developed by immersion in the target language environment. Or perhaps the whole idea of humour is viewed as impenetrable - it is always problematic, even to very advanced learners, so it is ignored to a certain extent.

I have not sought to underestimate the significance of sociocultural factors in the understanding of humour; instead, I have tried to point out that humour is a complex web of sociocultural and linguistic elements. In Chapter One I demonstrated that one joke can require different types of knowledge in order to be understood. I spoke of jokes being on a continuum, their place determined by the degree of linguistic or sociocultural knowledge needed to grasp them. I emphasised how difficult it was to label jokes or humour as “sociocultural” or “linguistic”; there is always an interplay between the various elements. One more example, taken from Chiaro (1992:13), will demonstrate this:

Sum ergo cogito

Is that putting Des-cartes before de-horse?

Here, the recipient has to know the quotation and the fact that it has been inverted; something about Descartes; the idiom that appears in the punchline; and the fact that the marked form of ‘the’ is indicative of a French accent. In Chiaro’s words (ibid):

[T]he recipient will need to possess an extremely proficient knowledge (which is usually totally subconscious in native speakers) of the inherent comic possibilities of the English language in order to perceive the allusive homophony involved.

Even if a learner possesses knowledge about Descartes and his quotation, there are considerable linguistic obstacles to be negotiated.

When someone fails to get a joke, that person is displaying gaps in knowledge, for example, intellectual knowledge or sexual knowledge. Comic failure can also be due to linguistic limitations, as in the above example, which “is doubly difficult to get because linguistic play intersects play on word knowledge” (Chiaro 1992:14). This dissertation has attempted to highlight the importance that gaps in linguistic knowledge play, even for advanced learners.

The findings of the empirical study suggest the subjects had substantial problems with linguistic elements in the humour of Fawlty Towers. Of course, the subjects were occasionally left floundering by sociocultural references to, for example, class structures in English society, and British industrial history. However, this dissertation is focusing on the linguistic elements of humour. With regard to the concepts introduced in Chapter One - incongruity and ambiguity - the findings are encouraging. Where a lot of the incongruity resided in a general situation, such as Basil ranting and raving at his guests, the subjects could recognise it; but where it resided in linguistic features, as in the argument between Basil and Sybil in The Hotel Inspectors, the difficulties were significant. A single unfamiliar word would prevent the subjects from recognising clashing schemata.

With regard to ambiguity, I provided examples in the previous chapter which showed the difficulties it can cause. I shall give one more, an example which features play on phonological features, as well as punning. The scene, from Gourmet Night, is not one that the subjects were asked about in the questionnaire, but I took care to note their reactions to it. Basil is leading Mr. and Mrs. Twitchen to the bar, when Polly arrives and tries to let Basil know that the chef is drunk. She has to do this without letting the Twitchens realise what has happened:

Polly: It’s Kurt

Basil: Yes?

Polly: He’s potted . . . the shrimps.

Basil: What?

Polly: He’s potted . . . the shrimps.

Basil: . . . Shrimps? We’re not having shrimps tonight Polly.

(the Twitchens look at her rather oddly. Basil indicates the bar and they start to move towards it.)

Polly: (trapping Basil’s arm) He’s soused . . . the herrings.

Basil: What are you on about?!

Polly: (slowly) He’s pickled . . . the onions and he’s smashed the eggs in his cups . . . under the table

(she rolls her eyes strangely)

This is a wonderful piece full of ambiguities that operate on different levels. At one level there are puns: ‘potted’, ‘smashed’ and ‘pickled’ can be verbs connected with cooking, or adjectives meaning ‘drunk’. At the phonological level, there is play on stress and intonation. Polly says “He’s potted” with the stress on ‘potted’ as if it were a complete sentence, so as to inform Basil of what has happened. When, after a short pause, she adds “the shrimps”, the meaning is changed. In this way, the real meaning Polly is trying to convey is hidden from the Twitchens. There are now two schemata which contain the element ‘potted’.

As an example of humour based on ambiguity, this scene proves highly complex and, not surprisingly, the subjects were lost by it. They did laugh at times, but the timing of their laughter indicated they were reacting to the visual cues, such as Polly “rolling her eyes strangely”, rather than to the verbal humour. Clearly the unfamiliarity of the lexical items in the piece thwarted the subjects’ attempts to understand it; but even words or chunks the subjects could easily understand - ‘smashed’, ‘in his cups’, ‘under the table’ - were not appreciated. It is their figurative meanings which hold the key to the scene’s humour, and it is these figurative meanings which language learners seem to acquire very late in the language learning process.

So we can see that advanced learners of English seem to have problems with the incongruities and ambiguities arising from systemic features of the language. Since a lot of English humour is founded on these anomalies, vast areas of comic discourse are too obscure for such learners.

Turning to humour at the suprasentential level, the evidence in Chapter Three does not lend much support to Richardson’s (1989) idea that such humour is more accessible for language learners. At times, Richardson’s notion is directly contradicted, as mentioned in the previous chapter. In The Hotel Inspectors, Mr.Hutchinson violates the discourse maxim of manner. The use of longwinded language - with phrases like “it matters not one whit”, “for sundry purposes”, “my first port of call” - made it very hard for the subjects to understand. If a speaker ignores the requirement of perspicuity by using obscure or inappropriate language, a non-native speaker who is not familiar with the language being employed has no idea whether it is appropriate or not. Thus it is misleading to suggest that humour based on the violation of norms of discourse is necessarily easier to grasp. Even the examples where the subjects seemed to grasp the suprasentential humour, as in the scene from The Kipper and the Corpse with Mrs.Chase and her dog, are not clear-cut vindications of Richardson’s idea. As pointed out in Chapter Three, the heavy presence of visual cues to laughter in those scenes clouds the issue somewhat. It is hard to tell whether the subjects were appreciating the pragmatic humour, or responding principally to the visual humour on the screen.

To summarise, the results of the empirical study seem to confirm a number of points:

(i) gaps in a learner’s sociocultural knowledge are not the only reason for difficulties with target language humour;

(ii) gaps in linguistic knowledge are still crucial with advanced learners. Play on systemic features of language, creating incongruities and ambiguities, is often very complex, and extremely hard to grasp;

(iii) not knowing the multiple meanings of a word, or the literal and figurative meanings of a word or phrase, will prevent learners from being able to activate alternative schemata, and recognise incongruity and ambiguity where they occur;

(iv) pragmatic humour is not necessarily easy for learners, especially if the violation of any norm of discourse involves the use of obscure language.

As I stated in the introduction, the aim of this dissertation was to focus attention on the problems advanced learners of English have with humour in English. I also stated that it was not within the scope of this dissertation to discuss any pedagogical issues that might arise. I will say, however, that many of the problems discussed in this dissertation fall into a general category of problems faced by advanced learners of English, namely, problems with vocabulary. Advanced learners still need to work on the different meanings associated with a word, its collocational patterns and, its place in fixed expressions (Carter 1987:187). The issues involved in teaching vocabulary (especially with regard to advanced learners) are discussed by Carter (1987); these wider issues are relevant to the study of humour. Anything which develops language learners’ vocabulary acquisition may indirectly help their appreciation of some aspects of humour, such as ambiguity. While the use of examples of English humour in the classroom would be extremely beneficial, so too would the overall cultivation of the skills required to learn vocabulary. This is a notion which would be worth further investigation.

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