Today, with the unexpected passing of the beloved actor and funny-man, Robin Williams, I was once again reminded of the important role of humor in language and culture.
I have friends from every corner of the world and it seems that he was not “just” an American actor but he was a world-comedian. The reason why Robin Williams was so popular everywhere was because his jokes were universal, his characters were relatable and his humor (for the most part) was acceptable and understandable for all ages, religions and ethnic backgrounds. And this is rare as most jokes are very culture-specific and comedy is full of idiomatic expressions in any language!
Once I had a student, a really high-level executive at a multinational company, who already spoke several languages fluently, including English, but wanted to improve his language skills. “Fantastic”, I thought, as I believe that there is always room for improvement but when I met him, assessed his level, I almost panicked not knowing how I, the “half-of-his-age, non-native, no business background girl” could possibly help him. Then, a light bulb went off… jokes! As it turned out, he had absolutely no understanding of American jokes, he was clueless about why Americans find certain lines funny, and refused to watch primetime comedy shows, simply because he did not understand them. Needless to say, a good part of our training was about watching, analyzing and learning to understand “Everybody loves Raymond”, “Seinfeld” and other popular shows that were perfect depictions of the current daily life of American families and friends in all kinds of situations.
Ever since, we have had hundreds of students like this gentleman, who did not need Business English, did not need grammar drills but simply wanted to understand and properly use idiomatic expressions, jokes, Americanism – all that they would encounter daily at the office or with friends they acquired in the US.
Comedy and jokes are an integral part of any language and if we want to elevate our language skills and integrate in our new culture, we must embrace the local humor and make an effort to incorporate it in our language as well. You will feel much more comfortable with your new peers, and they will also take you as “one of their own”, which can certainly make the adjustment much smoother and your foreign experience more successful.
I always say that an important stage in second language learning is when you start dreaming in the new language but when you are more advanced, you know the new language is now part of you when you can understand and tell jokes too! If you would like some help with this process, you may find this page useful for your studies:
R.I.P Robin Williams
- Kornelia Lasluisa
Team of Hansa One Directors, Trainers and Instructors sharing experiences and interests on all things cultures and languages.