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Humor as Insight in Early Language Education

By Valerie “Magna” Borey | Published: June 20, 2017

One of our Spanish pre-K teachers commented that a child once asked her (in all seriousness), “Are you real?”

In the Twin Cities area, Concordia Language Villages offers language classes to young learners in pre-K through sixth grade. Humor and language learning in these contexts are deeply intertwined. Sometimes the humor is inadvertent, a byproduct of an honest mistake, which gives us, as teachers, important feedback about what meanings our participants are bringing with them to class or taking away. Sometimes, the humor is an intentional play on words, invented by students, revealing new ways of engaging with the language and new insights into how it works.

After-school Spanish students draw close to discuss an upcoming adventure.
After-school Spanish students draw close to discuss an upcoming adventure.

Attitudes Toward Language

Humor can reveal a lot about attitudes toward language and language learning. Somewhere in the middle of our first class with any given group of students, we usually have a brief talk about what language immersion means and what kinds of strategies are helpful with comprehension. It being the first day of class, students are typically reserved (maybe even a little anxious), still feeling out the territory. “Does anyone know what ‘immersion’ means?” asks the teacher in one of our after-school programs, in English. The children look around at each other and, finally, a second grader ventures, “It kind of sounds like ‘emergency,’ so maybe it’s kind of like an emergency situation?”

Engaging with the Sounds of Language

As their comfort levels increase, our young participants begin to realize that playfulness is part of our pedagogic strategy. We see them starting to take risks with the language, playing with “sound-patterns” and creating humorous bridges between English and their target languages, to the delight of their peers.

For example, during circle time in one of our Spanish pre-K classes, the teacher passes around a play microphone as she sings, “Buenos días, Parker, ¿cómo estás?” Each child has an opportunity to shout into the microphone, “¡Muy bien!” The microphone finally reaches a little boy, smiling slyly, who shouts, “Penguin!” The rest of the class snickers, realizing that he has discovered the perfect nonsensical substitution.

Elementary-aged children play this way as well. “Vamos al Carnaval de Cádiz,” announces an after-school Spanish teacher, bringing out beautiful color illustrations of the Carnival in Cadiz and passing them around for the children to examine. As the pictures make their way around the circle, a girl blurts out, “We’re going to the Carnival of Cottage Cheese?” She smiles as the rest of the class laughs.

After-school Spanish students sing a greeting song, using motions to illustrate key words.
After-school Spanish students sing a greeting song, using motions to illustrate key words.

Making New Words

Children get creative with language, moving past an English reference point towards insider humor as their familiarity increases.

In a Norwegian pre-K class during snack time, one little boy proclaims: "I love rosiner. I wish they had their own country: Rosineland" (Raisin Land).

In pre-K Spanish class, a week or two after learning the Jose-Luis Orozco song, “Chocolate, chocolate, bate, bate, chocolate,” children are shown a picture of broccoli and asked to recall the word for it. The response: "Broccolate!"

Humor as Social Engagement

Language play, in its many variations, gives children the opportunity to engage with one another socially in insightful and meaningful ways, despite limited proficiency. As is to be expected, the humor is sometimes at the teacher’s expense. After a game involving emotion words, for example, one Norwegian preschooler pops up and announces, “Okay, now I’m going to be the teacher,” and begins a spot-on impression of his instructor, quizzing his peers in teacher-voice: “Er du sint? Er du glad? Er du redd?”(Are you angry? Are you happy? Are you scared?)

“Humor,” as humorist Leo Rosten once wrote, “is the affectionate communication of insight.” A window between perspectives, humor gives teachers an awareness of what their learners are thinking, gives learners a chance to experiment between and within language domains, and allows social bonds to form around affectionate insights into the process itself. Early learners, unafraid to make mistakes and open to multiple visions of the world, are a wonderful source of language-based comedy, well worth paying attention to.

About the Author

Valerie Borey

Valerie "Magna” Borey is the assistant dean of Language Discovery programs at Concordia Language Villages, where she gets to work with teachers and learners of Chinese, French, Norwegian and Spanish. She holds a BA in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Minnesota, an M.A. in the Social Sciences (University of Chicago), and recently completed the Writer’s Program (in Fiction) at UCLA. In addition to being a villager parent, she has also been a longtime staff member at both Barnehage (Norwegian pre-K) and Skogfjorden (the Norwegian Language Village) and has worked in a variety of capacities at the Language Villages.

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