Your Must-Read Guide: Bridging the Humor Barrier: Humor Competency Training in English Language Teaching

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

If you’re an English language educator, I’ve got the book for you. Humor is one of the most difficult things to teach in a different language—and this book helps you teach just that! Edited by educators John Rucynski, Jr. and Caleb Prichard, this is JUST the book you need to help your students navigate and understand humor.

Your Must-Read Guide: Bridging the Humor Barrier: Humor Competency Training in English Language Teaching

Bridging the Humor Barrier: Humor Competency Training in English Language Teaching is a must-read for anyone in the field; here’s why, in the authors’ own words:

Many language learners and teachers have realized the great importance of humor in second language (L2) learning and communication. When the editors of this volume have given presentations on humor instruction at language teaching conferences, we are often approached by two different types of teachers.

One type is fully convinced of the value of teaching with and about humor and is just looking for ideas and tips. However, the other type is concerned how it will go or is skeptical about whether humor is really teachable. With this volume on humor competency training in English language teaching, our target audience is both types of educators above.

Highly, highly recommended!

John Rucynski is a roving American who grew up in New York, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Texas, and Wisconsin. After graduating from the State University of New York at Oswego with a B.A. in creative writing, a “one or two-year adventure in Japan” ended up as an adult life spent almost completely abroad. In addition to calling Japan his home for nearly 20 years, he has also lived in Morocco and New Zealand. He is currently associate professor in the Center for Language Education at Okayama University. His main research interest is the role of humor in foreign language acquisition and intercultural communication. He has edited two volumes on this theme, New Ways in Teaching with Humor (TESOL Press) and (with Caleb Prichard) Bridging the Humor Barrier: Humor Competency Training in English Language Teaching (Rowman & Littlefield). His latest non-humor project was editing A Passion for Japan, a collection of personal narratives by long-time residents of Japan. Read our interview with John about A Passion for Japan here!

We were lucky enough to talk with John and ask him about their book, inspiration, takeaways, and more. Here’s what he had to say…

John Rucinsky. From Your Must-Read Guide: Bridging the Humor Barrier: Humor Competency Training in English Language Teaching

Please tell us about your book, Bridging the Humor Barrier: Humor Competency Training in English Language Teaching... 

I edited this book with Caleb Prichard, my colleague at Okayama University in Japan. It includes 10 chapters from humor and language education researchers from a range of different countries, including the US, the UK, Japan, and Iran. While each chapter has a different research focus, every contributor addresses the same central question of the book: How can we (as teachers and researchers) help foreign language learners better understand the humor of the target culture(s)? 

The book is divided into the following three sections: 

I. Humor competence development outside the class
II. Integrated humor instruction
III. Explicit humor competency training 

What inspired you to write this book?

We had three main inspirations for this book. 

First, as English language instructors at the university level, we have worked with a lot of students who have studied abroad in English-speaking countries. After completing their time abroad, countless students have shared stories of how they struggled to understand the humor while in the host country. And it was not always an issue of language proficiency, as it’s common to understand all the language but still not get the joke. This left many of our students feeling discouraged, as they felt that a lack of understanding of the humor inhibited their social interaction. We hope that all of our learners can make the most out of their time abroad (or in any contexts involving cross-cultural communication), so we are constantly trying to figure out ways (as both teachers and researchers) to help them get over the humor barrier. 

Second, although many educators advocate the use of humor in language teaching, a great majority of the research about humor focuses more on teaching with humor than teaching about humor. We felt there is the need for more empirical research providing guidance on how to help language learners actually better understand, and feel more confident to engage in, the humor of the target culture(s). Here in Japan, for example, our learners sometimes struggle to detect and understand types of humor such as sarcasm and satirical news, as the usage of such humor is less frequent here. So, we have designed experiments for humor competency training for verbal irony and satirical news (see our article links below for more about the results of these research studies).

Third, we are simply fascinated by how the universal phenomenon of humor varies from culture to culture. In addition to living in Japan, we have presented our research at conferences around the world. We love to interact with the locals wherever we travel, and humor is generally a great way to break the ice and bond. In cross-cultural communication, however, attempts at humor can also frequently fail. We have gone down the rabbit hole of the role of humor in cross-cultural communication and we hope that our findings can help people everywhere reap the benefits and avoid the pitfalls of humor. 

What can educators come away with, in terms of teaching English?

One essential lesson educators can take away from this book is that learning a language involves much more than just literally translating from the foreign language to our first language. Regardless of proficiency, language learners (including Caleb and I!) are often so focused on just comprehending the literal meaning that we miss the actual intent of the speaker. That is another reason understanding humor such as verbal irony is so important in cross-cultural communication. A lack of understanding of true intent can lead to confusion, embarrassment, or even conflict. 

Another important lesson is that, as previously mentioned, we do not automatically understand humor as our language proficiency improves. So much of humor is culture-bound, so even advanced proficiency learners may struggle with certain forms of humor, especially if it is not common in their native culture. This makes the teaching of humor quite challenging, but we believe that it is worth it and (more importantly) it is possible. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have edited this book! 

Humor is so important! Why should educators include it in their lessons?

Because learning a language is totally boring without it! Kidding aside, let me try to be brief and focus on only three (of the thirty in my head!) benefits (in addition to the previously explained importance of understanding humor in cross-cultural communication). 

First, humor can make language learning more enjoyable. Learning a foreign language is not easy, and many learners lack the motivation (particularly intrinsic motivation) to continue their studies. Additionally, anxiety can have a severely negative impact on the ability to speak in a foreign language. Humor is one of the most powerful tools for lowering the affective filter in the language classroom. 

Second, humor can make language learning more memorable. I certainly don’t remember much of my high school German, but more than 30 years later I can still remember all my lines from a goofy skit we prepared for German class. I can’t remember how to use the dative case, but I can remember that skit! 

Third, as previously mentioned, humor can provide valuable insights into the target culture(s). Humor is a window into culture. This can also be motivating for learners. Just as an enjoyment of the movies or music of a foreign culture can increase motivation, an appreciation of humor can do the same. But humor is not just for a laugh. I have even developed a course entitled “Humor and Social Issues,” in which humorous movies and TV shows are used as a springboard to learn about and discuss contemporary issues. 

Learning another language can be difficult. How does humor affect the language learner?

Humor is definitely a double-edged sword when it comes to language learning. Not understanding the humor of the target language can unfortunately lead to confusion and even demotivation for language learners. On the other hand, increasing this understanding can be motivating and empowering. I have heard it said that you can really feel that you’ve made progress with a foreign language when you start to have dreams in that language. But we feel that you’ve made even more progress if you can joke and laugh in a foreign language. So, our goal with this book was to share the potential possibilities for helping language learners overcome the humor barrier. To quote an old song, we hope to “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative” when it comes to humor in language learning and cross-cultural communication. 

Where can people find your work?

In addition to our book (and another book with TESOL Press I edited by myself), several of our articles about humor in language education can be accessed on ResearchGate. 


Bridging the Humor Barrier: publisher link / Amazon link
New Ways in Teaching with Humor: publisher link / Amazon link   

Articles and book chapters

“Is This Thing On? Teacher Views of Incorporating Humor Into Online Language Classes” (John Rucynski & Peter Neff)
“L2 Learners' Ability to Recognize Ironic Online Comments and the Effect of Instruction” (Caleb Prichard & John Rucynski)
“Implementing Humor Instruction into English Language Teaching” (John Rucynski & Caleb Prichard)
“The English Classroom as ‘Warai no ba’: Instructor Views on Humor and Language Learning in Japan” (Peter Neff & John Rucynski)
“Humor Competency Training for Sarcasm and Jocularity” (Caleb Prichard & John Rucynski)
“Second Language Learners’ Ability to Detect Satirical News and the Effect of Humor Competency Training” (Caleb Prichard & John Rucynski)
“Japanese Perceptions of Humor in the English Language Classroom” (Peter Neff & John Rucynski)
“Using The Simpsons in EFL Classes” (John Rucynski)