Humor is a tricky thing. Language-related or –dependent humor is even trickier. It relies on understanding the double meanings of words, or using pronunciations in a novel, unexpected way. Here’s a fairly classic example:

Knock Knock.

Who’s there?


Lettuce who?

Lettuce in, we’re cold!

If you search for “knock knock jokes for kids” you’ll see many examples of these types of jokes, where there’s misdirection in the pronunciation (i.e. lettuce sounding like “let us”). I’m betting their popularity with young children has to do with this new concept that words and sounds can mean something other than the obvious.

There are many examples of this type of linguistic-based humor, but understanding the joke can be tricky if you’re less than fluent, not only in the language, but the culture as well. In an article from The Guardian about language and humor (Warning: this article contains some strong/NSFW language), there’s quite a discussion about humor in different languages, and how working jokes into a classroom lesson, or acknowledging unintentional humor due to mispronunciations, can be a chance to enhance language learning. Jokes can be used to lighten the mood when students are frustrated, or it can point out certain words, phrases, or sounds that can be tricky if mispronounced or misunderstood and help to reinforce the lesson. And when a language learner gets the joke, it can be a strong positive reinforcement of their hard work.

My own experiences with language-related humor come from a group project I did for my Intro to Linguistics course. My partner and I recreated an experiment where bilingual speakers of varying abilities were asked to read puns on a screen and click through to the next one when they understood the punchline. We had several interesting findings. But first, we had to get creative in figuring out how to conduct the actual experiment. Although there are plenty of computer programs that can run these types of tests, we had neither the access nor the time to figure out how to use them. So we improvised and used the timings feature on Powerpoint. We would meet with our volunteer test takers (friends, fellow students—our subject pool was the very definition of a “sample of convenience” and was discussed as such in our final report), set up the presentation and timings feature, describe the experiment, and let them proceed through the 30 or so pun examples.

What we discovered was that our test takers took the most time figuring out puns where the first half of the pun set up a joke one way, but the second half (the punchline) was only understood if the first half of the pun meant something different. I’ll give you an example:

Two men walk into a bar. The third one ducks.

Understanding the joke means that the reader has to shift their understanding of the phrase “walk into a bar” from “entering a place that sells alcohol” to “move in a way that they hit a metal rod that is perpendicular to their body.” Since the first line is also a common way to set up a joke (at least in American English), the “getting” the humor comes from being able to quickly adjust one mental picture to another, based on multiple meanings of the word “bar.” Our test takers who did not identify themselves as native English speakers took longer to process these types of puns, since it required time to mentally activate the different meanings of words until the one that gave sense to the joke was hit upon.

It seems that jokes and humor are among the most difficult aspects of language to learn, since they require a level of cultural comprehension and nuance that goes beyond knowing the vocabulary and pronunciation. But as The Guardian article concludes, there’s always physical humor. Just don’t hurt yourself as you slip on that banana peel.


On an unrelated note, I’ve recently updated my work samples to include an animated video I created to describe what linguists do for a younger audience. Feel free to let me know what you thought, about the video or today’s blog post, in the comments below!

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