Humorous Personal Narratives in the ESL Classroom. (Language Teaching & Learning)

By Stakhnevich, Julia | Academic Exchange Quarterly, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Humorous Personal Narratives in the ESL Classroom. (Language Teaching & Learning)


Stakhnevich, Julia, Academic Exchange Quarterly


Abstract

This paper reports the results of an exploratory qualitative study of adult ESL students' humorous personal narratives shared in the college-level ESL class. The purpose of the study was to investigate the reasons why some of the stories were more successful with the multicultural audience in terms of audience involvement. The effective use of basic narrative template as well as theme choice seemed to be the reasons that made some stories stand out. Language proficiency did not seem to have an overwhelming effect on the success of the stories shared by the students. Pedagogical recommendations are also presented.

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Study Background

Verbal humor can be defined as "a social message intended to produce laughter or smiling" and communicated through language (Ziv, 1988, p. ix). There has never been reported a culture where humor does not exist. However, it is one of the most difficult subject matters both to understand and to express in a second language.

According to Ziv (1988), humor techniques, such as incongruity, surprise and the use of contextual logic as well as humor functions are universal as they reflect human needs. However, "the greatest difference among cultures should be found in the contents and situations of humor" (Ziv, 1988, p. xi). As an example, most American jokes are focused on the topics of sexuality and aggression, whereas Chinese humor is centered around the issues related to social interactions (Shultz, 1977).

Even though incongruity is a major humorous technique, it is "... only relative to someone's conceptual scheme" (McGhee et al., 1983 p. 60). What an individual finds incongruous or humorous depends to a large extent on his/her culture, previous experience and current expectations. This is one of the reasons why adults from different cultures often have trouble understanding and therefore appreciating each other's humor. As Shakespeare wrote in his play "Love's Labour Lost":

   A jest's prosperity lies in the ear
   Of him that hears it, never in the tongue
   Of him who makes it.

Verbal humor plays a pivotal role in personal narratives, making us laugh at our own troubles and seeing the ridiculous in our own behavior. Within each nation, storytelling traditions have been passed from one generation to another, with humor being skillfully woven into the cultural fabric of folk tales, jokes, sayings and proverbs.

We as individuals are constantly involved in the process of reshaping our storytelling traditions by creating and listening to other people's narratives, which enables us to relive our experience once again and put it in a broader context of life. Stories are crucial for our communication with others and furnish us with information on the personality and identity of the storyteller and her characters (Lieblich et. al, 1998, p. 7).

Propp (1928) pioneered rhetorical analysis of narrative texts by examining the structure of Russian folk tales. Central to Propp's analysis is the notion that a story is a text that relates to the audience a change of state or an event. Propp analyzed types of characters and kinds of actions performed in Russian folk tales and arrived at the conclusion that there are thirty-one fundamental events or `narratemes'. Propp showed that though not all of the thirty-one narratemes were present in all stories, all the tales displayed these fundamental events in a predictable stable sequence.

Labov (1972) applied Propp's ideas to the analysis of spontaneous narratives collected from lower-class young black males in New York City and concluded that `fully-formed oral narratives' have a six-part structure, including: abstract, orientation, complicating action, evaluation, result, and coda. Comparing stories from different cultures, psycholinguists and cognitive psychologists came to the conclusion that narratives share a common basic template (Labov, 1972, Labov & Waletsky, 1967, Mandler, 1982, Hatch, 1999).

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