pchiasso [at] unbsj.ca
University of New Brunswick (Saint John, NB, Canada)
This article examines how humour can be an effective tool in teaching and in creating the affective second language classroom. It will also examine the reasons why humour is sometimes avoided, and will dispel the myth that one must be a comedian to use humour in a language classroom. The focus is on the use of cartoons with practical examples of how to use and adapt this particular resource. One doesn't have to be a gifted humorist to reap the benefits of using humour in the classroom.
"Classrooms in which laughter is welcome help bring learning to life."
Much has been written in recent years about the importance of the affective environment in the second language classroom. Such classrooms are ones in which learners are not afraid to take risks and use their second language. Students are encouraged and praised for their efforts to always use their second language in class. Students don't face ridicule, nor negative criticism. Error correction is appropriate, timely, constructive and seeks to instill confidence in each student.
However, at times we overlook humour as an important element in teaching, in teacher training and how humour can contribute to a positive environment for learning. Students of education are not always given the opportunity to examine the impact of their own preferences of teaching style or their own willingness to use certain strategies, such as humour in the language teaching. Because of the lack of time to explore such personal views we may be missing an opportunity to enhance learning in our classrooms.
Kristmanson (2000) emphasizes this need to create a welcoming classroom for language learning;
"In order to take risks, you need a learning environment in which you do not feel threatened or intimidated. In order to speak, you need to feel you will be heard and that what you're saying is worth hearing. In order to continue your language learning, you need to feel motivated. In order to succeed, you need an atmosphere in which anxiety levels are low and comfort levels are high. Issues of motivation and language anxiety are key to this topic of affect in the second language classroom."
Why Haven't We Been Using Humour in Our Classrooms?
For many the simple mention of humour condors up notions and protests of, "I'm not funny, I don't use humour." " I can't tell a joke; let alone use one in class." For others it is something to be feared, synonymous with classroom disorder and chaos. "I'm not about to start telling jokes, it will mean complete loss of control."
For some this resistance to using humour may simply be a lack of knowledge as to how one may use it effectively in class. " I enjoy humour, but I don't know how to go about using it, so I don't. I don't want to look foolish." Others associate humour and its use with non-productivity. Students can't be learning if they are laughing. Yet humour is as authentic and as communicative a human reaction and social skill as is greeting and conversing with friends.
Commercial language teaching methodologies have tended in the past to avoid the use of humour. It is one thing to train or explain to teachers how to teach the future or passe compose, however, it is a more evasive concept to train teachers to have a sense of humour or even develop such a human characteristic. 
The humour discussed in this article however requires no form of humour training, nor requires that a teacher have the humouristic skills that would match the Robin Williams of the world. It will demonstrate a simple yet very beneficial use of humour, the use of cartoons in the communicative teaching of a second language.
Why Should We Use Humour in Our Classrooms?
Humour and laughter are areas that have not been closely studied. Their role in education and medicine has been briefly examined as far back as Wells (1974) to as recently as Provine (Dec. 2000) in, "The Science of Laughter", Psychology Today.
Loomax and Moosavi (1998) in an article on the use of humour in a university statistics class point out that anecdotal evidence in past studies consistently suggests that humour is an extremely effective tool in education. These same studies suggest that the use of humour in the classroom reduces tension, improves classroom climate, increases enjoyment, increases student-teacher rapport and even facilitates learning.
Regardless of what evidence there may be, we all have personal views on the value of humour, as depicted in the film "Patch Adams" and for years in Reader's Digest, "Laughter is the Best Medicine." Yet, there is little in literature that speaks of its pedagogical value and in particular in second language teaching and in second language teacher training.
According to Provine (2000) laughter is generally subdued during conversation. Speech will dominate and laughter serves as a phrase break creating a punctuation effect in language. Laughter therefore has a specific role in conversations and is not random. Therefore, as in authentic communication, humour in the classroom shouldn't be random. It shouldn't be used without preparation and a clear objective. It may be simple or complex in nature. It is your decision as to how, when and why you will use it.
One reason for using humour is that as a human trait it is a self-effacing behavior (Provine, 2000). It can allow the shy or timid student in your class to participate with the group. If it is used properly humour allows the student to feel a part of the class and possibly contribute without loosing face, feeling exposed or vulnerable. This is of particular importance in a communicative classroom where the accent is on verbal authentic communication, participation and interaction. It's a way of reaching out to those students who are too afraid or nervous to attempt expressing themselves in their second language. Humour is as human and as authentic as the need to communicate. As with other facets of our lives it plays a major role in our every day social interaction. We should therefore not ignore it but instead make it part of our everyday classroom learning.
Laughter helps us forget about ourselves, our problems, our fears and allows us to lose ourselves momentarily. This momentary loss may be interpreted by some teachers as a loss of control, poor classroom management and therefore something to be avoided. However, humour as with all activities in the communicative language classroom, must be well prepared and have a specific objective.
Interestingly enough, Provine (2000) also discovered that even though both sexes laugh a lot, females laugh more. It might explain why the females in our classes seem to enjoy more the humour used in the classroom. Although, as Provine points out, males appear to be the initiators of humour in any culture, beginning in early childhood.
As was stated earlier, Kristmanson (2000) stressed the importance of the affective environment in second language teaching. It can't be emphasized enough that students are more willing to participate and take risks in using their second language in a classroom that allows them to do so without fear of criticism and ridicule. It's important for the teacher to create a "positive atmosphere" for learning. Humour, by decreasing anxiety and stress can, contribute to this positive classroom, to class unity and learning.
"Indeed, the presumed health benefits of laughter may be coincidental consequences of its primary goal: bringing people together."