Humor and Story Listening

Story Listening Basics

Story listening is a great use of class time that can both build student vocabulary and also help students learn about the culture(s) of your target language. In story listening, a teacher tells the class a story in the target language using a pictures, drawings and sometimes translations to convey the meaning. I use story listening to teach students about traditional Chinese stories and holidays, like the Empty Flowerpot and Mid-Autumn Festival. Another strategy that I like to use is Chinese is to tell students a humorous story. They students may not learn anything extra about Chinese culture, but they will still get valuable input in the language.

A Caveat about Humor

We know that language acquisition is a slow, ordered, and complex process. One of the last pieces of the puzzle to fall into the place is humor. Because there is such a huge cultural component to humor, it is possible to speak a second language with a high degree of proficiency without really “getting” the local jokes. So if I tell a funny story in class, it will have an American sensibility (and not a Chinese one necessarily), but that is okay. We can’t always do everything at once.

Why Humor Helps

Several years ago, I was on a tour bus in Vietnam. I was traveling alone, so I actually listened to the tour guide give his spiel. I noticed that he punctuated every fact and warning that he wanted to tell us with a joke. It occurred to me then that this was a good strategy to check if the people on the tour were paying attention. The same principle works for story listening. If the story is supposed to be funny, and no one laughs, then you can be sure that the audience did not understand.

An Example of a Story that Uses Humor

A story that I have used before in class is about how my father-in-law (a consummate bargain-hunter), once served a group of friends cat food by accident. The punch line of the story is the last line, I know that if the students laugh after they hear it, then they “get it.” Remember that comprehension of the input is a key part of language learning. If students don’t understand what the teacher says to them, they won’t learn. We can’t just turn on the radio and hope that we will learn language by osmosis.

photo of cat hiding in shame
Be sure to check the labels next time you think you are getting a good deal on people food!


More on story listening as a method:

From the grande dame of story listening herself, Beniko Mason

Story listening and Chinese