Is there such a thing as a national sense of humour?


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A statue celebrating Monty Python’s sketch The Dead Parrot near London’s Tower Bridge ahead of a live show on the TV channel Gold.
DAVID HOLT/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Gary McKeown, Queen’s University Belfast

We’re all aware that there are stereotypes. The British are sharply sarcastic, the Americans are great at physical comedy, and the Japanese love puns. But is humour actually driven by culture to any meaningful extent? Couldn’t it be more universal – or depend largely on the individual? The Conversation

There are some good reasons to believe that there is such a thing as a national sense of humour. But let’s start with what we actually have in common, by looking at the kinds of humour that most easily transcend borders.

Certain kinds of humour are more commonly used in circumstances that are international and multicultural in nature – such as airports. When it comes to onoard entertainment, airlines, in particular, are fond of humour that transcends cultural and linguistic boundaries for obvious reasons. Slapstick humour and the bland but almost universally tolerable social transgressions and faux pas of Mr Bean permit a safe, gentle humour that we can all relate to. Also, the silent situational dilemmas of the Canadian Just for Laughs hidden camera reality television show has been a staple option for airlines for many years.

Just for laughs.

These have a broad reach and are probably unlikely to offend most people. Of course, an important component in their broad appeal is that they are not really based on language.

Language and culture

Most humour, and certainly humour that involves greater cognitive effort, is deeply embedded in language and culture. It relies on a shared language or set of culturally based constructs to function. Puns and idioms are obvious examples.

Indeed, most modern theories of humour suggest that some form of shared knowledge is one of the key foundations of humour – that is, after all, what a culture is.

Some research has demonstrated this. One study measured humour in Singaporean college students and compared it with that of North American and Israeli students. This was done using a questionnaire asking participants to describe jokes they found funny, among other things. The researchers found that the Americans were more likely to tell sex jokes than the Singaporeans. The Singaporean jokes, on the other hand, were slightly more often focused on violence. The researchers interpreted the lack of sex jokes among Singaporean students to be a reflection of a more conservative society. Aggressive jokes may be explained by a cultural emphasis on strength for survival.

International humour?
C.P.Storm/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Another study compared Japanese and Taiwanese students’ appreciation of English jokes. It found that the Taiwanese generally enjoyed jokes more than the Japanese and were also more eager to understand incomprehensible jokes. The authors argued that this could be down to a more hierarchical culture in Japan, leaving less room for humour.

Denigration and self-deprecation

There are many overarching themes that can be used to define a nation’s humour. A nation that laughs together is one that can show it has a strong allegiance between its citizens. Laughter is one of our main social signals and combined with humour it can emphasise social bonding – albeit sometimes at the cost of denigrating other groups. This can be seen across many countries. For example, the French tend to enjoy a joke about the Belgians while Swedes make fun of Norwegians. Indeed, most nations have a preferred country that serves as a traditional butt of their jokes.

Sexist and racist humour are also examples of this sort of denigration. The types of jokes used can vary across cultures, but the phenomenon itself can boost social bonding. Knowledge of acceptable social boundaries is therefore crucial and reinforces social cohesion. As denigration is usually not the principle aim of the interaction it shows why people often fail to realise that they are being offensive when they were “only joking”. However, as the world becomes more global and tolerant of difference, this type of humour is much less acceptable in cultures that welcome diversity.

Self-denigration or self-deprecation is also important – if it is relatively mild and remains within acceptable social norms. Benign violation theory argues that something that threatens social or cultural norms can also result in humour.

Importantly, what constitutes a benign level of harm is strongly culturally bound and differs from nation to nation, between social groups within nations and over the course of a nation’s history. What was once tolerable as national humour can now seem very unacceptable. For the British, it may be acceptable to make fun of Britons being overly polite, orderly or reluctant to talk to stangers. However, jokes about the nature of Britain’s colonial past would be much more contentious – they would probably violate social norms without being emotionally benign.

Another factor is our need to demonstrate that we understand the person we are joking with. My own ideas suggest we even have a desire to display skills of knowing what another person thinks – mind-reading in the scientific sense. For this, cultural alignment and an ability to display it are key elements in humour production and appreciation – it can make us joke differently with people from our own country than with people from other cultures.

‘Fork handles’.

For example, most people in the UK know that the popular phrase “don’t mention the war” refers to a Fawlty Towers sketch. Knowing that “fork handles” is funny also marks you as a UK citizen (see video above). Similarly, knowledge of “I Love Lucy” or quotes from Seinfeld create affiliation among many in the US, while reference to “Chavo del Ocho” or “Chapulín Colorado” do the same for Mexicans and most Latin Americans.

These shared cultural motifs – here drawn mostly from television – are one important aspect of a national sense of humour. They create a sense of belonging and camaraderie. They make us feel more confident about our humour and can be used to build further jokes on.

A broadly shared sense of humour is probably one of our best indicators for how assimilated we are as a nation. Indeed, a nation’s humour is more likely to show unity within a country than to display a nation as being different from other nations in any meaningful way.

Gary McKeown, Senior Lecturer of Psychology, Queen’s University Belfast

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Accessible, engaging textbooks could improve children’s learning


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It’s not enough for textbooks just to be present in a classroom. They must support learning.
Global Partnership for Education/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Lizzi O. Milligan, University of Bath

Textbooks are a crucial part of any child’s learning. A large body of research has proved this many times and in many very different contexts. Textbooks are a physical representation of the curriculum in a classroom setting. They are powerful in shaping the minds of children and young people. The Conversation

UNESCO has recognised this power and called for every child to have a textbook for every subject. The organisation argues that

next to an engaged and prepared teacher, well-designed textbooks in sufficient quantities are the most effective way to improve instruction and learning.

But there’s an elephant in the room when it comes to textbooks in African countries’ classrooms: language.

Rwanda is one of many African countries that’s adopted a language instruction policy which sees children learning in local or mother tongue languages for the first three years of primary school. They then transition in upper primary and secondary school into a dominant, so-called “international” language. This might be French or Portuguese. In Rwanda, it has been English since 2008.

Evidence from across the continent suggests that at this transition point, many learners have not developed basic literacy and numeracy skills. And, significantly, they have not acquired anywhere near enough of the language they are about to learn in to be able to engage in learning effectively.

I do not wish to advocate for English medium instruction, and the arguments for mother-tongue based education are compelling. But it’s important to consider strategies for supporting learners within existing policy priorities. Using appropriate learning and teaching materials – such as textbooks – could be one such strategy.

A different approach

It’s not enough to just hand out textbooks in every classroom. The books need to tick two boxes: learners must be able to read them and teachers must feel enabled to teach with them.

Existing textbooks tend not to take these concerns into consideration. The language is too difficult and the sentence structures too complex. The paragraphs too long and there are no glossaries to define unfamiliar words. And while textbooks are widely available to those in the basic education system, they are rarely used systematically. Teachers cite the books’ inaccessibility as one of the main reasons for not using them.

A recent initiative in Rwanda has sought to address this through the development of “language supportive” textbooks for primary 4 learners who are around 11 years old. These were specifically designed in collaboration with local publishers, editors and writers.

Language supportive textbooks have been shown to make a difference in some Rwandan classrooms.

There are two key elements to a “language supportive” textbook.

Firstly, they are written at a language level which is appropriate for the learner. As can be seen in Figure 1, the new concept is introduced in as simple English as possible. The sentence structure and paragraph length are also shortened and made as simple as possible. The key word (here, “soil”) is also repeated numerous times so that the learner becomes accustomed to this word.

University of Bristol and the British Council

Secondly, they include features – activities, visuals, clear signposting and vocabulary support – that enable learners to practice and develop their language proficiency while learning the key elements of the curriculum.

The books are full of relevant activities that encourage learners to regularly practice their listening, speaking, reading and writing of English in every lesson. This enables language development.

Crucially, all of these activities are made accessible to learners – and teachers – by offering support in the learners’ first language. In this case, the language used was Kinyarwanda, which is the first language for the vast majority of Rwandan people. However, it’s important to note that initially many teachers were hesitant about incorporating Kinyarwanda into their classroom practice because of the government’s English-only policy.

Improved test scores

The initiative was introduced with 1075 students at eight schools across four Rwandan districts. The evidence from our initiative suggests that learners in classrooms where these books were systematically used learnt more across the curriculum.

When these learners sat tests before using the books, they scored similar results to those in other comparable schools. After using the materials for four months, their test scores were significantly higher. Crucially, both learners and teachers pointed out how important it was that the books sanctioned the use of Kinyarwanda. The classrooms became bilingual spaces and this increased teachers’ and learners’ confidence and competence.

All of this supports the importance of textbooks as effective learning and teaching materials in the classroom and shows that they can help all learners. But authorities mustn’t assume that textbooks are being used or that the existing books are empowering teachers and learners.

Textbooks can matter – but it’s only when consideration is made for the ways they can help all learners that we can say that they can contribute to quality education for all.

Lizzi O. Milligan, Lecturer in International Education, University of Bath

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Practice Language Teaching 5th Edition

The Practice of English Language Teaching Review plus interviews with author Jeremy Harmer


Practice Language Teaching 5th Edition

The Practice of English Language Teaching 5th Edition

The latest New Title at Bournemouth English Book Centre, available to buy online is the highly acclaimed Practice of English Language Teaching Fifth Edition. It is the essential guide for teachers of English in a wide range of contexts. The new Fifth Edition has been revised to reflect the latest developments in language teaching. It explains current pedagogy to teachers who want to access the most relevant English language teaching practices and incorporate them into their classes.

The Practice of English Language Teaching includes:

  • English as a world language (who learns it and why)
  • Theories of language and language learning
  • A discussion of learner characteristics that influence teacher decisions, including guidance on managing learning
  • A description of approaches to teaching language systems (grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation), and to teaching language skills (speaking, writing, listening, and reading)
  • A wide range of practical teaching ideas
  • An examination of the role of technology (old and new) in the classroom
  • A description of assessment for language learning in the digital age

The DVD includes discussions between the author and teachers about language teaching issues, and presents authentic lesson extracts from around the world.

Jeremy Harmer

The Practice of English Language Teaching Video – Click on this video to view

IATEFL Practice English Language

IATEFL Manchester – Jeremy Harmer

Interview with Jeremy Harmer

Mark McBennett:
Over the course of your career, you have worked at a variety of schools in the UK and overseas and you continue to travel extensively for your work. Do you enjoy the globe-trotting aspects of your job?
Jeremy Harmer:
Well, I don’t enjoy airport queues, or the immigration queue at some airports! But I absolutely love meeting teachers in different countries working in different contexts and with different challenges. Interaction with them is the highpoint of my professional life, really. I am incredibly lucky to have that opportunity. But I still hate the queues!
Mark McBennett:
In keeping with the times, these days you teach as an online tutor. Earlier this year, U.S. News & World Report listed the MA TESOL at The New School in New York as among the top online graduate programs in education. In addition to having a chance to study under such luminaries as yourself and Scott Thornbury, can you tell us what you think makes this course exceptional?
Jeremy Harmer:
I think the really special aspect of our online courses is the discussion board. To my immense surprise (because I was ignorant about this when I started) online discussion can be incredibly deep and long-lasting. In some ways (because students are working, often, in different time zones and because, therefore, the conversations are non-synchronous) online discussion is more thoughtful and goes on for longer than some classroom interactions of the same kind do. Working with classmates (and with the tutor), online participants delve really deeply into the topics which we have asked them to discuss.
Mark McBennett:
You posted on Facebook about the commute on the New York subway and that you were enjoying teaching face to face “for once.” How long had it been?
Jeremy Harmer:
Well, sustained teaching on a timetable (as opposed to the occasional one-off), about eight years, I think. Of course I’ve done lots of workshops and things like that, but this was the first timetabled few weeks for some time.
Mark McBennett:
So you teach online, you’re on Facebook and Twitter, you host the ELT Forum website, you’ve clearly embraced technology and the web. And “edtech” is one of today’s buzzwords. Do you see this as all positive, or do you have any misgivings about it?
Jeremy Harmer:
I think we are incredibly lucky to live in a world where so much is available and so much can be done and discovered by students, sometimes on their own and/but in collaboration with their teachers. I would have loved those opportunities when I started out as a teacher. But there IS a danger that edtech could obscure (sometimes) some of the methodological truths which we hold dear! So if technology is just a souped-up (and definitely more expensive) version of old-fashioned transmission teaching and workbooks, then we might need to question why it is being used. But when social networks and internet sites are used intelligently by students and teachers they can change things fantastically.
Mark McBennett:
While you were in New York, you took part with Scott Thornbury in an event called “Communicative Language Teaching: What We Have Gained (And What We Might Have Lost).” For the benefit of those of us who were unable to attend, what were the highlights of that conversation?
Jeremy Harmer:
I’m not sure there were highlights! That’s for others to say (if, by chance, they want to!), but I think the discussion of the difference between strong and weak forms of the communicative approach were interesting as well as questioning Scott on why he distrusts so much of the commodified course book content that has been subsumed into the communicative approach. We also discussed the confusion which some people have (to this day) about what the communicative approach is and means!
Mark McBennett:
Not content with being leading light in ELT, you also have an alter-ego as a performing artist. How important to you is it to have both the academic and the artistic?
Jeremy Harmer:
I perform shows as a narrator (with orchestras, quartets etc) and with a colleague Steve Bingham. We have done shows of music and poetry, a show about Charles Dickens and various other things. I am also a singer/songwriter and do some of that. All these things really matter to me because, well, because I love doing them. I love putting things into words (spoken or sung) and trying to say and speak them as well as it can be done. The challenge is to take an audience with you so that we all share the same experiences and emotions. Easier said than done, of course, but it’s definitely worth the effort!
Mark McBennett:
You spoke at the IATEFL conference earlier this year (2013) about parallels between the practice of music and the practice of language.
Jeremy Harmer:
Well yes, there definitely ARE parallels in that musicians who practise well really focus, deliberately, on what they are doing. They practise small excerpts sometimes only for a short time. And that is different from performance. Might it be the same for language practice (which is not exactly the same thing of course). The connections and contests fascinate me.
Mark McBennett:
And on that “note” I’d like to thank Jeremy for taking time out of his very busy schedule to talk with me.
Jeremy Harmer:
It has been my pleasure.

Buy all of Jeremy Harmer’s books here at BEBC