The European Journal of Humour Research

Vol 8, No 4 (2020)

Mastering second language humour: the ultimate challenge

Laurence Vincent-Durroux, Kerry Mullan, Caroline David, Christine Béal, Cécile Poussard


This small-scale study on verbal humour takes place within a larger project entitled “From perception to oral production”, which aims to identify the links between comprehension and production processes and the sources of difficulty for French learners of English. The data consist of three comparable corpora of filmed semi-structured interviews with first (L1) and second (L2) language students: French-French L1; English-English L1; and English L1 with L2. The interviews revolve around the same extract of an American romantic comedy, which the students were asked to describe and comment upon. Instances of spontaneous humour were found to occur in all corpora and were analysed using the cross-cultural comparative model previously used for French-English comparative studies of verbal humour (Béal & Mullan 2013; 2017a; Mullan & Béal 2018a).

The humour used by the native speakers of French (N=7) and English (N=7) served as the initial basis for comparison with the L2 English speakers (N=34). It was found that the humour and laughter in the L1 interviews were employed by both parties to achieve certain pragmatic functions related to this particular institutional setting: the participants used humour primarily to create a connection with the interviewer (often through implicit references, and especially where both participants were female). The French students speaking English as L2 tended to use self-oriented humour as a face-saving device to deflect from their production or comprehension difficulties.

The use of humour by all L1 and L2 participants nevertheless reflected specific cultural tendencies outlined in Béal & Mullan (2013; 2017a) and Mullan & Béal (2018a), such as the prevalence of third-party oriented humour in French interactions and of self-deprecating humour in English. In sum, and perhaps unsurprisingly, we show that the French learners of English have mastered some aspects of humour in their L2, but still exhibit most of the characteristics of verbal humour from their native French.



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