Language is a tool like any other tool. We use a hammer and a nail to place a picture on the wall, we use a key to open the door when we want to get inside. Likewise, we use language to put our thoughts and feelings into words so that someone else understands us.
Nowadays, our image of language – our communicational tool – has become rather static. We look at language as something that works according to a set of fixed universal rules. We learn grammar, vocabulary, punctuation, pronunciation, spelling, and even to develop a nice handwriting. In short, we learn how our communicational tool is designed. But what about actually using this tool?
This article shows you how to reach your language learning goals by using language in a creative way. Opening up to the infinitely broad world of creative language learning, you have to get over the idea that language learning is what you have always thought it to be. In this article, I propose jokes as among the most joyful outcomes of the creative use of language. Let’s look more closely at how you can benefit from joking more.
What is the longest word in the English language? Many jokes start off with a question like this. What happens after you have read the question? You start searching for the longest English word that you know. Smiles. There is a mile between the first and the last letter.
Not the answer you were considering? Pay attention to the short moment of confusion between reading the answer and understanding it. What happened when you tried to somehow match the question with the answer? You were learning. And maybe even laughing. Two positive experiences at once.
But since you weren’t studying facts here, what exactly did you learn? You automatically found a connection between smiles, mile, and long words. This happened although you were not doing it on purpose like you would be doing when, for example, studying grammar.
Consequently, learning is a passive process! It happens to you, you are not actively making it happen.
Using this knowledge as our basis, let’s venture out for a language learning experiment. In the following examples, I will use German to show you how language learning can bring tears of laughter to your eyes. This works with any language, so please substitute German for the language you are learning.
The translation method I use here is called “decoding”. I encourage you to use it so that you get a feeling for what qualifies as a joke in German language and culture. For more details on the decoding technique, please read my other article “A Brain-Friendly Approach To Learning Your Target Language” here on italki.
Generally, a joke in any given language is unique to this very language because of how it is structured and the cultural context it is connected to. That being said, a German joke can give you lots of information about the structure of German language and German culture. For example:
- Der Zollbeamte beugt sich in das geöffnete Fenster
- The customs-official bows himself in the opened window
- des Wagens und fragt: „Alkohol, Zigaretten?“
- of the wagon and asks: “Alcohol, cigarettes?“
- Der Fahrer winkt ab: "Nein, bitte zwei Kaffee!"
- The driver waves off: “No, please two coffee!”
Let’s be honest, the English translation sounds strange to anyone who knows proper English. What is important here is that, despite the awkward tone of the joke, some of the peculiarities of German are immediately clear to you. Here is a list of three unique aspects that you might have intuitively grasped (of course, there are more than three):
- Germans say wagon when they mean car.
- Germans say two coffee when they mean two cups of coffee.
- Germans say to wave off when they mean to wave dismissively.
Now, let’s look at how a native English speaker might tell this joke:
A customs officer leans into the opened window of the car and asks: “Alcohol, cigarettes?” The driver waves dismissively and says: “No, thanks! I’ll have two cups of coffee, please!”
Same story, but different tone.
Notice how much more you have gained by reading the literal translation instead of just reading the “sensible” translation. Whenever you use jokes as your German learning material and translate them word by word, you’re telling your brain to pretend that it is thinking in German. This helps you a lot because the brain does not make a difference between pretending and doing what you were only pretending.
One more, a little trickier example:
- Der Arzt meint zur Ehefrau:
- The doctor means to the marriage-woman:
- „Wir sollten eine Röntgenaufnahme von Ihrem Mann machen!“
- “ We should an X-ray-recording from your man make!“
- Ehefrau: „Ach, die können Sie sich sparen!
- Marriage-woman: “Oh, this can you yourself save!
- Ich durchschau meinen Mann auch so.“
- I through-look my man also so.”
Again, there are many unique aspects of German included in this joke. Just by trusting your gut feeling you might have recognized the following:
- Germans use to mean to someone in terms of to say something to someone.
- Germans don’t say wife and husband but literally speak of (marriage-)woman and (marriage-)man.
- Germans say to through-look to express to see through or to read someone's face
So, how might a native English speaker tell this joke?
The doctor says to the wife: “I think we should X-ray your husband”. The wife answers: “Oh, there is no need to! I see through him anyway”.
Now that you’re equipped with a laughter-generating tool, here are some ideas for your joky language learning adventure:
1. If a German joke starts out with a question, try to come up with an answer in German before you get to the provided answer. In this way, you are creating new connections between the words in your personal German dictionary. You might accidently even come up with a new and better joke. Example:
- Wer trägt eine Brille und kann doch nicht sehen?
- Who carries a glasses and can though not see?
- (You will find the answer at the bottom of the article).
2. Write down the jokes that make you laugh most and ask a native speaker to record them for you. Listen to your personal joke collection whenever you need to lift your mood.
3. Practice telling your favorite jokes. For example, begin your next video chat with a joke.
Please be aware that listening comes before speaking. Consequently, you should have listened to your jokes quite a few times in order to be able to pronounce them correctly (see also 2.).
4. Make up your own jokes in German and then share them with other people. You will always get a very clear emotional feedback which will help you greatly improve your understanding of German than any textbook can.
5. Collect jokes that deal with one of your passions or interests. This has two advantages. Firstly, it builds and strengthens your ability to talk about your interests in German. Secondly, it helps you to understand how else you can think of the words related to your passions. Put differently, it helps you to discover the ambiguity of words when you use them in everyday language. Definitely make use of this powerful skill to play with (any) language in your field of expertise! Let’s say you are a big fan of anything related to IT. Example:
- Ich habe eine Informatikerin nach ihrer Telefonnummer gefragt.
- I have an information-scientist-in after her telephone-number asked.
- Sie gab mir eine Schätzung.
- She gave me an estimate.
I asked a computer scientist for her telephone number. She only gave me an estimate.
So where can you find hilarious jokes? The Internet is a good place to start. Also, make sure to visit some bookstores next time you’re out and ask if they sell any joke collections.
As for German, I recommend to you a book called “Hausbuch des Deutschen Witzes” (ISBN: 978-3809434801 or 978-3809430117).
Good websites for German jokes are:
To end with, here is one more joke. Although the decoded version might sound a little strange, you will for sure know what it means.
- Der Kellner zum Gast: “ Ihr Glas ist leer. Soll ich Ihnen noch eins bringen?“
- The waiter to the guest: “Your glass is empty. Shall I you another bring?”
- Sagt der Gast: „Was soll ich denn mit zwei leeren Gläsern?“
- Says the guest: „What shall I for with two empty glasses?”
Ready to make your friends burst into laughter? With which joke will you start your next German conversation?
**Answer to the question in (1): Die Nase / the nose