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Humorous personal narratives in the ESL classroom. (Language Teaching & Learning).


This paper reports the results of an exploratory qualitative study of adult ESL students' humorous personal narratives shared in the college-level ESL class. The purpose of the study was to investigate the reasons why some of the stories were more successful with the multicultural audience in terms of audience involvement. The effective use of basic narrative template as well as theme choice seemed to be the reasons that made some stories stand out. Language proficiency did not seem to have an overwhelming effect on the success of the stories shared by the students. Pedagogical recommendations are also presented.


Study Background

Verbal humor can be defined as "a social message intended to produce laughter or smiling" and communicated through language (Ziv, 1988, p. ix). There has never been reported a culture where humor does not exist. However, it is one of the most difficult subject matters both to understand and to express in a second language.

According to Ziv (1988), humor techniques, such as incongruity, surprise and the use of contextual logic as well as humor functions are universal as they reflect human needs. However, "the greatest difference among cultures should be found in the contents and situations of humor" (Ziv, 1988, p. xi). As an example, most American jokes are focused on the topics of sexuality and aggression, whereas Chinese humor is centered around the issues related to social interactions (Shultz, 1977).

Even though incongruity is a major humorous technique, it is "... only relative to someone's conceptual scheme" (McGhee et al., 1983 p. 60). What an individual finds incongruous or humorous depends to a large extent on his/her culture, previous experience and current expectations. This is one of the reasons why adults from different cultures often have trouble understanding and therefore appreciating each other's humor. As Shakespeare wrote in his play "Love's Labour Lost":
 A jest's prosperity lies in the ear
 Of him that hears it, never in the tongue
 Of him who makes it.

Verbal humor plays a pivotal role in personal narratives, making us laugh at our own troubles and seeing the ridiculous in our own behavior. Within each nation, storytelling traditions have been passed from one generation to another, with humor being skillfully woven into the cultural fabric of folk tales, jokes, sayings and proverbs.

We as individuals are constantly involved in the process of reshaping our storytelling traditions by creating and listening to other people's narratives, which enables us to relive our experience once again and put it in a broader context of life. Stories are crucial for our communication with others and furnish us with information on the personality and identity of the storyteller and her characters (Lieblich et. al, 1998, p. 7).

Propp (1928) pioneered rhetorical analysis of narrative texts by examining the structure of Russian folk tales. Central to Propp's analysis is the notion that a story is a text that relates to the audience a change of state or an event. Propp analyzed types of characters and kinds of actions performed in Russian folk tales and arrived at the conclusion that there are thirty-one fundamental events or `narratemes'. Propp showed that though not all of the thirty-one narratemes were present in all stories, all the tales displayed these fundamental events in a predictable stable sequence.

Labov (1972) applied Propp's ideas to the analysis of spontaneous narratives collected from lower-class young black males in New York City and concluded that `fully-formed oral narratives' have a six-part structure, including: abstract, orientation, complicating action, evaluation, result, and coda. Comparing stories from different cultures, psycholinguists and cognitive psychologists came to the conclusion that narratives share a common basic template (Labov, 1972, Labov & Waletsky, 1967, Mandler, 1982, Hatch, 1999).

A typical story begins with an abstract, which briefly informs the audience what the narrative is about. The abstract is followed by an orientation, which usually includes hero introduction and specifies time frame and the story's spatial settings. The next step for the storyteller is to state the hero's goal and explain what prevents the hero from attaining this goal. In the following part of the story the teller describes how the hero goes about achieving the goal. The resolution shows the hero's goal attained. And finally, the concluding part of the story, also known as the coda, provides the teller with an opportunity to formulate the story's moral and evaluate its relevance to the present.

In the evaluation part the storyteller explains why the story is important to the audience. These evaluative comments are tightly intertwined with the story line and might be summarized at the end of the story in the coda. Successful storytellers creatively employ various linguistic and non-linguistic devices to show their evaluation and involvement in the story. These devices include but are not limited to the use of gestures, intonation, variations in voice loudness, mimicry, repetitions for emphasis and intensity, superlatives, etc. (Hatch, 1999).

Undoubtedly, humor is yet another device with which storytellers can show their involvement and evaluation. Successful storytellers instinctively know the multifaceted value of humor and will not miss an opportunity to add some laughs to their narrative. Humor has the ability to add spice to an otherwise bland recitation of facts, soften the sharp edges of controversial matters and ultimately make us more perceptive to the message being communicated.

In 1966 Kaplan in his "doodles article" suggested the notion of indigenous cultural thought patterns. This notion is central in understanding that people from different cultures use the basic narrative template in a creative manner based on the preferred rhetorical modes in their native culture. For example, Matsuyama, 1983 showed a major difference in the Asian and Western storytelling traditions, both of which are governed by the basic narrative template rules. According to Matsuyama, 1983, Asian stories favor character development, explanations of motives and descriptions of interpersonal relationships, whereas narratives told within Western tradition are typically centered around plot development and action.

The application of the narrative template theory to second language learners' narratives poses several important questions. First of all, do second language learners transfer their knowledge of the narrative template into their second language? If they do, does the use of the template and its accompanying storytelling strategies facilitate message delivery? When and how learners become aware of the various cultural interpretations of the basic template? These and other related questions need to be fully explored. This study is an attempt to start this investigation.

Study Purpose

This paper reports the results of an exploratory qualitative study of adult ESL students' humorous personal narratives shared in a college-level ESL class. The purpose of the study was to explore these narratives in an attempt to account for the reasons why some of them were more successful with the multicultural audience in terms of audience involvement in the form of backchanneling, volunteering subsequent stories and student evaluation.


A multicultural group of college-level intermediate/low advanced ESL students at an American university was asked to compose outside of class and share in their ESL classroom a funny story about themselves or about someone they personally knew. This task was an extension of one of the reading assignments they had earlier when each student read a different humorous story by James Thurber and had to make a short presentation about the story in class. Students were directly instructed not to bring to the class any jokes they might have heard from their friends or read in the papers or on the Internet. Instead they were encouraged to create their own personal narratives with some elements of verbal humor.

The data were comprised of nine stories produced by a student sample, which consisted of four students from Asia, three from Spanish-speaking countries, one from Saudi Arabia and one from Russia. There was only one student who was confused as to what type of story she was supposed to write. This student was given a second chance and at the next class she successfully produced a personal narrative with some elements of humor. To analyze the obtained data, I used participant observation techniques as well as discourse analysis methodologies.

During the class I encouraged the students to make comments and to ask questions if they did not understand the story told by their classmates. The students were also motivated to share their own experiences similar to the ones described in the stories of their fellow students. I emphasized that the goal of that particular class was not the acquisition of language forms and development of accuracy. The students were inspired to use English in a creative manner in order to communicate their personal messages. I obtained the students' permission to tape the class and throughout the class period no one seemed self-conscious or worried about being recorded. Conversely, the students seemed very relaxed, interested in the stories told by their classmates and in most cases eager to make a comment or add to the stories. As part of their homework the students were asked to e-mail to the instructor the names of the students whose stories they liked the most. Student work was evaluated based on the clarity of the message they communicated. Extra points were assigned to those students who contributed to the classroom discussion most.


The students came up with a range of topics they found humorous and worth sharing in the classroom, including language misunderstanding, practical jokes, possession loss, coming of age experience, fear, travelling to a new country, mistaken identity, birth, and learning a new skill. In most cases the choice of the theme revealed a lot about the student, his/her personality as well as cultural identity.

For example, one story told by a Japanese student dealt with the theme of mistaken identity and saving face, themes traditionally prevalent in the Japanese society. The gist of the story is the following: an elementary school student walks in the street and sees his mother in the crowd. He runs towards her, screaming "Mom, Mom!" but to his dismay the woman turns out to be a complete stranger. Not wanting to get embarrassed, the boy keeps on running until he is far away from the lady he has mistaken for his mother.

Interestingly, this was not the story about the student himself but was an account of a story that happened to one of the student's friends. When asked if other students had similar experiences, several participants shared stories about mistaking strangers for their close friends. A student from Mexico volunteered information about when she was an elementary school student. At times she would be so eager to be selected by the teacher to answer the question, that she would get her terms of address all mixed up and would call the teacher "Mother" much to her dismay and to the amusement of her classmates.

The stories that generated the most feedback in terms of backchanneling, questions, comments and subsequent stories of similar experiences were also the stories chosen as the best by the students. They were a story about travelling to America produced by a female low advanced student from Venezuela, a story about a language misunderstanding shared by a Taiwanese male low intermediate student, and a story about learning a new skill told by a Russian female low intermediate student. My opinion concurred with the selection made by my students: it was rather obvious that these three stories stood out from the others by their successful delivery of the intended message and the effective weaving of humorous elements.

Successful storytelling, especially the one that requires the use of verbal humor, usually presupposes a relatively good command of language. In this project one of the best stories chosen by the audience was indeed performed by the most proficient student in the group. However, the other two most successful stories were produced by the students with language skills at the lower end of the class. This seems to prove the point made by Hatch (1992) that there could be some factors other than language proficiency at play when it comes to effective message delivery. Hatch (1992) suggests that one of the factors that might be responsible for the adequate delivery of the message in a personal narrative is the effective use of the basic template with the explicit inclusion of the evaluative component.

Undoubtedly, all students used the basic template for their narratives. However, those who utilized it with more accuracy and effectively employed the evaluative component by showing their involvement in the story, were also the most successful storytellers. Second language proficiency was an issue, but the effective use of basic narrative template definitely enhanced the stories told by less proficient students.

For example, the story shared by the student from Russia had an abstract ("I'd like to tell a story about my first experience skiing ..."), orientation ("For winter break my friend and I went to a mountain resort."), the problem ("I couldn't ski, but I decided to try. First time, second time I didn't fall, but I couldn't stop. I skied very fast. My friend watched me. After he decided, that I could ski very well. He didn't tell me anything at all ... and took me on the huge mountains."), steps that lead to the solution of the problem ("When I began to ski on the mountain I fell, fell, fell, and couldn't stop."), resolution ("When I stopped, I didn't have skis, and couldn't see them ... I broke my sunglasses. After I had a lot of bruises on my body."), and coda ("I think I'll remember my first experience for the rest of my life.").

In this story the student used repetition, intonation, even gestures to negotiate meaning, to relate to the audience her involvement in the story and perhaps to compensate for the lack of English proficiency. The effective use of the narrative template in a combination with a good topic selection and appropriate conversational strategies resulted in a story that elicited interest among the students.

Naturally, the most popular stories were the ones that employed topics that were easy to identify with for the students. Coming to a new country, communication breakdown due to a language mistake and learning a new skill -- these three topics were familiar and easy to sympathize with for all young adult ESL learners who were represented in the class. The choice of these topics promoted voluntary stories of similar experiences, establishing a dialogue between the students on important to them and relevant to their life histories issues.

For example, the students were extremely enthusiastic about the story by the Venezuelan student who gave an account of her first flight to America and all the strange and funny things that she and her husband had to go through in the plane, at the customs, while waiting for the cab at the airport, and finally when arriving on campus. In response to this narrative, a Saudi Arabian student shared an interesting story about her problems when leaving her home country on the way to America. In Saudi Arabia at the customs Saudi women have to show a written document certifying their husband's consent regarding their travelling on their own. Unfortunately the student forgot this important paper in America where her husband and one of her kids were waiting for her. Luckily, she was able to reach her husband on the cell phone. He, then, convinced the Saudi customs officer to let the student board her plane. This story roused a lot of interest among the students, even though it was not humorous.

On the other hand, one of the stories that were less successful dealt with the topic of birth. In gist, a female low intermediate student from Columbia shared with the class a family story about her birth. She was a premature baby unexpectedly delivered at home in the bathroom. The story created some reaction in the classroom: some female students commented on the story, stating that it might have been very dangerous for the student's mother. However, it was quite obvious that most of the students did not feel comfortable discussing this topic in the classroom.

At the end of the semester in their course evaluation, several students indicated that this was one of their favorite classes during that particular semester. One of the students added that he enjoyed this class so much because he was able "to learn that other students had similar problems and all could laugh at the same things."

Discussion and Recommendations

In conclusion, a good language command is a must for a successful storyteller. However, sometimes language proficiency is not the main barrier that hinders audience involvement with the story. Often cultural differences that might manifest in an inappropriate theme choice and insufficient use of storytelling strategies result in a story with a scrambled message. It seems that all stories, with or without verbal humor, told by second language speakers are more appreciated if "... the teller follows the narrative template and uses the evaluation component to effectively involve the listener in the story" (Hatch, 1992, p. 173).

The exploratory nature of this study set certain limits on what it can accomplish. The results clearly indicate that it is possible that second language learners tap into their knowledge of the basic narrative template when performing in a second language. The obtained sample prompts that second language learners can successfully use a number of storytelling strategies, including humor, to show their involvement in the narrative and to evaluate its content. However, further comprehensive investigation of this aspect of second language learning has to be accomplished in order to obtain a larger sample, which can yield more definite results.

From the practitioner's point of view, it seems clear that ESL students might benefit from being explicitly taught about the narrative template and its evaluative component. However, due to the fact that the basic narrative template is universal and good storytelling strategies exist in all cultures, ESL instructors should abstain from the role of lecturers with all the answers. Instead they should become discussion facilitators who will lead students toward the realization of their subconscious knowledge.

This could be done through the overt analysis of stories written by professional writers, in-class discussions of good storytelling strategies used by successful narrators, practice of these strategies in the sheltered environment of an ESL classroom and self-reflection. Students can also conduct guided explorations on how different speech patterns and conversation strategies influence audience by watching and discussing videos of famous stand-up comedians and listening to the tapes of humorous radio shows.

Offering students guidance at the initial stage of story production can ensure an appropriate theme choice. This guidance might manifest itself in various prewriting/pre-speaking activities, including guided topic selection, writing a thesis statement, writing an outline, etc. Extension activities of this project might include, for example, writing reviews of other students' stories or writing reflections on one's own performance. Another possible extension activity that might motivate a lot of students is creating a class Web page dedicated to the student's stories. This will enable students to address a larger real audience making their language use more authentic.

This paper shows that there is a niche for personal humorous narratives in the ESL classroom. Not only do they provide a great opportunity for students to be involved in meaningful communication but also create a wonderful venue for stories to be told that bear both personal and cultural value. These stories might have a therapeutic influence on some of the students who get an opportunity to share their experience with the people who might be going through the same situations. On the other hand, this and similar activities promote creative language usage, making students more independent and willing to take the risk of using their language for real life communication. Finally, sharing personal narratives in a multicultural classroom provides a great educational opportunity for all involved.


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Hatch, E. (1992). Discourse and language education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Labor, W., & Waletsky, J. (1966). Narrative analysis: Oral versions of personal experience. In J. Helm (Ed.), Essays on the Verbal and Visual Arts: Proceedings of the 1966 Annual Spring Meeting of the American Ethnological Society (pp. 12-44). Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Lieblich, A., & Tuval-Mashiach, R., Zilber, T. (1998). Narrative research: Reading, analysis, and interpretation. London: Sage.

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McGhee, P. E., & Goldstein, J. H. (Eds.) (1983). Handbook of humor research: Basic issues. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Propp, V. (1968). The morphology of the folktale. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Shultz, T.R. (1977). A cross cultural study of the structure of humor. In Chapman, A. J. & Foot, H. C. (Eds.), It's a funny thing, humor (pp. 175-179). London: Pergamon Press.

Thurber, J. (1931). The Thurber carnival. New York: Harper and Brothers.

Ziv, A. (Ed.) (1988). National styles of humor. Westport, CN: Greenwood Press.

Julia Stakhnevich, Bridgewater State College, MA

Julia is currently teaching college-level ESL and teacher training courses. Her main research interests include educational technology and discourse analysis.
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Author:Stakhnevich, Julia
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2001
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