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.


verbal humour, English as a Foreign Language (EFL), French L1, English L1

Full Text:



Attardo, S. (2003). "Introduction: the pragmatics of humor." Journal of Pragmatics 35 (9), pp. 1287-1294.

Attardo, S., & Raskin, V. (1991). Script theory revis(it)ed: Joke similarity and joke representation model. Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, 4(3-4), pp. 293-347.

Béal, C. (2010). Les interactions quotidiennes en français et en anglais, de l’approche comparative à l’analyse des situations interculturelles. Peter Lang: Bern.

Béal, C. & Mullan, K. (2013). ‘Issues in conversational humour from a cross-cultural perspective: comparing French and Australian corpora’, in Peeters, B., Mullan, K. and Béal, C. (eds), Cross-culturally Speaking, Speaking Cross-culturally. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, pp. 107-139.

Béal, C. & Mullan, K. (2017a). ‘The pragmatics of conversational humour in social visits: French and Australian English’. Language and Communication 55, pp. 24-40.

Béal, C and Mullan, K. (2017b). ‘La verbalisation du calcul interprétatif et de l’incertitude en français et en anglais : approche comparative et interculturelle’. Cahiers de Praxématique 68. Special Issue, Gestion de l’implicite dans l’interaction orale en L2.

Bell, N. (2002). Using and understanding humor in a second language: A case study. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA.

Bell, N. (2005). ‘Exploring L2 language play as an aid to SLL: A case study of humor in NS–NNS interaction’. Applied Linguistics 26 (2), pp. 192-218.

Bell, N. (2009). ‘Learning about and through humor in the second language classroom’. Language Teaching Research 13 (3), pp. 241-258.

Brown, P. & Levinson, C. (1987). Politeness, some universals in language usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Charaudeau, P. (2006). ‘Des Catégories pour l’Humour ?’. Questions de communication 10, pp. 19-41. Retrieved July 15, 2019 from

Coates, J. (2007). Talk in a play frame: more on laughter and intimacy. Journal of Pragmatics 39, pp. 29–49

Cook, G. (2000). Language play, language learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Craik, K. H., Lampert, M. D., & Nelson, A. J. (1996). Sense of humor and styles of everyday humorous conduct. Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, 9(3-4), pp. 273-302.

Dynel, M. (2009). "Beyond a joke: Types of conversational humour." Language and Linguistics Compass 3 (5), pp. 1284-1299.

Dynel, M. (2011). "Joker in the pack: Towards determining the status of humorous framing in conversations." In Marta Dynel (ed.), The Pragmatics of Humour across Discourse Domains, pp. 217-241. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Dynel, M. (ed.). 2013. Developments in Linguistic Humour Theory. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Fadel, S. A. & Al-Bargi, A. (2018). ‘The Use of Humour in EFL Classrooms: Comparative Conversational Analysis Case Study’. Arab World English Journal (AWEJ) 9 (2), pp. 262-282.

Ford, C.E. & Fox, B.A. (2010). ‘Multiple practices for constructing laughables’, in Barth-Weingarten, D., Reber E. & Selting M. (eds), Prosody in Interaction, Amsterdam: Benjamins, pp. 339-368.

Goddard, C. (2006). "'Lift your game, Martina!': deadpan jocular irony and the ethnopragmatics of Australian English." In Cliff Goddard (ed.), Ethnopragmatics: understanding discourse in cultural context, pp. 65-97. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Haugh, M. (2011). "Humour, face and im/politeness in getting acquainted." In Bethan Davies, Michael Haugh and Andrew Merrison A (eds.), Situated politeness, pp. 165-184. London: Continuum.

Haugh, M. (2017). Mockery and (non-)Seriousness in initial interactions amongst American and Australian speakers of English. In Donal Carbaugh (ed.), The Handbook of Communication in Cross-Cultural Perspective, pp. 104-117. New York, United States: Routledge.

Haugh, M. and Bousfield, D. (2012). Mock impoliteness, jocular mockery and jocular abuse in Australian and British English. Journal of Pragmatics 44, pp.1099-1114.

Hay, J. (2000). ‘Functions of humor in the conversations of men and women’. Journal of Pragmatics 32 (6), pp. 709-742.

Hay, J. (2001). "The Pragmatics of Humor Support." HUMOR: International Journal of Humor Research 14 (1), pp. 55-82.

Holmes, J. & Marra, M. (2002). ‘Over the edge? Subversive humor between colleagues and friends’. International Journal of Humor Research 15 (1), pp. 65-87.

Kerbrat-Orecchioni, C. (2005). Le discours en interaction. Paris: Armand Colin.

Kim, S. & Park, S.-H. (2017). ‘Humor in the Language Classroom: A Review of the Literature’. Primary English Education 23 (4), pp. 241-262.

Lampert, M. D. and Ervin-Tripp, S. M. (2006). "Risky laughter: Teasing and self-directed joking among male and female friends." Journal of Pragmatics 38, pp. 51-72.

Leslie, C. (2015). ‘Humour in Peer Interaction in the L2 Classroom’. E-TEALS: An e-journal of Teacher Education and Applied Language Studies 6, pp. 51-67.

Martineau, W. H. (1972). ‘A model of the social functions of humor’. The psychology of humor: Theoretical perspectives and empirical issues, pp. 101-125.

Milner Davis, J. (ed.), 2005. Understanding Humor in Japan. Wayne State University Press, Detroit.

Milner Davis, J. and Chey, J. (eds.), 2013. Humour in Chinese Life and Culture: Resistance and Control in Modern Times. Hong Kong University Press.

Mullan, K. (forthcoming). ‘Humour in French and Australian English initial interactions’. In Journal of Pragmatics, special issue on the pragmatics of getting acquainted: Cross-cultural and intercultural perspectives.

Mullan, K. & Béal, C. (2018a). ‘Conversational humour in French and Australian English: What makes an utterance (un)funny?’. Special issue Conversational humour: forms, functions and practices across cultures, Intercultural Pragmatics 15(4), pp. 457-485.

Mullan, K. and Béal, C. (2018b). Introduction: Conversational humor: Forms, functions and practices across cultures. Special Issue: Conversational humor: Forms, functions and practices across cultures. Intercultural Pragmatics, 15(4), pp. 451-456.

Norrick, N. and Chiaro, D. (eds.). (2009). Humour in interaction, Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Partington, A. (2006). The linguistics of laughter: A corpus-assisted study of laughter-talk. New York: Routledge.

Peeters, B., Mullan, K. and Béal, C. (eds.). (2013) Cross-culturally Speaking, Speaking Cross-culturally. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Priego-Valverde, B. (2003). L’humour dans la conversation familière: description et analyse linguistiques. Paris: l’Harmattan.

Rabatel, A. (2013). ‘Humour et sous-énonciation (vs ironie et sur-énonciation)’. L’information grammaticale 137, pp 36-42.

Raskin, V. (1985). Semantic Mechanisms of Humor. D. Reidel Publishing Company, Dordrecht.

Raskin, V. (ed.). (2008). The Primer of Humor Research. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Ross, A. (1998). The language of humour. New York: Routledge.

Sacks, H., Schegloff, E., & Jefferson, G. (1974). ‘A Simplest Systematics for the Organization of Turn Taking in Conversation’. Language, 50, pp. 696-735.

Sinkeviciute, V. (2017). Funniness and “the preferred reaction” to jocularity in Australian and British English: An analysis of interviewees’ metapragmatic comments. Language and Communication 55, pp. 41-54.

Sinkeviciute, V. and Dynel, M. (2017). Approaching conversational humour culturally: A survey of the emerging area of investigation. Language and Communication 55, pp. 1-9.

Skogmyr Marian, K., Petitjean, C., & Pekarek Doehler, S. (2017). ‘Le développement de la compétence d'interaction en langue seconde : état des lieux et illustrations empiriques’. Revue française de linguistique appliquée 42, pp. 127-145.

Vivero Garcia, M. D. (ed.) (2013). Frontières de l’humour. Paris: l’Harmattan.



  • There are currently no refbacks.

Publication ethics and malpractice statement