Pardon the Pun
By Robert Schroeder
When Steve Bartman infamously touched a foul ball inches from the Chicago Cubs' Moises Alou's glove in a 2003 playoff game, triggering one of the most memorable collapses in baseball history, the Chicago Tribune headline screamed "Mitt Hits the Fan."
The double entendre was an exclamation point on a night that galvanized a city, vilified a citizen and cemented another legacy in local lore. For many English language learners, however, the joke was literally lost in translation.
National Louis University's Kristin Lems, Ph.D., professor in the National College of Education, argues that heavy focus on teaching academic language to English language learner (ELL) students has cost students useful gains in social language, an "in-between" language area often used in jokes and wordplay. Her article, "Pun Work Helps English Language Learners Get the Joke," was published in the November 2011 issue of The Reading Teacher.
"Many teachers find [ELL students'] writing to be correct but boring," Lems said. "There is so much emphasis on accuracy that they won't stray outside of their comfort zone and try to make outrageous wordplays."
There is more value in learning wordplay than simply being clever, Lems says. Social language skills are critical in crafting persuasive arguments, building friendships, reading headlines and understanding societal humor. With the growth of text messaging and instant-message communications, comprehending word-shortenings and acronyms is nearly a necessary skill.
Puns and wordplay are a standard feature of foreign languages, but the English language drastically expands the possibilities. Lems cites the language's unique orthography, or writing system, filled with words that hold great potential for word play. Many homophones contribute to humor, while polysemy, or words having radical different meanings, create jokes based on misunderstandings. Close pronunciations frequently create double or triple meanings. Text-based humor is a relatively unexplored area but growing in social language importance.
Lems says teachers are often constrained by standards that require extensive focus on academic language. No Child Left Behind standards established minimum "conversion" requirements of ELL students into the general student population, and many state standards are just as stringent. Valuable classroom time is expended familiarizing students with the language of textbooks, assignments and standardized testing.
There is value in academic advancement, says Lems, but if students never reach the point of development where they are understanding jokes and wordplays, she contends they have not really achieved proficiency.
"Too much academic language makes Juan a dull boy," Lems said. "You really do have to keep a balance between the strictly academic stuff and the types of social language that has high value in being a member of a language group."
Lems recommends teachers use strategies often used in fluency instruction to broaden the social language skills of ELL students. Oral language practice opportunities, identified as a weakness in many ELL classrooms, offer venues such as role playing, skits and readers theater to engage ELL students in joke-making.
Lems hopes to focus her next research on two areas, first on the transformation of language in texting, tweeting and instant messaging. With the formats encouraging short, pithy responses often featuring abbreviations and acronyms, research is lacking on how ELL students schooled with more verbose language skills will adapt to 21st century language technologies. Second, Lems hopes to examine what she calls a "major language reform," with words being shortened and re-spelled colloquially. Words such as lite replacing light and donuts replacing doughnuts are almost universally accepted as correct spellings.
And with that, the door cracks open a bit further for proficient language speakers to crack a joke.