Language and context
Sometimes great humour is born from taking language out of context. This lesson explores that fact with some examples, and asks students to think of some of their own.
- Identify the importance of context in language.
- Define pragmatics.
- Describe the way that language and context lead to humour in some example videos.
- Compose a humourous language exchange based on taking language out of context.
The fundamental question for this lesson is: How can context lead to humour in language? Ask the students to think about this question in pairs or groups and to try to recall some instances of humour – ideas, jokes, scenes in films or television, experience from real life, and so on – that arise from language appearing in an unusual context. Ask the students how and why their examples are funny.
Humour related to language and context arises because of the nature of pragmatics. Language never occurs in a vacuum: we always use language in context, whether we're chatting with friends or writing an essay for an exam. We use language differently when we speak with small children and when we speak with adults. News broadcasters use language differently from hip-hop artists. The list goes on and on. And when those contexts are crossed, the result is often humourous.
One good example is the video series Convos with my 2-year-old, in which two grown men re-enact actual conversations between a 2-year-old girl and her father. A good example of that series can be found here. Share the video with your students, and ask them how and why the video is funny – and how the humour relates to the nature of linguistic pragmatics.
Another example is chap-hop, as in this video. This satirical musician performs hip-hop using traditional English 'chap' or 'dandy' vocabulary and pronunciation. Try sharing this video as well and discussing how the humour relates to placing dandified language in a hip-hop context.
After viewing the video, ask students to think of two different linguistic situations or contexts, like the video. For example, they might consider language in a news broadcast and language in hip-hop lyrics. Then imagine the language from the first context reproduced in the second context - for example, imagine a newscasater speaking like a hip-hop artist or a hip-hop artist rapping about a human interest story using BBC vocabulary and pronunciation. In pairs or groups, students should compose a humourous scene (which they can later perform). The humour should arise from the crossed pragmatic contexts – from the use of a particular type of language in an unusual context.
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