Humor for ESL Students

I know that Rebecca is the one who often teaches ESL but then I thought, well, I could unhelpfully contribute! So here I am! I'm going to write about how to do humor if you are not a native speaker of English but still want to be funny. I'll teach you two different methods.

Method number one: try to be funny like an American.

This is actually the easiest way to write. I follow a couple general guidelines. First of all, you have to follow the rule of three, which is a cornerstone of comedy. You have to make a serious list of things, but then the third item is the zany item. Allow me to demonstrate.

Example: Fruits you should always eat: bananas, apples, and mice.

That is instant humor, and any American will instantly appreciate it. Americans also really love mean humor. The less nice you are to someone, the better, but you have to be sure to pick on someone that a lot of people hate. Here is another example.

Example: Fruits you should not eat: Lindsay Lohan.

No one likes Lindsay Lohan. This will be true forever and ever, so just bear it in mind. If she dies, we instantly can't make fun of her even though we really hated her, so be careful. Keep your Google Alert set to something like "Lindsay Lohan fatal hair extension accident" and you will be fine.

The last thing that you will have to do–incessantly–is make references to things. Americans have a very short attention span so you have to BACK TO THE FUTURE make a lot of references to popular things that they like to keep their tiny BREAKFAST CLUB attention spans focused. Right now, for some godforsaken reason, Americans are obsessed with the worst decade in human history, the 1980s. If you refer to anything from that period, they will laugh their asses off.

Example: Bananas are the Ivan Drago to the orange's Rocky Balboa.

Does this make sense? Don't worry, it isn't your English. It is the fact that it makes no sense but has a reference to a popular movie that someone will laugh at that. And that's okay. You probably feel dirty, cheap, or exploited somehow. Well, you are. You are referring to movies from a bygone era in a desperate attempt to get a laugh. And that is why American humor is so easy to write!

Method two: translate your culture's humor into English.

This is tougher, but it can still be successful. As I mentioned before, Americans are very easily amused by offbeat and odd humor, so by mere virtue of your culture's humor being something different, you can be pretty hilarious without trying too hard. You don't even have to be hilarious in your own native language to still be appealing. There are a few angles to try here.

One thing to try is by using bad English. Americans speak such bad English that they feel grateful when someone who doesn't speak it natively screws it up, so feel free. I recommend misspelling things, using the wrong preposition, and maybe even inverting subject-object order.

Example: The fruit eating am I so exkwizite by the Peru made!

I laughed just typing that. Hard.

Another thing that never fails to entertain is to be blatantly and openly discriminatory. Ever since the bottomlessly awful Borat movie came out, Americans fully expect anyone with an accent to be stunningly sexist, racist, homophobic, or any other stripe of bigotry. You probably are not such a person, but it is something your audience expects. My recommendation is to stick to little-known ethnic groups, or even to make one up. It isn't like we read books here.

Example: Fruits to avoid: any grown by those filthy Brobdingnagians.

I will admit that cracked me up.

The final thing that you can do, and this never fails to disappoint, is to translate your native language's idioms, cliches, and references. The sheer bizarre nature of the reference will in most cases be enough, but if not, your idioms certainly will be. Idioms are always weird little things, and you can easily get away with using them translated word for word.

Example: You should not eat more than two fruits per day. After all, a pig is only as good as its wheelbarrow's axel, as they say!


Do you have any tips for me? Leave them in the comments below!

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Clint Osterholz is a freelance writer who thinks he's awfully funny, and is surprisingly not a disappointment to his parents. You're always free to check out his portfolio if you'd like someone to be funny, or maybe write something a little more serious. Subscribe to my posts (only posts from this author).

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