What’s so Funny?

We all have the need to communicate. It is an intrinsic part of our human condition. Whenever we want to relate to someone else, or to another group, we often dig into the bag of humor, whether it is to make ourselves likable, or simply because we know that laughter is one of the best ways to make people (and ourselves) feel better. But, what happens when we want to relate to a group or a person who doesn’t speak our language? There are plenty of universal topics that make people relate. Physical humor (making funny faces, falling, etc.) is an easy way to induce laughter, and plenty of comedians (no matter the language they speak) use these resources to reach a wider audience.

Great stand-up comedians such as Jerry Seinfeld, Louis C.K, Chris Rock or Ricky Gervais have made a huge impact in the English speaking world of comedy. It’s already hard if we want to take a piece of their act and use it in our daily social life and attempt to be funny even in its original language. Most would say that you have to be naturally funny to be able to tell a joke properly; but, even if you are not, telling it properly will make your audience laugh no matter what—they say that delivery is everything. Moreover, what if you also need to convey the meaning in a different one? Translating a joke can be much harder than you might think. There’s always a bit of a challenge when it comes to telling a joke in a different country or to a different audience, even if they speak the same language. Not all Americans understand British humor, and vice versa. The same way, not all Latin American countries laugh at the same jokes, despite sharing a common language.

Foreign language teachers often say that once you are able to understand humor in the language you’re learning, it means that you have really learned it. And they’re not mistaken. Humor bears a lot of cultural background, so it becomes mandatory to adapt certain jokes or situations to our target audience. Language and culture are interrelated; so, understanding the latter becomes essential when working with languages, no matter the field. It is not just a matter of changing a couple words. We need to localize our speech so that it matches not only the linguistic arrangement but also the cultural one.  Sometimes it feels almost impossible to tell or understand a joke if you don’t have at least some clue regarding the historical, cultural and behavioral context of your audience.  Sometimes, when we move to another country, we might feel that maybe we won’t fit in; but, once you start understanding their background, you’ll understand the humor, and you will begin to have a completely different experience.