Don’t be afraid to joke around in a foreign language

By | February 11, 2014

Foreign language study, which can take many hundreds of hours of study and practice, is anything but a joke. But keeping things light and not being afraid to attempt a joke here or an out-of-context line there is one of the keys to increased fluency.

As I mentioned in this post, language is filled with amazing diversity where each specialized domain contains a set of unique words and phrases. If you’re living and working in a country whose native language is that which you are studying, with some effort you can probably find time to practice many of the words you’ve picked up to make sure they get cemented in your long-term lexicon. But for those of us who are stuck learning in a non-ideal environment where native speakers are few and far between, then the more opportunities you can make to try out different expressions the better.

To get a bit more specific, let’s say I’m watching a Japanese TV series which involves a lot of business meetings and the requisite talk that goes with them. Since I’m not working in a company where many people speak Japanese I’ll won’t find a proper place to practice any of the phrases I’ve learned, many of which could possibly be used if I ever move to Japan.

But there is nothing stopping me from using these with my Japanese-speaking family, friends, or teachers, as long as there is no insulting or disrespect involved. Of course you should never practice lines picked up from a Yakuza character with your Japanese teacher, no matter how well you think you know them. For the more extreme phrases, you can always just practice in front of a mirror to refine your pronounciation and get it firmly stuck in your memory.

This type of practice can be extended to anything you wouldn’t normally use in everyday conversation, from regional dialects to baby speech to scientist-talk. Of course you can memorize entire jokes too and see if you can get any laughs out of a crowd, but the number of actual jokes I’ve heard in dramas, novels, and movies is almost zero.

If you’re lucky, your conversation partner will play along and you can get to roll-play some situations you wouldn’t normally be able to experience otherwise. And besides the inherent language learning benefits, you’ll have great fun which leads to more overall satisfaction and better odds to persist in your learning.

Just be prepared for an occasional awkward moment where you leave out a critical word, or even worse when the meaning of the line you repeated turns out to be much more serious than your imagined. I’ve had my share of these slip-ups and I can tell you I’ve learned better how to apologize as a result (:

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