I Want to Be Able to Joke

I think my host family finds me to be slightly dour (and more than a little simple). Most people who encounter me in English-speaking contexts do not, I hope, share this impression. In English, I’m funny (usually) and loud (sometimes) and a presence to be reckoned with.
But in French (and it’s even more difficult cousin, Frolof), I’m unable to joke. I’m also usually unable to understand other people’s jokes. It’s a crapshoot as to whether I’m able to respond to direct questions, most of the time. About the only thing I’m able to do with any consistency is obey direct orders to go get things out of the kitchen, and even then they have to be set out for me or I’m unable to find them.

The whole experience is like some horrible reverse Sapir-Whorf experiment. Their theory, for those who haven’t had to learn it, is that the words in a language control the way that you’re able to experience a world. If you do not have a word for an emotion or a relationship or a color, those things do not exist for you, generally. Even if you’re aware of them, you’re not able to communicate them to other people.

Here, I have all of the words I could possibly need in English, but none of them in French. I can’t be funny if I don’t know any jokes. I can’t talk about politics if I don’t know the word for “foreign policy.” I’m as funny as I want to be in my head, but I am painfully stern as far as the Senegalese are concerned.

I think this, more than anything, is why all of the American students in my program insist on speaking to each other in English, rather than French or Wolof. If you spend all of your time at home having to pretend to be this other, sterner person, you begin to feel like you’re stuck in a play where you only understand about half the lines and are consistently failing at playing your part. It’s profoundly uncomfortable.

If I couldn’t joke with the other students in my program, I’d be really unhappy. I’m sure the same is true for anyone who operates primarily in a second (or third, or fourth) language. It does make me wander at what point of proficiency this stops being true—whether it’s ever possible to feel like you’re being fully yourself in a non-native tongue.

I’ve had several professors who grew up speaking other languages, and they are certainly all able to not only joke, but to make puns in English. They spend much of their professional lives operating in a language that isn’t theirs, and I think many of them speak English in their personal lives at least some of the time. Clearly they feel enough like themselves that they’ve established lives and roles where they operate in English.

It’s a side effect of the privilege English as a native language gives me that I will in all likelihood never have to fully live a life where I’m expected to operate in another language unless I opt to do so (like now). I don’t know how well this program is going to succeed in its goals to make me better at French, but if nothing else it has at least forced me to explore issues of language in my own life. I still don’t have any answers one way or the other about it, but if I wanted those I suppose I wouldn’t be in the social sciences to begin with.

3 thoughts on “I Want to Be Able to Joke

  1. Hi Emily. Your post is so interesting. As you probably know I am a German linguist living in the US. As every linguist and student of languages will be able to confirm, understanding puns and jokes is one of the most difficult things to accomplish in another language and after decades of learning English and living in the US I still often miss the cultural context to fully appreciate puns, jokes or idioms (this is especially true in British English). Many connotations are established during childhood when we are totally unaware of it and it is practically impossible to repeat the process once we are older.

    I am most painfully reminded of my limitations when I play games that use words such as taboo. I remember another player having to explain to me the word ‘pony’ without using the word and she said: “what every five-year old girl wants for birthday” (or Christmas). I had no idea. German girls obviously don’t want ponies for birthday. I guess our realities are just different.

    I find spending time with people whose language we don’t speak very valuable because it strips us of the safety that a language that we share with a certain group of people provides us and we get to a very basic form of relationship with others and I guess with ourselves.

    On the other hand one of the things I like in Americans is their sense of humor. I find the German sense of humor awful and I sometimes ask myself whether this is the reason why I don’t want to live there. Honestly…

    • Thank you for your very sweet comment! It’s interesting to me the cultural stuff that does and does not get transmitted along with language–particularly since I have a few professors who are teaching me anthropology (culture, all the time) in what is their second or third language. Cultural traditions or humor that makes perfect sense among the students if often lost on the person actually explaining cultural study to us, and things that they wish to convey are occasionally Not A Thing in American English.

      I had no idea about the pony thing. What do small children want instead in Germany?

      I made my host sister laugh the other day! I was very pleased.

  2. I was thinking about what little girls want in Germany. From my own experience, and a niece that I had to get Christmas presents for several years ago when I last visited Germany, I would say the girly stuff: cute dresses and shiny shoes (like the things I probably must have seen on American girls), anything lacy, jewelry (I got a pearl bracelet from American friends which I still vividly remember), I always wanted a doll (never got one), I know I would have wanted a bike (never got that either and always rode the bike on carousels) and was happy when I finally got roller skates. A dog would have been beyond my expectations…(and it was…). But I also liked books and I know I was happy when I got a box of coloring pencils and my first pair of pants (at that time almost the only sort of pants that girls or women would wear in Germany were skiing pants).

    I’m not sure in how far I am typical, but I never was into horses as a girl.

    And actually, because I had 6 older brothers I probably wouldn’t have admitted to anybody that I liked the girly stuff. Officially, my favorite color was blue and I hated anything girly 😉

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