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Applied Linguistics 26/2: 192218

doi:10.1093/applin/amh043

Oxford University Press 2005

Exploring L2 Language Play as an Aid


to SLL: A Case Study of Humour
in NSNNS Interaction

Indiana University of Pennsylvania


In the past few years researchers have begun to show an interest in humour
and language play as it relates to second language learning (SLL). Tarone (2000)
has suggested that L2 language play may be facilitative of SLL, in particular by
developing sociolinguistic competence, as learners experiment with L2 voices;
and by destabilizing the interlanguage (IL) system, thus allowing growth to
continue. She recommends research examining the ways in which adult L2
speakers interacting outside the classroom play with language as a way of
learning more about this issue. Using case study methodology to document the
ways in which L2 verbal humour was negotiated and constructed by three
advanced non-native speakers (NNSs) of English as they interacted with native
speakers (NSs) of English, this study contributes to this knowledge base by
showing patterns of interaction that arise during humorous language play
between NSs and NNSs and how these may benefit second language acquisition
(SLA). Results suggest that language play can be a marker of proficiency, as
more advanced participants used L2 linguistic resources in more creative ways.
Language play may also result in deeper processing of lexical items, making
them more memorable, thus it may be especially helpful in the acquisition of
vocabulary and semantic fields.

INTRODUCTION
Although humour has only recently begun to receive attention from
scholars in SLA, it has a history of theoretical and empirical work that dates
back to Plato and Aristotle (Morreall 1983; see also Raskin 1985, ch. 1).
Humour can be used to negotiate identities (Apte 1985; Basso 1979; Boxer
and Cortes-Conde 1997; Eder 1993; Eisenberg 1986; Wennerstrom 2000;
Yedes 1996), to mitigate face-threatening acts (Holmes 2000), to create and
affirm affiliation (Basso 1979; Boxer and Cortes-Conde 1997; Eder 1993;
Norrick 1993; Straehle 1993), to communicate social norms or to criticize
(Eder 1993; Eisenberg 1986; Goldberg 1997; Jorgensen 1996; Miller 1986;
Norrick 1993; Yedes 1996), to attempt to subvert social norms or power
structures (Holmes and Marra 2002), to release feelings of aggression
(Pogrebin and Poole 1988; Yedes 1996), to protect ones own positive face

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NANCY D. BELL

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needs (Holmes 2000; Norrick 1993; Zajdman 1995) and of course, to


entertain (Eisenberg 1986; Holmes 2000).
Language play in general has long been recognized as important for
development and learning and has been of interest to L1 researchers for
some time (e.g., Cazden 1976; Chukovsky 1963; Kuzcaj 1983; Nelson 1989;
Weir 1962). Scholars of second language learning (SLL), however, have only
recently started to examine the functions of humorous language play for
L2 learners (Belz 2002; Belz and Reinhardt 2004; Broner and Tarone 2001;
Cook 1997, 2000; Crystal 1998; Davies 2003; Kramsch and Sullivan 1996;
Lantolf 1997; Sullivan 2000; Tarone 2000). Tarone (2000) suggests that the
role of language play in SLL is facilitative, although not necessary. Because
studies of L2 language play have focused largely on children and adolescents
in L2 classrooms, she calls for further research focusing on how adult L2
speakers interacting outside of the classroom play with language, in order to
further our understanding of the contribution of language play to SLL. She
also sees arguments for increasing the role of language play in SLL in
the work of Larsen-Freeman (1997) who views interlanguage (IL) from the
perspective of chaos/complexity science, as a complex nonlinear system. She
also draws on the Bakhtinian model of language as a site where normalizing
forces are in tension with forces of individual creativity. Both chaos/
complexity science and the Bakhtinian model provide a way of viewing
language play as part of the unpredictability inherent in (L2) language use
and stemming from individual creativity.
Within this model, Tarone suggests that language play may aid in the
acquisition of sociolinguistic competence as learners experiment with
different voices by, for example, humorously imitating a friend or playfully
criticizing someone by using a pedantic teacher style. She also proposes
that play with language form may make a contribution to SLL, explaining
that the IL system could not develop unless the more conservative forces
demanding accuracy were counterbalanced with more creative forces
demanding innovation (Tarone 2000: 49). In other words, language play
may help to destabilize the IL system, allowing growth to continue. Finally,
she also notes that language play may facilitate SLL by lowering the affective
filter. These positive feelings could in turn make the linguistic elements
involved in the play more memorable.
Developing the ideas presented in Cook (1997), Cook (2000) argues for
the importance of language play for adult language learning, as well as for
child language acquisition. He notes that, like children, adults spend a great
deal of time involved in play and unreality, through, for example, watching
television, reading works of fiction, daydreaming, playing games, and using
humour. He explores various explanations as to why humans might do this,
rather than spend their free time simply doing nothing, and his book
reinforces the idea that play has a central role in human development
whether at the level of species, society, or individual. Like Tarone (2000),
he sees the elements of randomness (in the sense of unpredictability) and

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creativity that are involved in language play as central to development,


and suggests that language play be incorporated into L2 classrooms. He also
suggests, similarly to Tarone, that the very fact that the forms constructed
through language play are unusual and novel may make them more
memorable to the learner than forms that are common in daily usage. Cook
also views the ability to play with language as a potentially important
marker of proficiency.
The work of Sullivan (2000, see also Kramsch and Sullivan 1996) suggests
yet another possible role for L2 language play, that of raising learner
awareness of L2 forms. She was struck by the large amount of laughter that
she observed in Vietnamese classrooms, and set out specifically to examine
L2 language play and its mediating role between the participants and the
language under study. In this class, the teacher and students created
humorous collaborative narratives, and played with both the sounds and
meanings of English words. Sullivan suggests that the playful L2 utterances
that were exchanged between the instructor and his students served to raise
the students awareness of the links between L2 form and meaning.
Drawing on V. Cooks (1992) concept of multicompetence, Belz (2002)
takes on the issue of language play from the perspective of the learner to
demonstrate not so much how it may aid in acquisition, but how it can
reveal the ways in which learners construct new selves and new social
relations through play with the L2 and multilingual play. Belz and Reinhardt
(2004) further develop this idea through the case study of one learner of
German. They show how this learner used language play for his own
creative pleasure, to experiment with L2 forms and functions, to create and
maintain relationships, and to present positive face. In addition, they provide
examples of how L2 language play may be used as evidence of advanced
proficiency. Whereas Cooks (2000) suggestion along these lines emphasized
the appropriate use of linguistic forms, Belz and Reinhardt focus on
proficiency as the ability to use language as a symbolic resource in order to
effect membership in social groups and in order to facilitate the performance
of social actions within these groups (2004: 351). One way the participant
revealed his advanced proficiency was by showing, through L2 play, his
awareness of the multifunctionality of language, including its aesthetic,
semantic, and semiotic functions.
Davies (2003) examines the collaborative construction of humour between
NSs and NNSs of English in the context of voluntary peer conversation
groups at an intensive English programme, rather than in classrooms. The
NNS participants in this study were beginning learners of English, and the
NSs were American student employees of the programme, who participated
in weekly sessions with a faculty coordinator to discuss cross-cultural
communication skills. Davies analysis revealed how the NS played an
important role in the construction of humorous discourse by providing
support in the form of initiations of humour, scaffolding of NNS attempts
at humour, and construction of contexts that were conducive to NNS

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195

DEFINING HUMOROUS LANGUAGE PLAY


Because it is used in different ways and because it is relatively new to L2
research, the use of the term language play, and the use of the term
humour as well, require some discussion. Broner and Tarone (2001) note
that the term language play has been used by L2 researchers in two senses.
Lantolf (1997) uses the term in the sense of rehearsal. In this view,
language play is not necessarily fun, but rather a means by which learners
develop linguistic skills. More frequently, however, the term has been used
to refer to the use of language for fun and amusement.
For Cook (2000: 123), language play typically combines three features:
linguistic patterning and repetition, semantic reference to alternative worlds
and vital subject matter, and the pragmatic function of social inclusion
and/or exclusion. As such, it includes a broad swath of activities, including
verbal dueling, tongue twisters, songs and rhymes, puns, riddles, jokes,
narratives, and play languages, such as Pig Latin. Clearly, not all of these are
humorous all of the time. Songs and rhymes, for example, do not necessarily
entail mirth, and thus often fall outside the category of humorous language
play (2000: 71), which raises laughter. Sullivan, too, notes that play entails
fun and that it is often accompanied by laughter, and includes in her use of
the term teasing and joking, puns and word play, and oral narratives (2000:
122). Sociolinguistic definitions of humor (e.g. Holmes 2000; Norrick 1993)
overlap a great deal with Cooks and Sullivans.
Belz (2002), however, points out that most accounts of play have defined
it in one of two ways: either as a list of criteria or as the way in which an

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creation of humour. She suggests that NS support allows learners not only
to learn how to engage in the joking activity, but also to experience its social
meaning in American society (Davies 2003: 1382).
Each of these studies suggests various roles that language play may have
in facilitating SLL. Taking this prior research as a base, for the present study
I examined the playful interaction of three adult L2 speakers of English
interacting outside of the classroom with NSs of English and asked whether
and how this play may have furthered their SLL. Using Tarones (2000)
suggestions for ways in which language play may aid SLL as a starting point,
I examined my data for potentially facilitative patterns of interaction that
occurred in the humorous language play of the three participants. In this
case, the learners are much more advanced than those of the studies
mentioned above. In addition, whereas Davies participants interacted with
sympathetic NSs, the NNSs in this study recorded their conversations with
a wide variety of NSs, from family members to strangers, and thus were
not always certain to encounter a NS willing to collaborate with them. Thus,
the examples I present of humour are not always co-constructed, or even
apparently humorous to both parties. Because of this, I begin with a
definition of humour/language play.

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METHODOLOGY
In this section I describe the methodology employed in the gathering and
analysis of data. I begin with a description of the data.

Data
The data for the research reported here come from a larger study that used
qualitative and quantitative discourse analysis to investigate how L2 humour
was perceived and negotiated by three highly advanced female NNSs
of English in interaction with native English speakers (Bell 2002). Each
participant was initially interviewed to obtain details of her background,
learn about the English NSs with whom she interacted regularly, and explore
her views on both L1 and L2 humour. The primary source of data, however,
came from tape recordings of the interaction of the three participants with
NSs over a period of 1 to 2 years. During this time, each participant was
provided with a mini cassette recorder and taped her conversations with NSs
whenever convenient and appropriate.1 By encouraging the participants
to record interaction at their discretion (and at the discretion of their
interlocutors, who gave verbal permission to be taped) I had little control

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activity is done. In her examination of the language play of German foreign


language learners, she draws on Kuczaj (1983) and Weir (1962) in defining
language play as the conscious repetition or modification of linguistic forms
such as lexemes or syntactic patterns (Weir 1962: 16). Cook, too, refers to
the exploitation of formal patterns and random coincidences (2000: 122) as
part of play. Crystal (1998: 1) also explains language play as manipulation
of language which occurs when we take some linguistic feature . . . and make
it do things it does not normally do.
These definitions reflect the problems of discourse analysts who have
examined humour in interaction. These researchers have long noted the
difficulty of identifying when an utterance counts as humorous and have
emphasized the importance of a close analysis of context to determine this.
Both Holmes (2000) and Norrick (1993), for example, define humour as
utterances intended as amusing by the speaker and insist upon the presence
of linguistic and contextual clues to support this. As Chiaro (1992: 5)
notes, word play is inextricably linked to circumstances which belong to
the world which exists beyond words. Taking a qualitative, contextually
sensitive approach to the study of humorous language play offers the best
opportunities for defining humour from the perspective of the participants
themselves.
The focus of the present paper is on humorous language play, as defined
by Cook (2000) and Sullivan (2000). From this point onwards, I will use the
terms humour and language play interchangeably.

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Participants
All three of the participants in this study were young women who were
working toward degrees at US universities. All three were also friendly and
outgoing. Table 1 summarizes some key characteristics. Note that the
participants were all highly proficient in English. I have provided an estimate
of their oral abilities in English expressed in terms of approximate ACTFL
levels. Having received prior training in ACTFL interviewing and rating,
I have based these estimations on my perceptions of their speech in the
data and on my own interaction with them. As I did not perform formal
ACTFL interviews with them, these evaluations are provided only as a
way of presenting, in the terms of a widely used scale, a fuller picture of
each participants level of proficiency than can be provided by their
TOEFL scores.
Judith,2 the youngest of the three at 18, was Venezuelan. She had studied
English for 10 years in Venezuela and was pursuing an undergraduate degree

Table 1:

Participants

Participant name Age at start Nationality


of study
Judith
Pum
Tanya

18
24
22

Most recent
TOEFL score

Estimated
ACTFL score

Venezuelan 497
Advanced low/mid
Thai
580
Intermediate high
Russian
560 (5 years ago) Superior

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over the data gathering. However, this allowed the participants to use the
tape recorders in ways that were comfortable for them. The tapes contained
a wide range of interaction in diverse contexts. Among the three participants,
a total of 32 hours of naturally occurring interaction was obtained. These tapes
yielded 541 examples of conversational humour. Of these, 204 instances
were initiated by an NNS and 337 were initiated by an NS.
After locating sections of tape about which I had particular hypotheses
or questions, I arranged to meet each participant for a playback interview.
Following Erickson and Shultz (1982: 5663) I used these interviews to
check the validity of my perceptions and to gain an understanding of each
participants view of the interaction. I gave them a copy of the transcript
(as the tape was sometimes difficult to hear), and played that portion of the
tape, allowing them to stop and make comments. Sometimes I also focused
their attention on specific lines and asked them questions (e.g. why did you
say that?) to help them reflect. I also learned about their perceptions of NS
humour by asking, Why do you think he/she said that? Each participant
took part in at least two of these playback interviews, producing a total
of 7 hours of feedback.

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Identification of humorous language play


I employed several means to recognize humorous utterances, relying mainly
on overt cues that tend to signal humour (cf. Norrick 1993: 8). First,
following Attardos (1994: 13) proposal, an utterance can be considered as
humorous when its effect is laughter, so long as one takes laughter with
a grain of salt. In other words, laughter can be seen as indexing humour,
however, we must proceed with caution in recognition of the other functions
of laughter, such as to indicate embarrassment, surprise, or nervousness.
As noted by Jefferson (1979, see also Glenn 2003), laughter on the part of
the speaker, too, can signal a humorous utterance and invite laughter from
the hearers. Thus, if a speakers turn contained laughter, this was considered

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in the USA. At the start of the study she had been living in the USA for
6 months. Her most recent TOEFL score, which she had taken to be admitted
to the university, was 497. Judith taped her interaction with NSs for nearly
2 years, and during that time I estimate that she moved from an Advanced
Low to an Advanced Mid speaker, as defined in the ACTFL speaking
guidelines (Breiner-Sanders et al. 2000). Judith interacted with the widest
variety of NSs, ranging from people she sat next to on the bus, to classmates,
to numerous acquaintances she met at the many social occasions she
attended with family and friends.
Pum was the oldest participant, at 24. She had left her native Thailand
1 years earlier with the intention of obtaining a Masters degree in the
USA. She had studied English for 10 years in her home country, and then
spent 6 months in an intensive English programme in the USA before
starting graduate school. Her most recent TOEFL score was the highest of
the three participants, at 580; however, due to her continuing struggles with
grammar and pronunciation in spoken English, I estimated her ACTFL
speaking score as Intermediate High. Pum taped her interaction with NSs
for nearly one year, capturing conversations mainly with her boyfriend and
classmates.
Tanya, a Russian of Armenian descent, was 23 at the start of the study.
She had had a great deal of formal and informal exposure to English, having
studied it for 13 years in Russia, as well as having spent 6 months as an
exchange student in the USA in high school and having worked for two
summers at a camp in the USA. In addition, her family in Russia had
regularly hosted American exchange students. Tanyas 5-year-old TOEFL
score of 560 did not provide an accurate picture of her abilities in English,
her estimated ACTFL score being a better indicator. Due to her very fluent
and native-like English, including her command of a wide variety of
vocabulary and syntactic structures, I estimated her score to be Superior.
Tanya taped her interaction with her host family and a close friend for nearly
one year.

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EXAMPLES OF L2 LANGUAGE PLAY


In the following sections I present data concerning each of the proposed
ways in which the language play that occurs in NSNNS interaction may
contribute to SLL: by allowing experimentation with L2 voices, by drawing
learners attention to L2 forms and meanings, and by destabilizing the IL
system, thus preventing fossilization and allowing for greater linguistic
development. Before analysing the examples, two cautionary notes are in
order.
As with all utterances, a single playful utterance can fulfil multiple
functions. A tease, for example, can serve to criticize an interlocutor, while at
the same time demonstrating affiliation with that person by showing others

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as a clue that the speaker intended his or her comment to be interpreted


playfully, even if the hearer(s) did not respond with laughter.
In addition to laughter, Straehle (1993) identifies prosody and marked use
of pronouns as indicative of humour. Other indications that emerged from
the data include the use of unusual voices and marked vocabulary choices.
Also, if one of the participants refers to an utterance by its folk name or
genre (Hymes 1974) that utterance could also usually be coded as humorous.
For example, if a comment was intended as humorous, but seemed instead to
cause offence, the speaker might quickly say, I was just kidding.
As I wished to capture all forms and functions of humorous language play,
and as my interests lay broadly in the experiences of L2 speakers creating,
understanding, misunderstanding and generally coping with L2 humour in
interaction, I included all instances in which a spate of talk was treated as
humorous by at least one participant. Unintended humour, such as slips of
the tongue, was included only when it led to further, intentional joking.
Non-verbal humour was excluded.
Finally, all of the above methods were supplemented with ethnographic
knowledge of the context and participants. Humour, more so than other
aspects of interaction, seems to be subject to individual variation (Tannen
1984). My own interaction with and observations of the participants
provided me with an understanding of how they used humour and what
they considered funny, thus ensuring greater reliability in my identification
of their humour.
As Holmes points out, the role of the analyst in humour research often
goes unaddressed, yet, working from audio-tapes of others interaction, the
analysts identification of instances of humour is a crucial component in
the analytical process (Holmes 2000: 163). While I feel confident that the
combination of methods described above for creating my data set allowed
me to identify correctly most instances of humour, I recognize that my own
biases and preferences may have caused me to overlook some attempts at
humour, or influenced me to select as humorous, interaction that was not
considered funny by any of the participants.

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Experimentation with L2 voices


Bakhtin (1986: 87) proposed that we do not choose our words from the
system of language in their neutral, dictionary form but from the speech
that we hear around us. There are thus no neutral words or utterances;
instead each utterance is filled with echoes and reverberations of other
utterances (Bakhtin 1986: 91). Hall, in interpreting Bakhtin, explains that
becoming competent is not a matter of learning to speak. It is, instead,
a matter of developing a range of voices, of learning to ventriloquate i.e. to
(re)construct utterances for our own purposes from the resources available
to us (Hall 1995: 218, emphasis in original).
Tarone (2000) suggests that double-voiced discourse, commonly found
in humour, might be an important way in which learners achieve
appropriation of L2 resources (i.e. learn to ventriloquate). Double-voiced
discourse serves two speakers at the same time and expresses simultaneously
two different intentions; . . . in such discourse there are two voices, two
meanings, and two expressions (Bakhtin 1981: 324). In trying on different
voices, often playfully, L2 speakers may eventually incorporate these new
styles, or parts of them, into their own linguistic system. In this way,
sociolinguistic competence in particular might be advanced, as doublevoicing requires the use of different registers and social varieties of language
(Tarone 2000: 46).
The data obtained in this study do not contain examples of an L2 speaker
using a new L2 voice over time in playful ways that resulted in closer
approximation of native-like use, thus an increase in proficiency through
play with L2 voices cannot be demonstrated here. My data do, however,
show how these three speakers, each at a different level of L2 development,
use voices in ways that seem to be indicative of their proficiency. Recall that
Cook (2000: 204) has proposed that the ability to play with language may

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that these two individuals are close enough to have a teasing relationship.
The reader will certainly note in the following examples how utterances
I have identified as playful also seem to perform other, non-playful
functions. Given considerations of space, and as the focus of this paper
is on how humour in NSNNS interaction may facilitate SLL, these issues
will not be foregrounded. However, for further details on data coding and
an in-depth discussion of the forms and functions of most of the examples
presented here, as well as further examples, see Bell (2002, forthcoming).
It is also important to note that I am not suggesting that these examples
provide evidence of L2 development. Rather, they demonstrate patterns of
interaction that occurred between NSs and NNSs as either party (attempted
to) engage in playful conversation. Examples of playful NSNNS interaction
are analysed as a way of gaining further insight into a possible role for
language play in SLL and as a complement to previous classroom-based
research.

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201

Conventionally creative use of L2 resources


For humour, Judith usually relied on concrete, often here-and-now topics.
In this first extract, she ironically addresses a loud train bell that had been
sounding each time one member of their party tried to speak.

Example 1: Train bell interruption


(sound of train bell just as Judith starts to speak)
Judith: ((thanks))3

Ironic utterances, unusual for Judith, are said by Bakhtin to always involve
double-voicing, albeit resulting in a rather simple and primitive double-voiced
structure (Bakhtin 1981: 329). This is indeed the case here, as the ironic tone
clearly signals the opposite of what the word thanks usually implies. Rather
than expressing gratitude, Judith is signalling frustration with the constant
interruptions. In general, however, Judith had difficulties in identifying the
irony of NSs, and she herself rarely employed irony in conversation. In this
case the presence of an obvious trigger in the form of the train bell provided
a resource to allow her to construct a simple form of irony.
Occasionally Judith engaged in more sophisticated uses of voicing.
The following conversation took place between Judith and her neighbour,
Ben, a retired police officer in his 50s. Ben perceived Judith as nave and
felt some responsibility for her, as she was young and living away from
her parents in a new country. Not only did he explain this to her directly,
but his concern also manifested itself in his penchant for educating her
about his ideas of male/female relationships and the dangers that men could
pose to her. In this instance, Ben has, as usual, been educating Judith
about men and women, this time warning her about various places that she
should avoid walking by herself. He is especially concerned about this
because he thinks she looks like an easy target for rapists or other attackers
because she is tall and thin. In an attempt to change the subject, as she later
explained to me, Judith responds with humour:

Example 2: You have to try me!


1
2
3

Ben:
Judith:

theyll theyll figure youre not used to getting into fights or


anything like that so you wont((hey you have to try me!))

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be used as a test of proficiency, since an individual who demonstrates skill


with L2 verbal humour can surely perform more mundane linguistic tasks.
The extracts below demonstrate ways in which the three participants used
voicing and manipulated L2 resources in humorous conversation with
varying degrees of success. The examples move from relatively simple to
more sophisticated and creative uses of L2 resources for playful purposes.
The first two come from the conversations of Judith, who had the lowest
L2 proficiency.

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4
5
6
7
8
9

Ben:
Judith:
Ben:
Judith:
Ben:

yeah [but they figure you know[ha ha


((yeah [you say that!))
[ha ha ha
I just kidding
I know!

Pop culture as a resource


The next example demonstrates a somewhat more abstract and creative
use of L2 resources, this time by Pum, who frequently drew on references
to US popular culture to construct humour in interaction with NSs. Here, she
uses the title of a popular television game show to tease her boyfriend, Jake,
about a problem he is having working with one of the groups that he has to
work with on a project for his graduate class in marketing. Jake has been
expressing annoyance with his group, saying that they dont want to learn.
Pum, who is in the same graduate programme as Jake, and thus has
experienced this type of group project before, suggests that he make his
feelings clear. Jake asserts, however, that this will result in his expulsion
from the group and thus his having to do the entire paper by himself.
Pum then teases him, suggesting that he is the weakest link in the group.

Example 3: The weakest link


1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9

Jake:
Pum:
Jake:
Pum:
Jake:
Pum:
Jake:

I dont want to say anything because no- I know the one guy
doesnt- will throw me out hell want to get rid of me
but why do you its li[ke you[they will! theyll just say why do you want
to start trouble?
you are the weakest link ((something like that?))
yeah Im the weakest link yeah I really am
get oHHff!
yeah hes just the type of guy thatll do that.

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Judiths mock boast/challenge in line 3 is double-voiced in that it layers her


own voice with that of someone who might best be described as a tough
cookie. She prefaces the forceful comment you have to try me (one which
might be used in other circumstances to instigate a fight) with the attentiongetter hey. In addition, she stresses the verb try, which adds to the
impression that she is issuing a mock challenge. On the one hand, Judith
exploits this phrase in such a way as to demonstrate that she has clearly
made it her own. On the other hand, it is also a conventional use of a phrase
which has been parodied to such an extent that its serious use is almost
impossible. Because of this, I have used the term conventionally creative to
describe this use of L2 resources (Bell 2002: 315). These two examples show
how Judiths manipulation of L2 resources relied heavily on context and
formulaic language.

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Native-like creativity with L2 resources


The next example involves Tanya, the participant with the highest L2
proficiency. Tanya consistently demonstrated a sophisticated understanding
of the variety of L2 resources available and the voices and meanings that
they could be used to construct. Not only could she speak with a wide
variety of styles, but she could manipulate resources for humorous purposes
with extensive creativity. In example 4, Tanya and her close friend Mary
have been baking a cake at Marys house. Mary begins to try to speak about
something, but has trouble formulating what she wants to say. Tanya teases
her about this, then, after a short discussion concerning the cake (omitted),
Tanya again teases Mary about her presumption of knowing Tanyas feelings,
using a well-known formula in a creative manner.

Example 4: Miss Predicting-all-the-Feelings


1
2
3
4

Mary:
Tanya:

I cant wait to- I am- you know- its like- you dont feel- I know
you probably do buthuh huh huh huh hhhhh do I need to be here or are you
having fun
talking to yourself?

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In referring to Jake as the weakest link Pum has keenly observed the
similarities between his situation and that of the contestants in the game
show with the same name in which, at the end of each round, group
members vote to eliminate one contestant. Jakes situation is parallel to this
game show in several ways, the most obvious being how he is at the mercy
of the other members of his group, who can force him to, as Pum puts it in
line 8, get off! Because of his interest in actually learning more about the
topic, rather than simply nominally fulfilling the requirements in order to
receive a grade, Jakes position might be considered as analogous to that
of a contestant whose perfectionism had slowed the progress of the entire
group. Although Pums humorous analogy fails to cheer Jake, he does recognize
the parallels between his situation and the game show, glumly admitting
(line 7) that he is the weakest link.
This use of resources drawn from US popular culture to construct
humour was one of Pums strengths. First, as noted above, she has used
this reference to create an appropriate and sophisticated analogy. This
example also shows her ability to play with other voices in English. With
her commanding tone in lines 6 and 8 she appropriates the voice of the
very stern hostess of the show, who is renowned for her harsh judgements
of the players. Compared to Judiths more formulaic and contextdependent use of L2 resources, Pums use of voicing, as well as her
analogy of Jakes situation to the game show, shows more creativity,
which suggests a greater degree of control over a wider variety of L2
resources.

204

EXPLORING L2 LANGUAGE PLAY AS AN AID TO SLL

(some talk about the cake)


5 Tanya
okay. Go ahead. So what do you know what I feel. since you are
6
Miss Predicting-all-the-/fIlIz/
7 Mary:
feelings.

ATTENTION TO FORM/MEANING
Many SLA researchers claim that interaction plays an important role in
acquisition. By some (e.g., Long 1996; Philp 2003; Pica 1994) it is regarded as
important for potentially promoting noticing of mismatches between learner
and NS production, which may in turn prompt the learner to alter his or her
IL. For others, (e.g., Block 2003; Johnson 2004; Pavlenko and Lantolf 2000)
the social aspect of interaction is viewed as inseparable from the cognitive
aspect. In this view, interaction provides access to L2 resources and learning
occurs in opportunities to use these in the construction of new identities and
relationships through participation in new communities of practice.
The successful construction of humour requires sophisticated linguistic
and cultural knowledge in order to carefully select and place appropriate
linguistic and extra-linguistic cues. In addition, as humour thrives on the
unexpected, creative and unusual uses of linguistic resources often occur in
playful conversation. These two factors make both the construction and
interpretation of humour frequently difficult for L2 speakers, as confirmed by
the larger study from which the present data are drawn (Bell 2002). At the
same time, these same factors make humorous language play a prime area
in which L2 development can continue to occur even for highly proficient
L2 speakers, as learners attention can be drawn to linguistic form(s) and

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In lines 1 and 2 Mary appears to begin to pose a question to Tanya, but she
interrupts herself and answers it. Tanya notices this, and her first tease, lines
34, implies that Mary is not giving her the opportunity to participate in
the conversation. This first tease is not responded to, as the conversation
turns briefly to the matter of the cake. Tanya then prompts Mary to continue
with what she had been trying to say earlier. Her prompting begins
neutrally; however, she quickly begins to tease Mary again, reminding her
that she had been attempting to explain something that she knew that
Tanya felt. This type of teasing between these two very close friends was
common and their barbs seem most often to indicate the intimacy of their
relationship (cf. Boxer and Cortes-Conde 1997). In line 6 the tease becomes
sharper, with Tanya referring to Mary as Miss Predicting-all-the-Feelings.
By drawing on a form often used to show disapproval (compare Miss
Know-it-All or Miss High-and-Mighty), Tanya playfully demonstrates her
objection to having her unspoken emotions assumed to be understood by
another.
I turn now to the second set of examples, which involve the role of
humorous language play in noticing and learning an L2.

NANCY D. BELL

205

meanings, and the different ways in which these can be used, as noted by
Sullivan (2000). The following two extracts demonstrate this through an
example of implicit feedback based on an NNSs attempt at joking and an
instance of explicit talk about language, culture, and humour.

In the first example, Judith is spending an evening at the house of her cousin
Mike, his fiancee Gwen, and Gwens friend Jill (who does not speak in this
portion), all in their late 20s. They have been discussing movies and the
overall mood has been playful, with a great deal of affectionate teasing and
banter between Mike and Gwen, especially. Just prior to this, Mike had been
teasing Gwen about her taste in movies, facetiously implying that she is too
mature to enjoy animated films. When he then sets up a portrayal of himself
as a lover of Disney movies, in contrast to Gwen, Judith teasingly challenges
him about his reasons for liking these films:

Example 5: The Little Mermaid


1
2
3
4
5
6

Mike:
Judith:
Gwen:
Mike:

see here I I love The Little Mermaid


[Aladdin, The Lion King, / ? /
[yeah but you love the Little Mermaid cause you said that is
((shes goo::d she has a good shaHApe))
I love the Lion King
(. . .) the one from Aladdin the one from the
Hunchback is hot too.

In line 4 Judith uses unusual terms to describe the physical attractiveness


of the animated character, however, her intonation (goo::d) and her
description (a good shape) make her meaning clear. Although no one
responds directly to her tease, her cousin indirectly acknowledges it (and the
truth of it) in line 6. At the same time, he reformulates the tease, using the
more colloquial, and here more amusing, expression for physical attractiveness, hot. While the conversation remained focused on meaning rather
than form, this type of interaction, which occurred periodically during
playful conversation between these NNSs and their NS interlocutors, provides opportunities for implicit SLL. The topical cohesion of the conversation
serves to make available to the learner new L2 resources with equivalent
meanings. Chances for learning are increased in these cases as research has
shown that when acquiring new meanings from context it is easier to learn
a new word for a familiar concept than one for a new concept (Nagy et al.
1987; Sheffelbine 1990; Shu et al. 1995; all cited in Nagy 1997: 79). In
example 5, Judith clearly already has the concept of physical attractiveness,
thus exposure to this alternative use of the term hot, an already
familiar lexical item, may have allowed her to extend its meaning to a
new context.

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Implicit feedback through reformulation

206

EXPLORING L2 LANGUAGE PLAY AS AN AID TO SLL

Metalinguistic sequences

Example 6: Hillbillies
1
2
3

Jake:
Pum:

look at the swamp its a swamp back there. ((Thats where all the
pineys live too)) do you know who the pineys are?
I dont know

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NSs attempts at humour with these NNSs also sometimes resulted in explicit
socialization and metalinguistic sequences concerning whats funny,
perhaps because playful talk frequently builds on references to culturally
specific or in-group information. Carrell, in discussing the linguistic
processing of humour, points out that for a joke to be deemed amusing
depends almost exclusively on the availability of the audiences scripts
for humor (1997: 181, emphasis in original). In other words, the hearer must
not only possess the schema necessary to understand the joke, but in
addition the schema must not be restricted to non-humorous uses only. For
example, a joking comment about a certain disease may invoke an icy stare
from someone who has personal experience with the disease, thus making
it unavailable for humour. While this person possesses the necessary
information to understand the joke, their particular semantic script for this
disease is not available for humour. Instances in which a NNS in this study
received instruction concerning humour can be viewed as an attempt on the
part of the NS to add to the NNSs repertoire of scripts available for humour.
In addition to providing sociocultural information, the metalinguistic
aspect of these sequences provides occasions for the acquisition of new
lexical items. The recent work of Swain and others (e.g., Swain 1998, 2000;
Swain and Lapkin 2002; Swain et al. 2002; Williams 2001) has demonstrated
the importance for L2 learning of metalinguistic sequences that take
place during talk that remains focused on meaning. Many of the studies
cited above use the concept of language-related episodes (LREs), which
involve any dialogue in which learners comment on or question their
own, or anothers language use. LREs are often restricted to metalinguistic
talk that is learner-initiated, but other-initiated LREs have also been
examined (e.g., Williams 2001). Taken together, these studies have shown
that explicit talk about language form and use can be a powerful learning
device. The example below contains a metalinguistic sequence in which
the NS interlocutor is the one who initiates the lengthy metalinguistic
discussion.
Pums boyfriend, Jake, was one NS who took particular pains to explain
cultural concepts to Pum in hopes that she would learn to find certain things,
such as the band Lynrd Skynrd, funny. While Pum often found his efforts
amusing, she did not manage to incorporate such concepts into her scripts
for humour. Nonetheless, these sequences did seem to promote some degree
of vocabulary learning. In this example of this type of explicit instruction
Jake describes a concept, hillbillies, that is amusing to him.

NANCY D. BELL

Jake:
Pum:
Jake:
Pum:
Jake:
Pum:
Jake:
Pum:
Jake:
Pum:
Jake:
Pum:
Jake:
Pum:
Jake:

20
21
22

Pum:
Jake:

23
24

Pum:

theyre like hillbillies HUH


Whats thaHHt? huh huh huh huh
whats a hillbilly?
I doHHnt knoHHHw (serious) no I dont know
the hillbilly is- they like to- they drive the pickup trucks
uuunnnhh
They listen to old Lynrd Skynrd. They say, Free:: Bir:::d! heh
heh heh heh heh heh
huh huh huh you sick
the hillbilly- you dont know who the hillbillies are
I dont know!
theyre like that the the backcountry like the
no I dont like country
they live in the mountains
no
the hillbillies live in the mountains and theyre like
Appalachian
like backwards people
I dont know. so?
so theyre like I dont know so theyre like backwards
uneducated
people
mm

Jake begins by teasingly introducing Pum to the idea of pineys (line 2).
That he frames this in a playful way, and as he immediately asks Pum if she
knows who they are demonstrates that part of the joke, for him, lies in what
is sure to be Pums lack of familiarity with the term. When Pum tells him
that she doesnt know who pineys are, he introduces the term hillbillies to
explain (line 4), his laugh particle revealing this as amusing and inviting
Pum to laugh with him. Although Pum professes her lack of familiarity with
the word, at the same time she treats it as laughable, although whether this
is to oblige Jake or is in appreciation of the phonological patterning of
the word (or some combination) cannot be certain. In line 8, after Pum
has established her knowledge gap, Jake begins to define a hillbilly for her.
He begins with a standard definition format (the hillbilly is-), but interrupts
himself to instead portray the social category of hillbilly by listing several
examples of what he apparently considers to represent hillbilly activities.
That he finds this amusing is evident in his laughter (lines 4 and 11), and the
generally playful tone he takes. Pums laughter and her playful insult of Jake
(you sick) in line 12 is more likely due to the fact that Jakes mention of
Free:: Bir:::d! is an intertextual link to an earlier conversation in which he
was singing this song in an apparently ridiculous matter (this interaction was
not recorded, but was referred to several times). In line 13 Jake begins and
then abandons another attempt to define hillbilly, instead opting to
reconfirm that this lexical item is unfamiliar to Pum. From this point on,
the vocabulary lesson takes place within a serious frame, becoming more

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4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19

207

208

EXPLORING L2 LANGUAGE PLAY AS AN AID TO SLL

IL DESTABILIZATION AND VOCABULARY LEARNING


In an early argument for the importance of noticing in L2 development,
Schmidt (1983) suggested that cognitive effort could cause destabilization in
the IL system. Tarone (2000) points out that play with an L2 form necessarily
implies that the form has been noticed. Yet, she explains:
it would be simplistic to view language play with L2 forms as simply a
noticing of L2 forms that need to be acquired. . . . Language play with

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interactive, as well. Pum again professes her lack of knowledge, which


prompts Jake to try a different means of defining hillbillies, locating them
in the backcountry (line 15). From her response (I dont like country) it
appears that this, too, is an unfamiliar term for Pum, who does not seem to
recognize it as a single lexical item. In response, Jake describes their home
as being in the mountains. While this is certainly part of Pums vocabulary,
she shows with a simple no that this explanation is not yet sufficient,
causing Jake to continue, by naming a specific American mountain range
where he locates hillbillies (Appalachia) and adding a term to describe his
perception of their lifestyle (backwards). Pum insists that she still does not
know what he is talking about, but encourages him to further develop or
make a point about the concept, asking so? In line 22, Jake, sounding a bit
weary, manages to come up with uneducated as a further descriptor before
the topic is closed.
Despite Jakes efforts, it is not clear by the end of this sequence that Pum
has grasped the concept of a hillbilly. Based on his description, Pum
described hillbillies to me in an interview as like a country people, a
countryside kind of people that do everything in the old way, not really- its
not fashionable or something. Thus, the sequence did serve to help her
comprehend the denotative meaning of hillbilly, but as her definition
demonstrates, she did not have a firm grasp of the connotations surrounding
the term. Indeed, like the French immersion students in Yeomans (1996)
study, Pum lacked the affective sense of the word, an important component
of meaning and one which often allows speakers to select vocabulary for
humorous effect. Because of this, she was unable to access the script for use
in the creation of humour, despite Jakes persistent and regular use of this
term in a joking manner during one period in which she was tape recording.
When I asked her why she never teased him about hillbillies, she said that
maybe I dont know exactly when should I use it and that she was not
ready to use it like he use. Thus, although Pum was not prepared to use this
word, or at least to use it in a joking manner (like he use), her playful
conversations with Jake about this concept had ensured that she could at
least recognize this new lexical item in conversation and had some grasp of
its cultural connotations.
Vocabulary learning is discussed further in the following section.

NANCY D. BELL

209

form involves not just noticing correct L2 forms in order to weed out
incorrect productions and acquire the correct ones. Quite the contrary;
the play with second-language forms . . . introduces more variation into
the IL system, not less. (Tarone 2000: 49, emphasis in original).

Example 7: Clone
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10

Tanya:
Mary:
Tanya:
Mary:
Tanya:
Mary:
Tanya:
Mary:
Tanya:
Mary:

do you know that he- Tom Hanks son is him


nope
he is his copy hes completely his copy
his what?
copy?
copy?
the way he looks?
o::h clone.
whaHHHt?! HUH HUH His cloHHHOHOHOn::e!
[((whats / ? / son))

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IL development occurs through the push and pull of more conservative


forces demanding accuracy [that are] counter balanced with more creative
forces demanding innovation (Tarone 2000: 49). In this view, language play
can be seen as one of the forces of creativity.
Humorous language may also contribute to learning by increasing the
depth of processing (Craik and Lockhart 1972), which means that new
information is made more memorable when the learner pays more and
higher quality attention to it. More elaborate processing is thought to be of
help, particularly in learning new lexical information, and humour may
be one way for elaboration to come about. First, humour in interaction may
make a new lexical item more noticeable. Also, humorous language play
often involves repetition, which creates more opportunities to process new
lexical items. Finally, playful contexts often provide very rich interaction,
thus enriching the quality of attention paid to new vocabulary.
As both interviews and data from the three NNSs in this study showed,
humour is one type of daily language that may provide a site in which new
linguistic forms and functions are made available to the learner, who upon
noticing them will process them deeply and thus destabilize aspects of the
IL system, leading to further development. The following example is an
instance in which this may have occurred in Tanyas case. An impromptu,
explicit vocabulary lesson takes place after Tanya misunderstood the word
clone, with humour arising from differences between the NSs and NNSs
perceptions of its semantic field. Before the confusion, Tanya is trying to
explain to her friend Mary that the actor Tom Hanks son looked exactly like
Tom Hanks himself. Her choice of the word copy to convey this is confusing
to Mary; however, Tanya finds Marys proposal to use clone, in this
situation, to be not only inappropriate, but also hilarious (so much so that
a good portion of the tape was inaudible due to her laughter!):

210

EXPLORING L2 LANGUAGE PLAY AS AN AID TO SLL

11
12
13
14

Mary:
Tanya:
Mary:
Tanya:
Mary:
Tanya:
Mary:

[ha ha HUH HUH HUH HUH HUH


but he- or you could say hes his double [I dont know
[/ ? / thHHHis modern
modern modern generationHHHH huh huh his
coHHHHHpy / ? /
his cloHHHHne huh h[uh huh huh
[or you- is this- (3)
go ahead
you could say he looks exactly like him or you could sayyou cant say hes his copy?
I dont think so.
okay
ask another American but (.) that is just all sugar.

Tanyas initial use of the metaphor copy (line 3) puzzles Mary until
Tanya clarifies, saying, the way he looks (line 7). Once she has understood
Tanyas intent, Mary is able to provide a different metaphor, clone, as a way
of describing that two people look very much alike. This suggestion is greeted
with immediate surprise (WhaHHHt?!) and laughter from Tanya. The falling
intonation with which she delivers the words his clone! in line 9 indicates
an amused dismissal of the use of the term in this context, probably because
she assumed that Mary provided the word based on a misunderstanding
of Tanyas point, as she indicated in a playback session. Perhaps because
her first suggestion was met with great hilarity, Mary gives an alternate
formulation of the idea, indicating that Tanya could also have said, hes his
double (line 12). At this point the interaction for Mary, but not Tanya, has
been reframed from clarification talk to mini vocabulary lesson. In fact,
it is not clear that Tanya even takes note of Marys second option, as she
remains consumed with laughter at the use of clone. In lines 13 and 14 she
gives some indication that for her the semantic field of clone is restricted to
scientific uses, facetiously associating Marys word choice with this modern
generation. After attempting twice to speak (line 16), Mary pauses, perhaps
viewing it as futile to attempt to continue the lesson. As in the case of
example 5, at this point the play frame is abandoned and the vocabulary
lesson/clarification sequence continues seriously, with Tanya now calmer
and urging Mary to continue (line 17). Mary then suggests the use of an
entire sentence to explain the concept (he looks exactly like him) and
begins to provide another option, but is interrupted by Tanya. Tanya is still
disbelieving and checks again that you cant say hes his copy? (line 19).
Finally, in line 22, Mary, exasperated, recommends that Tanya ask another
American, and the talk returns to the cake they are making.
Although Mary approaches the misunderstanding as an opportunity to
instruct Tanya in more appropriate ways to formulate the concept of a
striking likeness, Tanyas attention seems to be focused on dismissing clone
as an option for describing physical similarities and confirming the
inappropriateness of copy in this context. In fact, it is not certain that she

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15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22

Tanya:
Mary:
Tanya:

NANCY D. BELL

211

made note of the other options presented to her due to her preoccupation
with these two terms. Tanya explained that she distrusted Marys
explanations, but did not seek further clarification because she assumed
that Mary had misunderstood her, as she described in an interview later:
Tanya:

Tanya thus saw Marys suggestion of clone as suspect: Mary was not
providing her with the real use of the clone word because her selection of
this lexical item was based on some misinterpretation of Tanyas intentions.
The multiple mentions of the vocabulary item, the provision of several
options for expressing the idea, the extended discussion, and of course the
humour that Tanya derived from the use of clone to describe physical
similarity can all be said to have contributed to greater depth of processing.
Indeed, during our playback session about a month later, despite the time
that had passed, this was one scene that Tanya remembered vividly and
was able to provide a great deal of feedback on. Still, the translation from
Russian of hes his copy was still much more appropriate for Tanya than
the use of the term clone, which, in her mind, was restricted to the domain
of genetic science:
Tanya:

I think the funny thing is, I mean you- I dont even understand
how you can use the word clone there because w- you know
how parent- like kids look like their parents? It has nothing to
do with cloning! Thats why I was like, what are you saying?
Like, why did you even say clo- that that I guess thats why
Im laughing.

Despite the similarity in the two metaphors for describing a close


resemblance (copying also has nothing to do with how children resemble
their parents), Tanya could not understand, let alone accept, the use of
clone in this context. For Tanya, who was translating the semantic
parameters of this word from her L1, this was a case of an exclusively
scientific word being used in casual conversation, with laughable results.
As was discussed above, these associations are powerful, and Tanya
continued to struggle with Marys use of this term asking me a number of
questions about it, expressing doubt as to Marys interpretation. I finally
suggested that, for her it was simply a totally inappropriate word in that
context. She agreed, adding, And it still is.
Clearly, however, this episode had caused her to notice a difference
between Russian and English, and to re-examine her choice of English
vocabulary. Jiang (2004) calls this the first step in semantic restructuring,
pointing out that once this has occurred the word will take on a new identity
and [a] subsequent encounter with the word will not serve to strengthen the

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I thought that she she was thinking like me saying something


about cloning him or some- I mean that didnt make sense to
me. The reason I didnt ask her because I just- because I didnt
think that that was the exact- that was the real use of the clone
word. I just I thought she she got me wrong.

212

EXPLORING L2 LANGUAGE PLAY AS AN AID TO SLL

DISCUSSION
As these examples have demonstrated, language play in naturalistic NSNNS
conversation seems to provide opportunities for the facilitation of SLL,
especially perhaps with more advanced L2 speakers. Below I discuss the
various roles for humorous L2 language play that arose from the data
presented here and suggest how future research might begin to determine
whether or to what extent language play actually does aid in SLL.

Humorous language play and proficiency


The data from this study do not show evidence of development, but do
reveal that language play is indicative of proficiency. We can see that the
NNSs in this study used L2 resources for humour in a variety of ways that
ranged from highly creative to what might be considered conventionally
creative. Judith, the participant with the lowest L2 proficiency rarely used
double-voicing and relied on obvious triggers or more formulaic language.
Tanya, on the other hand, had the most developed command of English and
also utilized by far the greatest variety of voices in her L2 speech, and used
them to construct original, but native-like formulations. This suggests that
the ability to engage in humorous language play is linked to proficiency,
as suggested by Cook (2000).
Belz and Reinhardt (2004) also discuss the relationship between language
play and proficiency, with an emphasis on what it reveals about the learners
awareness of the formal and functional possibilities of their L2 and their
ability to exploit its resources for positive social ends. Through humorous
language play, the L2 speakers in this study, too, demonstrated this to
varying degrees. Judiths mock challenge of you have to try me (example 2)

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formmeaning connections initially established using L1 semantic structures,


but will strengthen the new formmeaning structures (p. 427). While Tanya
probably wasnt going to use the term clone to describe family resemblance,
she would be likely to avoid copy, thus forcing her to try out a new option.
This example has served to demonstrate how this particular participants
conception of the semantic field of one lexical item became destabilized, with
the metaphorical use of the lexical item copy becoming restricted and
the possibilities for using clone as a metaphor opening up. The question
remains as to whether the misunderstanding itself, the humour that Tanya
found in the situation, Marys attempts at explanation, or some combination
of these was responsible for any changes in Tanyas L2 that occurred.
Because she was able to give exceptionally detailed feedback in this case,
I would like to suggest that the hilarity of the situation (for Tanya) is likely
to have allowed deeper processing, thus making this particular use of this
lexical item memorable and encouraging her to notice its use on future
occasions.

NANCY D. BELL

213

Humorous language play and opportunities for learning


The language play which occurred in the naturalistic interaction examined in
this study differs from that in the classroom studies. Most notably, syntactic
and phonological play were absent. It is possible that an explicit learning
situation encourages different types of linguistic experimentation and play,
but this is clearly an area in which further investigation is needed.
As these examples suggest, the humorous language play that arises in
interaction outside of the classroom may provide opportunities that are
especially conducive to the acquisition of vocabulary. In a conversation that
remained focused on meaning, Judiths cousin provided her with the word
hot as an alternative and more conventionally humorous way to describe
a physically attractive person (example 5). Examples 6 and 7 showed how
lexical items can come into metalinguistic focus, either in an attempt at
humour or with the outcome as humour. In both cases, however, the
participants clearly remembered the items, although their understanding
remained incomplete. In example 6, at the beginning of Jakes hillbilly
vocabulary lesson, Pum was completely unfamiliar with the word. After the
lesson, Pum knew the oral (but not necessarily written) form of the term,
could properly inflect it as well as use it in a sentence, and had some
understanding of its basic referential meaning, as she was able to explain to
me. Although she lacked a full sense of the words meaning, she had already
obtained a great deal of information from this single exposure. For Tanya, in
example 7, the form, structure, and syntactic patterning of both words under
discussion, clone and copy were understood. In addition, it is likely that
she was familiar with lexical relations and collocations of both. Her lesson
afforded her the opportunity to adjust the parameters of each lexical items
semantic field. Although she was not yet prepared to use clone as a way
of describing physical similarity, she was likely to remove this use from her
semantic field for copy.
These examples point to a deep level of processing for these items. This
elaboration, and possibly the laughter in particular, makes the new forms
or meanings more memorable. In Tanyas case, it may also have helped

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not only demonstrates a certain ability to construct a variety of L2 voices,


but also functions as an off-record attempt to distract Ben from what had
become an all-too-frequent and somewhat uncomfortable topic of conversation for Judith. Tanyas very creative, but recognizably patterned use of
Miss Predicting-all-the-Feelings (example 4) was humorous, but also gently
chided her friend about her assumptions. Humorous language play can thus
reveal linguistic and sociolinguistic proficiency (Tarone 2000). Further
longitudinal work must be done, however, to determine precisely how
language play may help learners progress from more formulaic to more
creative speech, and how humour may act as a site in which experimentation is possible and even encouraged.

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her to recognize that L1 meanings do not always map onto L2 words in the
same way.

Future research
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A great deal stands to be gained through further study of L2 humorous


language play in non-classroom contexts. Because humour varies so much
from person to person, types of language play that were absent in the
interaction of these three participants, such as phonological play, may be
common with another L2 speaker. In addition, different learners will react
in diverse ways to the humour of NSs. For example, some may frequently
request detailed explanations of new language, whereas others will simply
ignore what they do not understand. Different methods of coping with L2
humour may have different consequences for learning. Evidence for a
facilitative role of language play in SLL is growing and should continue to be
pursued. In order to determine further to what extent language play may aid
in L2 acquisition, observation of a learner hearing L2 structures introduced
or reformulated in a playful context and later using the vocabulary
or structure would be ideal. More controlled conditions might allow us to
begin to better understand the impact of humour on SLL.
The methodology used in the work of Williams (2001, see also Swain
1998: 756) suggests a promising avenue from which to begin to examine
whether playful language is recalled and retained better than serious
language. Williams found that more advanced learners benefited more from
explicit discussions of language use, something that linguistic humour may
prompt, than did beginners. Her findings are based on her analysis of
language-related episodes (LREs). She refers to these as discourse in which
learners talk or ask about language, or question, implicitly or explicitly, their
own language use (2001: 328). She recorded 65 hours of classroom interaction and coded it for LREs. After examining the LREs, test items were
created for each participant in the study, based on the focus of the LREs in
their data and these tests were administered two weeks after the recordings.
This construction of individual tests allowed her to see the effect that
different types of LREs had on the students recall of the LRE focus, for
example, whether student or teacher initiation of the LRE promoted better
recall.
Williams methods might be applied to an empirical study of whether the
incorporation of language play in the L2 classroom might aid in SLL, as
suggested by Cook (2000: 194201), Tarone (2000: 459), and the evidence
discussed in the present study. In such a study, the researcher could record
those LREs which occurred within a play frame (playful LREs, or PLREs) and
compare responses on tailor-made tests to items that were focused on in
LREs versus PLREs. While the participants in this study most often chose not
to ask questions about humour that they did not understand, this could be
different in a language classroom, especially one in which the instructor

NANCY D. BELL

215

NOTES
1 In keeping with university policy,
the procedures and requirements
of participation in the study were
explained in a written consent form,
as well as the time requirements
and possible risks and benefits. All
participants signed the consent forms.
It was explained to all participants
that the purpose of the study was
to examine L2 humour in NSNNS
interaction.
I
obtained
written
permission to conduct audio-taped
interviews for research purposes, and

also obtained written permission for


the use of their audio-taped interaction for research purposes. Participants also asked permission of
the NSs before turning on their tape
recorders.
2 All names are pseudonyms chosen by
the participants.
3 Double parenthesis indicate that the
words within were spoken while
smiling and italics indicate emphasis.
Laughter occurring within words is
separated by a capital H.

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encouraged questioning and exploration of the language, thus potentially


increasing the number of PLREs. The effect of humour on recall of language
might also be examined with Williams methods. In this case, tests could be
constructed based on items that were either reformulated (although not
explicitly discussed) or were the subject of playful discussion. If language
play is to be incorporated in any significant way into the L2 classroom,
as suggested by Cook (2000) and by materials writers, such as Medgyes
(2002), efforts must be made to determine more precisely what it can
contribute to SLL.
In fact, contrary to an assertion by Davies (2003: 1367), it is possible that
the classroom might be the best place to tackle humour, which quite often
involves linguistic, sociolinguistic, and cultural elements that are too subtle
or complex for L2 speakers to interpret unaided. As discussed above, play
with form was not apparent in the 32 hours of interaction collected for
this study, whereas it has been found in classroom studies suggesting that
an explicit educational context may encourage learners to engage in playful
metalinguistic sequences involving form, rather than voice and semantic
meaning as we saw here. Even though the question of the role of humour in
SLL is only just beginning to be addressed, L2 teachers should be aware of
the potential of this variety of language play to aid in SLL, rather than
viewing it as simply a motivational device or, as also sometimes occurs,
as off-task behaviour. Precisely because humour remains difficult, even
for advanced L2 speakers, it may provide an important resource for L2
instruction.

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EXPLORING L2 LANGUAGE PLAY AS AN AID TO SLL

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