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It sometimes occurs to me that being unable to understand English jokes is embarrassing and not socially correct.

How could I learn humor? Could someone recommend some resources please?

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  • That's because jokes simply don't mean witty 'language'. It also reflects a particular culture. Think of a situation where jokes in your native language is understood by some, and for others it's just a bouncer! I'm pretty sure that if I write something in English but culturally, if the joke belongs to India, it's difficult even for native speakers to understand it.
    – Maulik V
    Sep 14 '15 at 4:12
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I agree with the statement that there is no specific "English Humour", and much humour is much more culturally based. To be specific, some (many) jokes in British humour do not travel to America very well. There are, specifically, elements of irony I find culturally specific. I used them in the states knowing they would not be detected in everyday conversation. Made me laugh when they didn't! Conversely some American TV comedy shows contain skits which have a US audience rolling in the aisles but leave a UK audience silent and cold.

Despite what has been said so far there are elements of humour that are language specific and not portable to other languages, and thus difficult for a non-native speaker to translate and thus understand. If you still think in your native language and translate phrases to understand them, then such jokes would be hard to conceive. As a polyglot I enjoy finding untranslatable jokes, or jokes that work in certain classes of languages and not others. I think an example is needed: Monty Python captured this well in their "Funniest Joke in the World Sketch". The joke just doesn't translate.

Try translating "My dog has no nose; how does he smell? Awful!" into Mandarin. Just not possible.

Conversely there are phrases in Mandarin that are culturally not funny to the Chinese but pretty funny to english speakers. I like "Máo māo de máopí màozi shuō miāo" (SE censors this in characters BTW).

Jokes are almost never so funny when explained (although explaining them can often be a funny experience!). So, perhaps, jokes are hard for you because you lack vocabulary references, lack cultural references and the language which you understand has no mechanism to capture the translation of those artefacts. In other words, perhaps the joke will not work for you anyway.

I hope this helped in some way.

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This is a difficult problem. Many jokes rely on wordplay, double meanings, puns, and parody. Without a strong background in the language – as well as a depository of cultural references in your mind – it's simply impossible to fully appreciate the humor.

I once wrote an ELL question based on the fact that a personal friend of mine had a lot of trouble understanding the humorous phrase, "Let's make like a bakery truck and haul buns." He was an intelligent young man, yet it took him a long time to fully grasp the nature of the pun. I was lucky enough to be there at the moment he did. He simply burst out laughing for no apparent reason, and then explained, "I get it now! Make like a bakery truck and haul buns – that's pretty funny." He had been mulling on it for days.

Getting a joke like that can be more challenging than a native speaker might realize. It's like putting together a verbal jigsaw puzzle in your mind: you need to put enough together for the humor to be readily apparent.

By the way, this is not just limited to natives vs. non-natives. Most people I work with think that Dilbert is one of the funniest comic strips they've ever seen. However my teenage daughters once told me, "We don't really get that comic strip." They had thumbed through my Dilbert collection on a few rainy days, and found it more confusing than amusing. And it's not too hard to see why:

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If you've never been part of an office culture, if you've never grumbled to a coworker about the futility of a project while placating management by insisting that everything was going quite smoothly, then you wouldn't laugh nearly as hard at that comic strip as I just did. (I didn't just find that funny, by the way, it gave me flashbacks.)


Being unable to understand English jokes is embarrassing and not socially correct.

Your problem has two solutions. One is to try to bone up on enough societal references that you'll be able to catch all the jokes right at the moment when they are uttered. (Good luck with that! That will probably take a decade or more, no matter how many resources we might suggest.)

The other solution is to change your attitude when you don't understand a joke. While I understand the potential feelings of embarrassment, I disagree with your assertion that being lost in a joke is "not socially correct." (In fact, I think it would be "not socially correct" to look down on someone because they didn't understand a joke – particularly if they were from another culture and spoke a different language.)

I think the best resources you have are probably the friends around you. Explain to them that many of the jokes you hear go over your head, and that you want to understand them better. Ask them, "Would you mind if I asked you to explain a joke every now and then? I think it would help me learn English better." I'll bet that, most of the time, when you ask that question, the person will feel honored that you trust them enough to admit you're feeling lost in the discussion, and that they would be more than happy to help.

You always have ELL, too. Feel free to ask a question here if you sense that something should be funny, but it's not quite hitting your funny bone.

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It's probably a misconception to assume that there is English humour. In fact, humour is something that always needs a social context, a social group. It plays with a common understanding of social norms and accepted behaviour. To understand humour, you need not only to "speak the language", you need to "speak culture".

You can't "learn humour" like vocabulary. Learn about the culture, live in and with it and you'll develop a sense of humour. This applies not only to English, but to basically every nation or social group.

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