There are several strategies that a foreign language teacher can employ to lower anxiety and build a positive learning environment for students, but the most effective strategy is to incorporate humor into the foreign language classroom (Chee, 2006).
The benefits of humor are seen both in raising motivation and self-confidence, and in lowering anxiety. As Sylwester (as cited in Chee, 2006) noted, students rate humor as an essential characteristic of a good teacher.
Just taking a few minutes at the beginning or end of class to tell a joke, riddle, or pun in English can have a profound effect on a class full of anxious foreign language learners. Additionally, humor can also be used in creative ways to ease tension or help create a positive atmosphere. One example is when my cooperating Japanese teacher had the creative idea of combining English and Japanese words, which he dubbed ‘Janglish’. As the students entered the classroom one day, before the bell rang to begin class, we were having a small conversation with a group of students. My cooperating teacher was about to agree with a student by saying ‘of course’, but on the spur of the moment he decided to use his ‘Janglish’ idea and combine the Japanese word for ‘of course’- mochi ron- with the English counterpart. When he said ‘mochi-course’ instead all the students laughed. We were encouraged by the positive effect of the improvisational humor, and thought it might be a good idea to write the newly formed word on the whiteboard so all the students could join in the fun. I was anxious to build on the initial positive reaction of the students and wrote the word ‘oi-shious’ on the whiteboard to see if the students could make the connection. I was combining the commonly used Japanese word for delicious- oishii- with its English equivalent. There were more laughs after the students quickly deciphered my creation. The effect of our unplanned use of humor could clearly be seen in the positive classroom mood, and the proceeding lesson went well. At the end of the class period one student who was typically shy and non-responsive came up to me and, with a hearty smile, offered her own ‘Janglish’ word- ‘ohayo-morning’. She was obviously excited to share her own creation, and I was happy to laugh along with her. The fact that this was the first time that that particular student had ever instigated an exchange with either me or my cooperating Japanese teacher was not lost on us. There are four specific kinds of humor, as stated by Chee (2006): textual humor such as stories and jokes, pictorial humor such as cartoons and comics, action or games humor such as role-play and contests, and finally, verbal humor such as puns, word games, or the ‘Janglish’ words mentioned previously. Using any combination of these types of humor will have a strong impact on the overall learning environment. The key to using humor is to let it happen naturally and don’t rely too heavily on the outcome. When humor works it can be magical, but, like any aspect of teaching, there will be times when it is ineffective. A final point about using humor is to make sure that the humor is utilized in a friendly, encouraging manner rather than a sarcastic or superior-minded way. References Chee, A. (2006). Humor in TEYL-reducing classroom anxiety. The International TEYL Journal. Retrieved from Sylwester, R. (2001). A teacher’s sense of humor. Retrieved from: