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Review of  Learning and Using Conversational Humor in a Second Language During Study Abroad

Reviewer: Eleanor Leggett Sweeney
Book Title: Learning and Using Conversational Humor in a Second Language During Study Abroad
Book Author: Rachel Shively
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 30.617

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Shively’s 2018 monograph ''Learning and Using Conversational Humor in a Second Language During Study Abroad'' is a valuable resource for researchers of second language (L2) learning and humor/language play, and for faculty in study abroad administration. Drawing on extensive data from six U.S. students studying in Spain, the author provides a rich description and analysis of students’ development of spontaneous verbal humor during their semester abroad. Importantly, Shively also includes data from members of the host community—a rare inclusion in the study abroad literature (d'Arlach et al, 2009; Kinginger, 2009; Smolcic and Katunich, 2017). Shively situates her study within the robust body of research concerning visiting students’ access to language communities and varieties, language socialization, humor theory, and the role of humor in social relations and identity creation. Despite its subject, this monograph is not itself humorous. As a scholarly work, the book is not required to be funny, though a reader might hope, perhaps, for some humor outside of the conversation excerpts. Shively explains the serious goal of L2 humor research: “Analysis of L2 humor can contribute not only to revealing how L2 speakers learn and use a multi-layered, multi-functional, and non-serious mode of communication, but also to deepening our understanding of the nature of social interaction in study abroad and the relationships that students develop in that setting” (p 2).

Chapter One, “Social contexts of humor and language learning,” serves as literature review for the author’s research. Shively frames her research through rapport management theory (Spencer-Oatey 2000), “because it integrates the crucial concepts of socially acceptable behaviors, face, and individuals’ interactional goals into one conceptual framework which can be applied fruitfully to the analysis of humor in interaction” (p 8). With rapport management theory, the goal of verbal exchanges is to manage interlocutors’ rapport with others depending on their current orientation towards the relationship. An utterance cannot be assumed to be “polite” or “impolite” until it has been employed in a specific context, and its appropriateness can only be judged in regard to that specific context. This framework is useful for analyzing humor, in which apparently impolite utterances can in fact be socially appropriate in a humorous context. Following her conceptual framework, Shively provides a discussion of the General Theory of Humor (Attardo & Raskin, 1991) and applicable revisions. This literature-dense chapter situates L2 humor in intercultural interactions; Shively first delineates humor from language play, a much broader category within which spontaneous verbal humor is nested. She then addresses the question of what it means for an L2 speaker to be competent with humor by exploring what use of humor reveals about students’ communicative competence, multicompetence, and symbolic competence. With this first chapter, Shively offers a brief overview of what the well-informed reader needs to know before delving into the study itself.

In Chapter Two, “Researching humor in a second language,” the author describes the context, participants, and methods for data gathering and analysis. Six undergraduate students of L2 Spanish sojourned in Spain for a semester in 2007; during their stay, they lived with a Spanish family, engaged with an L1 Spanish language partner, and took classes at the local university. The data sources include two student questionnaires, student journal entries, sixteen audio-recorded unscripted conversations, and student interviews. Importantly, the author also interviewed the host families and three staff members at the university. The sixteen audio recordings took place at deliberately spaced intervals during the semester; students recorded eight hour-long conversations with host family members and eight with peers. Data analysis was both qualitative and quantitative, as Shively coded instances of verbal humor for various features and then created distribution tables based on frequency of each feature over time. Features of humorous utterances included success or failure of the humor, target, function, resources used (linguistic, paralinguistic, and prosodic), initiation or support, and topic. Shively collected a considerable body of data that provided her with ample fodder for her analysis.

Chapter Three, “Second language humor use in study abroad,” describes each feature of humor in detail and offers multiple excerpts from student interviews and recorded conversations for illustration. Not surprisingly, student humor occasionally failed but such failures became less frequent over time. In general, Spanish host community members were positioned as sympathetic and helpful interlocutors; one student explained, “I think there’s probably times when there’s a lot of grace going on” with L1 Spanish speakers (p 54). Shively categorizes humor targets as joking about oneself, joking about an absent other, or teasing with a present other. She also discusses the difficulty of using irony in one’s L2. Her discussion of revoicing is particularly interesting as she connects revoicing with imitation and more general L2 learning practice. While many of the functions of humor (to create social bonds, to soften criticism, and to construct an in-group identity, for example) operate similarly across US and Spanish culture, Shively notes that differences in affiliative humor versus disaffiliative, or even aggressive, humor became sites of cultural conflict for some students.

While Chapter Three describes common categories across student humor, Chapter Four, “Case studies of second language humor development,” describes the uniquely individual development of four of the sojourning students. “Each of the four case study participants experienced largely different developments, which was a reflection of individual variation in humor as well as the local and co-constructed nature of humor in social interaction,” Shively explains (p 104). Excerpts from student conversation recordings and journals are supplemented with information from interviews with the host parents in order to provide more context and perspective on instances of humor use. Individual differences in temperament, language competence, and orientation towards humor clearly affect student use of and success with humor. In this chapter, Shively makes visible the progress that each of the four students made with communicative, intercultural, and interpersonal competence.

Chapter Five, “Humor use by host families and age peers,” turns the humor spotlight to members of the host community. This chapter provides two sources of data that are unique to this study: information about the humor input that students are exposed to during study abroad, and information from the host perspective on students’ language development in general, and humor development in particular. Students were exposed to widely varying amounts of humor; two students, who were particularly talkative, were exposed to significantly less humor than their peers—four times less, in fact. As in previous chapters, analysis is supported by extensive excerpts from interviews and recorded conversations. Host parents were predictably more aware of cultural differences in acceptable levels of aggressive versus affiliative humor, and also engaged in socially influencing humor (humor intended to influence the student towards more socially acceptable behavior), which peers generally avoided. Shively hypothesizes that the position of host parents as guides and surrogate parents, rather than real parents, restricted their expressions of disapproval and made humor a necessity for conveying social criticism. Overall, host families and peers tried to support students’ attempts at spontaneous verbal humor.

The sixth and final chapter returns to rapport-management theory (Spencer-Oatey 2000) and the competencies involved in humorous verbal interaction. The author emphasizes anew the co-constructed nature of humor and its role in forming social bonds. She also provides an interesting discussion of the contrasts between humor, which is context-specific and often idiosyncratic, and other communicative functions such as requests and apologies that can be performed in formulaic ways. Because the verbal humor is often spontaneous, Shively recommends new emphases for studying linguistic competence development through humor: “the linguistic and cultural knowledge that L2 speakers exploit to create humor; the ways in which they employ humor to accomplish communicative and relational goals; the extent to which they participate fully in social interaction; the process of discovering cultural differences in humor; and the ability to harness the symbolic, meaning-making power of the L2” (p 240-241.) She also outlines possibilities for studying humor overtly in the classroom, since the data reveal that there is little overt instruction in humor in out-of-class interactions with native speakers.


One significant limitation that Shively discusses is the use of audio data rather than video data; while much humor is expressed in gesture and facial expression, she felt that the intrusion of a video camera would be a hindrance to spontaneous discourse. This limitation is inextricably related to the year in which she gathered the data: 2007. Because it has been more than ten years since the data was gathered, Shively had to include a short section reminding readers of the technological context of the study, including the more limited phone functionality at that time. If a similar study were conducted now, recording video with one’s phone might be more acceptable. What may have changed between 2007 and now that would affect the study’s methods?

This reviewer also has concerns about member checking and the somewhat unprofessional personality assessment of each student at the beginning of the case studies. One student is “high strung in general” and “was not well-liked by staff members… rude, unfriendly, disrespectful of others’ feelings, and unappreciative of the help others gave her” (p 148). In contrast, “the staff at the Toledo institute was enamored with [another student] because of his friendliness and respectfulness” (p 130). These personal evaluations do not appear to add to the analysis of student humor and raise the question of whether or not the participants were able to read their case studies before publication.

Aside from these drawbacks, Shively’s well-organized monograph has many strong points. It is accessible to readers from a variety of research backgrounds and offers a detailed view of micro-development of humor. Her review of the literature is thorough, and her analyses throughout the book are well-supported with research from the field. She has collected an admirable amount of data and has used excerpts effectively throughout Chapters Three to Five. A significant aspect of her study, one that is all-too-rare in the study abroad literature, is the inclusion of input from the host community. Shively is to be lauded for her acknowledgement of the host community as one with worthwhile contributions to make, and for engaging with host families when so few studies consider the host community perspective. This book is a valuable resource for any reader who researches or works with language learners studying abroad.


Attardo, S. and Raskin, V. (1991). Script theory revis(it)ed: Joke similarity and joke representation model. Humor, 4, 293-347.

d’Arlach, L., Sánchez, B. and Fueur, R. (2009). Voices from the Community: A Case for Reciprocity in Service-Learning. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, Fall 2009, 5-16.

Kinginger, C. (2009). Language Learning and Study Abroad: A Critical Reading of Research. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Smolcic, E., & Katunich, J. (2017). Teachers crossing borders: A review of the research into cultural immersion field experience for teachers. Teaching and Teacher Education, 62, 47–59. doi: 10.1016/j.tate.2016.11.002

Spencer-Oatey, H. (2000). Culturally speaking: Managing rapport through talk across cultures. In Spencer-Oatey, H. (ed.) Culturally Speaking: Managing Rapport through Talk Across Cultures. London: Continuum.
Eleanor Leggett Sweeney is a PhD student at the Pennsylvania State University, College of Education. Before embarking upon graduate school, she taught k-12 French, Spanish, and ESL for twenty years. Her research interests include Music and L2 Learning, teacher development during study abroad, and music in Cognitive Metaphor Theory.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9781614518587
Pages: 274
Prices: U.S. $ 114.99