A study of the playful use of English among learners on an intensive language course

Hann, David Everett (2014). A study of the playful use of English among learners on an intensive language course. PhD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.0000bcb0


Humorous language play is integral to the building of many relationships. Research into its role in social interactions has tended to focus on native speakers in a shared cultural context, while the humorous language play of second language learners, especially in the classroom setting, has only recently attracted attention. The limited research to date has tended to focus on discrete episodes of humorous language play, neglecting its contribution to the building of rapport and the development of an in-group culture. This thesis focuses on lower-level learners from a variety of linguistic and cultural backgrounds, and investigates the ways in which they play with English for their own social ends, despite a lack of language proficiency and common socio-cultural reference points.

The setting for this investigation was an intensive English course for business people, run by a private training organisation. The participants were low-proficiency learners from various professional fields and nationalities. The classroom interactions of particular groups were audio or video recorded, with two learners being recorded over two continuous days of their three-day course. This enclosed setting allowed the opportunity to trace the role of humorous language play in the establishment and development of the learners' relationships with each other and with their teacher. Goffman's concept of frame and Bakhtin's ideas about the heteroglossic and dialogical nature of language inform the analysis of the data.

Findings show that the impulse to play can overcome the linguistic and cultural challenges the learners face. In order to have fun, they exploit the ‘play’ between the interpretative frameworks that a language classroom provides. They build a common pool of prior talk and reference points, alluding to them humorously to create rapport, to shape their learning environment, and to take ownership of the target language.

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