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"If I don't laugh, I'll cry." How laughter transformed my language learning ...

Warning: ⚠️ Contains regretful negativity towards language learning.

I'm 14 years old, bored out of my mind, and sitting in a German class. My mind wanders out of the classroom and into the tree that poses adjacent to the languages department. It's late April and a bird sings into the open playground. I wonder why we don't learn how to communicate with animals, and I chuckle to myself as I wonder what it would be like to learn bird instead of German.

My mind drifts towards Paris, the maths homework that will take hours away from my evening, and that cute boy I saw on the bus yesterday morning. My daydream shatters as I'm brought back to reality. "I hope you've all prepared for the writing test!" My teacher's eyes flicker in my direction, her lips pout and she raises an eyebrow while simultaneously tutting as she slaps my test on the table.

She knows I haven't prepared. I know I haven't prepared. She also knows she'll have to grade an abysmal piece of written work that I'll take pride in. She says its "lose, lose". I say it's a "win, win".

In defence of my rowdy 14-year-old self, had I had a German teacher who didn't drill grammar rules into me like a robot, nor treat me like an idiot, I might have gotten further. Despite my shocking grades and arrogant approach to secondary school that "if I can't be top of the class, I'll sit proudly at the bottom", I did, in fact, love languages.

Well, I loved French, mainly because I could relate to the humour.

My teachers showed us life in France, useful phrases we could try out that would help us function in daily life, and very early on I was shown films, music, and books. I also loved French humour which made an enormous difference. Stephen Clarke's "A Year in The Merde" was on a par with Bridget Jones' laugh-out-loud readability, and I read it three times in one single summer.

Author’s note: “I would like to thank the French government for introducing the 35-hour week and giving me time to do more interesting things on a Friday afternoon than work. Merci.”

Now that I've defended my 14-year-old self, I'll lead you back to that German class. The subject was something like "write a letter to your pen-friend telling them of your summer plans".

Much to the surprise of my German teacher, I had prepared.

But I hadn't prepared in German.

I'd prepared in 7 different languages, and rote learned several phrases in Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese etc., that I could interchange with German-inspired English words. What might be considered a multilingual masterpiece by a select few was seen as "total rubbish" by said German teacher. I signed the letter "chow" as in the Italian "ciao", and trotted out of the classroom.

So how did we get from worst in the year at German to a/ a 1st Class Degree in French & Mandarin, b/ a Master's in Education from Cambridge and c/ Founder of an EdTech startup geared towards making language learning fun?

Laughter. I knew that humour was a good outlet to increase my own motivation towards language learning, and that for me the content had to be situated in real-life use. When I laughed, or saw my classmates laughing, I felt more accepted, like I wouldn't be singled out for being stupid. As it turns out, the positive effects of laughter on language learning are abundant:

  1. Humour and laughter can help less sociable students in language classes to feel a part of the peer group and join class activities without feeling exposed or vulnerable.

  2. Humour in language classes reduces tension, improves the classroom atmosphere, increases enjoyment and has a positive impact on student-teacher interactions.

  3. And the best bit? Humour in the language classroom can increase students’ attention, retention of what is learned, foster a constructive attitude towards mistakes, as well as stimulate both creative and critical thinking.

I wish, wish, wish laughter had been a stronger focus in my secondary education. But the past is the past, and all I can do is ensure future generations feel inspired by languages. Hence, I'll zoom in on creative and critical thinking here; for Gen Z and the incoming Gen A, these two traits are FUNDAMENTAL for their success in navigating a 21st-century workforce.

Human connection, laughing with one another, creating words and exploring languages in a down-to-earth, safe and open environment develop strong communication skills. Incidentally, as we become ever more global, and yet ever more distant, communicating with people from other countries is essential. But people are fearful of the unknown, they shy away from different and are fearful of embarrassment.

And hence, communicating creatively provides the perfect solution. You see, embracing imperfections, accents, and a playful approach to languages breaks down the wall of fear, brick by brick. When people laugh together, they feel connected to one another. After all, laughter is the shortest distance between two people, and a competitive advantage of being human is that we do this very, (very) well.

Have you ever laughed at a joke told by Chat GPT? No? That's because they are sh*t.

Humans are very funny, and I do believe that in a rapidly accelerating techy world, our competitive advantage will be being human (with a dash of humour). Language learning environments saturated in humour might just be the winning option to ensure the next generation is resilient, creative, and smart enough to combat the ever-changing landscape we can expect from a digitalised society.

As I walked out of that German class, I thought to myself, "If I don't laugh, I'll cry."

Beneath the hormonal, bored and angry teenager was an insecure little girlie who was made to feel like she was stupid because she couldn't remember long lists of vocabulary and her grammar was all over the place.

A little bit of laughter might have changed everything.


Author: Olive Halsall is the Founder and CEO of Olea Education, an EdTech on a mission to make languages fun. Through our card game, Private Joke, and workshops, Olea Createathons, we are on a mission to normalise and revolutionise language learning around the world. Olive holds a 1st Class Hons in French, Mandarin & Business from the University of Birmingham where she was awarded the CIS Confucius Language Scholarship to attend Tsinghua University on exchange. In addition, she holds an MPhil in Education from St Catharine's College, University of Cambridge, during which she published her thesis on poetry and multilingual identity.

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