I had a language teacher years back–high school? College? I don’t know. My teacher told me that “You know you’re fluent in a language when you can tell a joke in that language to native speakers and they get it.” Having spent some time becoming fluent in languages (or fluent by these standards) in both French and Russian, I can now fully appreciate the teacher’s lesson.
I remember the feeling of first telling a funny story in a Russian class in St. Petersburg. My former-ballerina Conversation Teacher listened carefully as I retold how I misunderstood a woman on a bus: “She walked up to me and asked, ‘may I pass?’ but I did not understand her,” I explained in Russian. “I assumed she was asking if there were any seats at the back. So I turned, looked, and, seeing none, I turned back to her and gave her a straight, ‘No.’ She looked shocked and asked, ‘Why not?’ and elbowed past me.” My teacher roared with laughter and I basked in the glory of becoming “fluent.”
Luka is not fluent. Luka is a “lazy boy.” But Luka loves telling jokes. He’s told me, Charlie (my old family’s new volunteer), and Angela countless terrible jokes with dumb punchlines. When we called him out on being unfunny, he cried in protest, “Oh yeah? You want to hear American joke?” Naturally we did.
As proof of how unfunny American jokes are, Luka proceeded to tell us about the Bartender who asked a horse, “Why the long face?”–a classic pun.
“Horse goes in bar. Barman say, ‘How long face do you have?'”
We lost it. We laughed until we cried and Luka looked on incredulously, “See?? See?? Why is this funny?” He repeated “How long is your face?” all night until the failed punchline gradually lost its effect. But no, Luka is not “fluent.”
Fast forward to tonight. I was teaching my adult students tonight–after a too-long hiatus–and I tried to explain knock-knock jokes to them. Not sure why, but it was relevant at the time.
“So, it goes like this,” I explained, “Knock, knock! ‘Who’s there?’ Raughley. ‘Raughley who?’ Raughley your teacher!–But that’s not a joke, you see, just an example.”
“Okay,” Nino chirped, “We understand!” I proceeded to tell one of my favorites: Knock-knock, who’s there, Ach, Ach who?, Gesunheit!
It imploded in the most spectacular yet natural way possible:
Who is it?
Ach? What you want?
No, my students are not fluent yet either.