OK, that doesn’t make any sense, does it? Let me explain why.
I recently read Memorie Dall’Invisibile (Memories of an Invisible Man), an edition of the famous Italian comic Dylan Dog. It’s quite hard to explain exactly what it’s about (just read it and find out!), but suffice it to say that it’s about a paranormal investigator (named Dylan Dog) who lives in London. Naturally enough, he lives with his assistant Groucho, a former Groucho Mark impersonator whose persona took over his real identity (again, just read it!).
When I learned that Groucho is fond of puns, and wordplay in general, I hesitated a little. How would I understand intricate wordplay in a second language I’m not overly-familiar with!? I worried a little that I might find it too hard to understand what was happening, and would give up.
Fortunately, I needn’t have worried. Spotting a pun in another language isn’t always so difficult. And puns can actually be quite useful for learning a language.
Take the joke in the title. It clearly doesn’t make much sense in English. Here it is in Italian:
Cosa fanno dodici esquimesi (or eschimesi) al polo nord?
OK, I’m sure that makes even less sense than it did in English. But what if I told you that the Italian for months is mesi (like in esquimesi!), and the Italian for year is anno (like in esquianno!)? Does it make a little more sense now?
I didn’t get the joke straight away, but I at least recognised it as a joke from its structure (and, you know, that it was being told by a Groucho Marx impersonator who believes he’s Groucho Mark). I then set myself to getting it. Esquimesi was obviously Eskimos (and even if it weren’t so obvious, al polo nord helps give some context). And by the similarity between esquimesi and esquianno, the joke was obviously a pun. I was able to understand the question part easily. But what on Earth was an esquianno!?
At first I assumed it was a real word, and searched for it, but to no avail, so I realised there had to be some play on words within esquianno, beyond its basic resemblance to esquimesi. Then, I wondered if the number twelve (dodici) were significant, and it came to me in an instant: twelve… mesi… anno… twelve months in a year, now I get it!
Now that I’ve drained any remaining humour from the joke, let me tell you about how useful it was. Mainly, it was simply that it made me step back a little and think about the language involved. You can’t do this all the time when reading in a second language because you’ll get bored, and possibly lose the overall sense of what you’re reading. Plus, it would just take ages to finish. There’s a lot to be said for reading without stopping in order to pick up meaning and unconsciously notice language.
But you still have to stop a little sometimes and use your brain to figure some things out. Taking a few seconds to stop and figure something out can help you understand things you won’t notice by passing quickly over them. Plus, the mental effort involved helps you to remember what you’ve learned, as do the interesting associations created (you’re more likely to remember a word you learned from a pun, than one you looked up in a dictionary, basically). This is especially true if you’re the type of person, like me, who enjoys breaking down puns in a foreign language, and gets a thrill on figuring them out.
And obviously enough, you have to really understand what the words mean to get a joke, which actually isn’t always so important when reading a comic book, as you’ve got the illustrations to help tell you the story too. So you have to really concentrate on the words’ meaning.
This joke, and the other Groucho puns scattered throughout this post, was like a concentrated version of reading Memorie Dall’Invisibile. Noticing words, figuring out their meaning through context, or through noting their similarity to other words, or occasionally looking them up. And not just words too, but expressions and entire grammatical structures. These are some of the most important things to do when learning a language by reading, and comic books are a great way to develop these strategies and skills.
I’m already excited for my next Dylan Dog adventure: Il Buio. I don’t know what that means yet (judging by the cover, it might be green rooftop monster), but I know I’ll figure it out once I start reading.