Andy Martin (Ethiopia) still explaining American English to the world

It is impressive what creative things PCVs do in the classroom to teach and have their students understand — in English — what in the world we Americans are saying. It is more impressive when an RPCV, some fifty years after his tour, is still experimenting with new devices to help foreign students in the US learn our particular (and peculiar) language, this time using the Internet and social media. Meet Andy Martin (Ethiopia 1965–68) who lives in New York City and has come up with two ingenious ways to explain to non-English-speakers our humor and the way we Americans talk among ourselves. As Andy wrote me . . .

Andy at 21 going to Ethiopia

Andy at 21 going to Ethiopia

When I came home from Ethiopia after three years in the Peace Corps teaching ESL, I had no desire or intent to teach ESL — or anything else. I mostly wanted to play rock and roll and join the revolution. I played at both of these for several years until I got married and we had our first child. Then it was time to grow up, get a job and support my family.

Needing a REAL job

I wasn’t qualified to do anything but teach ESL since that was the only practical training I had — thanks to the Peace Corps. I had a B.A. in political science and even got an M.S. in broadcasting, neither of which enabled me to get a job and start earning right away.

New York has always needed ESL teachers and the Board of Education was very welcoming to ex- Volunteers. There were jobs in adult ed. where you didn’t need certification, so that’s what I did. I taught ESL and trained ESL teachers in New York and New Jersey. Someone much smarter than I, convinced me that getting a degree would be beneficial too, so I received an M.Ed. from Teachers College, Columbia University.

I did  all of that  for about ten years then I made the switch to ESL publishing as a rep, editor, marketing manager and sales manager, for eight different ESL publishers, the last and longest being Cambridge University Press.

ESL to the rescue — again

About a year after I retired from a 25-year career in ESL publishing, I yearned to reconnect directly with English learners, and I started two blogs. I had considered going back into the classroom, but a colleague from one of my old companies who is an artist and textbook illustrator wanted to publish some kind of ESL cartoon. What we finally came up with was “Rolls Off the Tongue” on Facebook, which was inspired by the New Yorker magazines weekly cartoon captioning contest on the last page .

The project was very well received and we had thousands of online followers almost immediately. Then it occurred to me that most of our viewers — ESL students — would not understand why our cartoons were funny because many were based on puns, so I began to explain the humor of the cartoons.  I then realized how dependent humor was on cultural and linguistic contexts, and I remembered how my students neither laughed at my jokes, nor any other English-language jokes.

Shortly thereafter, “WhatSoFunny?” was born prompted by my discovery of, which makes it ridiculously easy to create your own podcasts. My colleague left “Rolls off the Tongue” a year later, but now after 4 years I’m still going strong with both projects.

Andy’s Projects

Rolls off the Tongue
Idioms are the weirdest part of the English language. They never mean what they say. We just use them without really thinking about them too much. In fact, you could say they “roll off the tongue” without stopping at the brain. Idioms are the hardest part of a language to learn and they are very culture- and dialect-bound. We present the idioms weekly in cartoon or photographic format.

The object is to take a look at the cartoon/photo and try to guess the expression being illustrated. Each cartoon/photo shows both the literal and figurative meaning of the idiomatic expression. The idiom is posted on Sunday or Monday and viewers have one week to try to guess the idiom. On the following Friday, we reveal the answer as well as provide complete information about the idiom, including its origin, usage notes, idiomatic definition, literal definition, what’s funny about the cartoon/photo and a sample sentence. Teachers and learners are welcome to copy this information and use it in their teaching/learning.

WhatSoFunny? is an almost daily micro audio-blog/mini-podcast, dedicated to the cardinal sin of explaining what makes a joke funny. E.B.White said that “explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog; you understand it better, but the frog dies in the process.” This may be true, however we already know that English language learners don’t laugh at jokes. Why? Because they don’t get them. And that’s where we come in. We’re here to explain exactly what is so funny, one joke at a time.

The following two sites present both the jokes from “WhatSoFunny?” as well as the idioms from “Rolls off the Tongue”:

Tumblr –

Twitter –

This is Andy’s main site where he records the podcasts

Here is the facebook page

If you click on the picture it takes you to the audioboom site. The picture also appears on his personal page with a link back to the Whatsofunny fb page. He also posts the weekly idiom here.


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  • Andy’s article reminds me of an unfortunate idiom I used, without thinking, while serving as a PCV in Rwanda, 88-90. In my village of Gituza in northeastern Rwanda, a remote rural site with no electricity, it was very dark out at night. One night, David, a Dutch volunteer living there with his family, knocked on my door and said I had to come out and see an amazing sight in the sky. He said it was a star flashing all different colors up in the sky. We got outside and it was no where to be found, so I commented off-handedly, as any American might, “what have you been smoking?”. Both he and his wife were mad at me for weeks. . . . .

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