Developing Tolerance to Ambiguity

31 Jan

Perusing my twitter feed the other day, I saw that Willy Cardoso had written:

“Developing tolerance to ambiguity” should be an interesting ELT article, talk, book, whatever…

I couldn’t have agreed more and off I went, happily spending my morning trolling the internet, reading articles and avoiding doing any real work.

And, after reading a number of interesting articles and papers, I came to two conclusions:

1)      I believe/have always believed in the importance of tolerance for ambiguity (AT) when learning a language

2)      I do nothing to deliberatelyraise my own students’ AT

This seemed (and still seems) like a serious oversight on my part, so I thought I would write a short blog post to see if anyone has any useful suggestions.

But first a little background (to set the mood of course)…

What is ‘Tolerance for Ambiguity’ (AT)?

As I understand it, AT in general refers to an individual’s ability to accept ambiguity, lack of structure, complexity, insolubility, etc.  Relating this concept to language learning, we are talking about learners’ ability to deal with unknown language, partially understood information, or unfamiliar situations.  It is precisely in these situations that a learner who remains calm and employs useful strategies will best be able to communicate successfully.  This definition comes in large part from an excellent paper focussing on the correlation between AT and reading competency which can be found here: (Erten and Topakaya 2009)

So what does it mean for language learning?

Well, you can judge for yourselves – take a look at a list of these characteristics of someone with high AT.  Would you say that these were characteristics of good language learners?

  • Doesn’t worry about understanding every detail
  • Doesn’t overly rely on rules
  • Accepts that there isn’t always a solution to every problem
  • Considers various, possibly contradictory options, without dismissing them
  • Understands a situation despite incomplete schemata

Interestingly, the paper mentioned above suggested that too high a level of AT is also not a positive attribute, as it can lead to error fossilization.  This makes sense if you consider that high AT could indicate a lack of noticing and self-monitoring on the part of the student, especially of language accuracy.

If you’re interested, there are also a number of ‘Ambiguity scales’ available, complete with short quizzes to find out your own level of AT.  Check it out if you like at

Practical Ideas

I suppose the first question is really Can AT be taught? To be honest, I’m not sure, but I’m ready to find out.  My initial hunch would be that, while different people naturally have different levels of AT, it probably can be developed through learner training.  With that in mind, here are a few ideas that I feel lend themselves well to developing AT:

Using authentic texts

The paper mentioned earlier lists the following as possible causes of ambiguity:

  • multiple meanings
  • vagueness, incompleteness
  • fragmentation
  • probabilities
  • lack of structure
  • lack of information
  • uncertainty
  • inconsistencies and contradictions
  • lack of clarity

I don’t know about you, but nothing produces these elements like authentic material, especially unscripted dialogue between native speakers!  Possible tasks could then include deducing meaning from context, inferring speaker attitude opinion, or any other task that isn’t focussing on specific information.


One genre that relies heavily on multiple meanings and implicit references is humour.  So why not use jokes as a means to understanding subtext and culture?  Apart from anything else, it’s an enjoyable way to engage learners while dealing with useful, and often neglected, elements of communication.

Songs (or poetry if you’re so inclined…)

I have to admit that I’ve rarely used poetry in my classes, but use songs with regularity.  Many songs are perfect in that they are deliberately obtuse and require interpretation on the part of the listener.

With all of the genres mentioned above, the specific tasks themselves will determine whether or not it promotes AT, but at the very least they provide teaching opportunities.

Looking back over my very short list, what strikes me as not being helpful for developing AT is controlled mechanical practice of carefully selected grammar structures.  In fact, an overreliance on a diet of coursebooks/explicit grammar practice might be partially to blame for long-standing students with low AT (for the record, I’m not totally anti-coursebook, but all things in moderation…)

So, if anyone has any comments, or better yet, other suggestions, I would love to hear them.


8 Responses to “Developing Tolerance to Ambiguity”

  1. Jill Vyn February 1, 2012 at 1:00 pm #

    As a Spanish language learner with a native Spanish speaker, I found that I do have a certain degree of AT. The way I achieved this as a student was to regularly remind myself that it is important to trust the process and the journey of language learning. I think it is helpful when instructors use multiple forms of media such as music, like you suggest, because it allows the student to hear how words are meant to be put together without always knowing the meaning of each specific word. I don’t remember all the Spanish grammar that my tutor taught me, but I do have a good idea of what sounds right. I liken it to learning to play a musical instrument in that it is difficult to read and put all the notes together when you are just starting out, but it is easy to tell when you get it right and when you’re a little off key.

    • Ben Naismith February 1, 2012 at 1:31 pm #

      Thanks for commenting Jill. Reading your reply, it sounds like a good another good justification for the lexical approach and chunking which I hadn’t thought about – “to hear how words are meant to be put together without always know the meaning of each specific word”. Very nice! I like the analogy to music too as trusting your intuition about whether something sounds right or not is a super important skill in both language and music.


  2. languagelego February 2, 2012 at 4:57 am #

    After learning several languages for one reason or another (Spanish as a child, Italian for the in-laws, French after living in Geneva for 4 years, German – now living in Hamburg!) I was fascinated when I read somewhere (no idea where right now!) that a good language learner is able to tolerate a certain amount of ‘vagueness’.

    That struck a chord with me and I’ve been making an effort not to get stressed if I don’t understand everything or cannot produce an accurate utterance.

    Maybe simply telling students that a bit of vagueness is not a bad thing is a very reassuring start! I do try to include it in the talk we have at the beginning of a course (along with asking if they think mistakes are a good or a bad thing).

    I was interested to read about your research though and now I know I’ve been thinking about AT. It’s good to know the labels 🙂

    • Ben Naismith February 2, 2012 at 8:02 am #

      Hi there, thanks for commenting. I agree that reassuring students at the start and helping set realistic expectations is great first step. I wouldn’t say I’d done any research, but like you I find the topic interesting and wound up reading others’ research! I little more ELT terminology never hurt anyone… (right?!)

  3. convidartee February 15, 2012 at 12:26 am #

    Hello Ben!
    I read your blog a couple of weeks ago and I am just now able to comment on it.
    I must agree with you in regards to the importance this issue has in language learning, despite the fact it is usually left aside as if it didn’t exist.
    In my recent classes I have noticed that we spent most of the time talking about contextual clues and meanings that students crave to master in order to “really know English”. And this is very much exhausting for me. I love teaching and I love helping students get the inside tips to become better learners and speakers of the English language. However, I find myself doing the times of a walking cultural dictionary giving all sorts of explanations for things that are simply part of the complex chaos of language. And in the end, I am still not sure my students are really getting the point. I guess part of the solution is developing AT. I begin to see the light now. Thanks for sharing all these interesting thoughts!

    • Ben Naismith February 15, 2012 at 11:56 am #

      Thanks Rose, good luck with helping your students with this. Please let me know if you come up with any successful activities that you find work well.

  4. Ruthie January 7, 2014 at 9:53 pm #

    Hi Ben!

    This is a fantastic topic. Ever since I first read this post in 2012, I have incorporated a discussion of ambiguity tolerance at least once each semester. This past semester, I have been conducting some research about reading instruction and what post secondary EAP students find particularly helpful. One student cited this topic as the most important thing that he learned all semester. He reported that the idea of tolerance to ambiguity was transformational in his approach to reading in English. While other students did not specifically mention these terms, they did say that they learned how to make guesses in the class. The importance of guessing was a theme that repeatedly arose.

    I am planning on presenting about my findings in a conference next month, and I would like to use the “Ambiguity” graphic that you have at the top of this blog post. Of course, I’ll reference your post as well. Do you remember where you got the image?

    Incidentally, you don’t know me, but you do know my husband, Rusty. He was in one of your CELTA courses in Costa Rica. He wanted me to send you his greetings and let you know that he has just completed his MA in ESL.

    Thank you for your help with this.


    • Ben Naismith January 10, 2014 at 3:19 pm #

      Hey Ruthie, great to hear from you!

      Super happy to hear about Rusty – one of my and Chris’ favourite celtees. I still remember and have used an adapted version of one of his ideas, the guided discovery text of ‘split personality Ed’ for different past simple sounds – too funny.

      Also happy to hear that you liked the post and would be really interested in seeing your presentation if it’s being recorded or the text itself. I’m ashamed to admit that I just blatantly stuck in the image after searching for ‘ambiguity’ using google. Even for a personal blog that’s pretty poor referencing, but it is a great image… If you do get permission from the author, pass on my thanks too!

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