Tag Archives: Learner Training

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: http://bit.ly/w5LOO9 (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 http://bit.ly/yj0uyj

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.