Tolerance of Ambiguity in English Learners

H. A. Rehm

“Intolerance of ambiguity [is] the tendency to perceive ambiguous [i.e., novel, complex, or insoluble] situations as sources of threat” (Budner, 1962).

“In second language learning a great amount of apparently contradictory information is encountered…successful language learning necessitates tolerance of such ambiguities” (Brown, 2007).

Tolerance of ambiguity (TA) has been shown to have a strong positive correlation with successful second language learning in many studies. Unlike some learning styles, such as reflectivity/impulsivity and left- /right-brain dominance, the other end of the spectrum—intolerance or low tolerance of ambiguity—has not been shown to be beneficial to language learning in any way. Instead, the low-TA learner is considered easily overwhelmed, quick to reject language concepts that don’t fit a known rule, and generally less likely to be a successful language learner.

If this is the case—that low TA is only an impediment—is it a permanent personality trait? Or is it possible to raise TA in a given learner, and thus increase their success in second language learning? In education and particularly TESOL, much attention is given to understanding the impact of the affective filter (Krashen, 1981); when the filter is high, the learner’s guard is up, and little gets through. Teachers use several strategies to build rapport and lower the affective filter to facilitate learning. We might be able to use similar strategies to raise students’ tolerance of ambiguity, to the same end.

Brown, H. D. (2007). Principles of language learning and teaching. White Plains, NY: Pearson Education.

Budner, S. (1962). Intolerance of ambiguity as a personality variable. Journal of Personality, 30, 29-50.

Krashen, S. D. (1981). Second language acquisition and second language learning. [PDF version]. Retrieved from _Acquisition_and_Learning.pdf

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