Anyone who has set out to learn a second language probably learned how to politely say, “I don’t understand,” early on in their study. Learning a second language is a process that comes with an abundant supply of ambiguity and uncertainty. For some learners this is what makes second language acquisition (SLA) so exciting, while for others this same supply of ambiguity is what makes SLA so frustrating. There are many learner variables that have been studied in light of their effect on SLA. Learners vary on how tolerant they are of ambiguity, and this variable seems to have a very real impact on learners’ success with SLA. The purpose of this paper is to review literature that seeks to define tolerance of ambiguity, and to explore just how ambiguity is encountered in SLA. From there, the purpose is to critically examine research which correlates SLA success with varying degrees of ambiguity tolerance, and review strategies and modifications which yield SLA success for students with varying degrees of ambiguity tolerance.
Defining Tolerance of Ambiguity
Many studies have been done on the tolerance of ambiguity in relation to SLA. Each attempts to define this characteristic. According to Carol Chapelle and Cheryl Roberts (1986) ambiguity tolerance (AT) is “a person’s ability to function rationally and calmly in a situation in which interpretation of all stimuli is not clear” (p.30). Thus a person with low AT is likely to view uncertainty with psychological discomfort. Ely (1989) defined AT as one’s acceptance of confusing situations and a lack of clear lines of demarcation (Grace, 1998; Oxford, 1993). Thus a person with a high AT is likely to accept uncertainty with ease. According to Cynthia White (1999), AT “is a response formulated by the learner to feelings of uncertainty or confusion, whereby the uncertainty is accommodated so that it does not obstruct progress” (p.451). Here it is emphasized that learners must respond with patience, endurance, and confidence in order to display a high AT (White, 1999). Ehrman (1993) has offered perhaps the most detailed definition of tolerance of ambiguity. In her definition, she included a three fold model including: 1) the ability to take in new information; 2) the ability to hold contradictory or incomplete information; and 3) the ability to adapt one’s personal schemata as a response to new material (Ehrman, 1993). All of these definitions seem to indicate that a learner’s tolerance of ambiguity involves the degree to which that learner is comfortable with uncertainty or confusion and can respond with ease despite ambiguity.
Personality Tendencies and Tolerance of Ambiguity
Beyond the simple definition of ambiguity tolerance (AT), it is important to note that it is often defined as a personality variable. Research seems to agree that certain measured personality characteristics are indications of how tolerant a person may be when encountering uncertainty. El-Koumy (2000) conducted a study of Egyptian college freshmen reading English and stated that AT is closely related to anxiety and risk-taking, which are also personality characteristics. Other studies of the AT variable have examined it in light of the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory (MBTI), which is commonly used to measure personality types. Grace (1998) studied vocabulary retention in light of AT and computer assisted language learning. Through this study, it was discovered that when students learned vocabulary with computer supported translation options (thus unambiguously), personality did not have a significant impact on the amount of vocabulary retained. However, when the translation option was not allowed and thus the vocabulary learning was more ambiguous, personality was a significant factor in vocabulary retention. In regards to the MBTI, she found that sensing types were less tolerant of ambiguity than intuitive types; judging types were less tolerant of ambiguity than perceiving types; and thinking types were less tolerant of ambiguity than feeling types. These finding are also supported by Alastair Sharp’s (2004) study of language learning and personality types in China. In addition to the variables studied by Grace, Sharp used the MBTI to examine the introvert and extrovert variable and found that extroverted students are likely to have a higher tolerance of ambiguity due to their comfort level with risk-taking (Sharp, 2004). The sensing and intuitive personality types’ relation to AT is also supported by Felder and Henriques (1995). It would seem that tolerance of ambiguity is directly related to a learner’s personality type. This finding can be very helpful to instructors who wish to learn about their students’ level of AT, in that a personality inventory may be used.