Sunday, December 27, 2015

Ambiguity tolerance as a key skill for maintaining lifelong language learning

“The greater the ambiguity, the greater the pleasure”
Milan Kundera


            Ambiguity in communication represents a big threat for EFL learners. They immediately surrender and stop learning as soon as they couldn’t understand the connections of items which might help them construct meaning. Therefore, the teacher has to handle this problem:
         1. Either by never using texts with ambiguous words or structures
         2. Or by teaching the learners how to cope with ambiguity.

         I guess the first solution is completely inappropriate because texts in real life situations are not all ambiguity free. Besides, it kills creativity and deactivates thinking. So, the second is the most convenient approach although it requires hard work and prudence to implement it.

         Tolerating ambiguity is “a tendency to perceive or interpret information marked by vague, incomplete, fragmented, multiple, probable, unstructured, uncertain, inconsistent, contrary, contradictory, or unclear meanings as actual or potential sources of psychological discomfort or threat” (Ely, 1995, p. 88). 

         Striving to learn a foreign language is already an indication that the learners are aware of the difficulty of the task and that they are ready to tolerate novelty as well as ambiguity. Despite the diversity of learning styles and personality traits, the students, especially the prejudiced ones, have to be tolerant towards pragmatic ambiguity so as to be able to smash the barriers of dogma which generally impede them from accomplishing normal and successful interaction with ambiguous input of any sort. Ambiguity intolerance can be summed up as the rejection of and resistance to the unusual or different intermittent stimuli which don’t correlate with previously formed ideas and adopted attitudes.

         This paper aims at showing how comprehension of a text should not only focus on understanding the explicit but also the inferential meaning with a little inclination towards training the learners to tolerate vagueness since moderate level of ambiguity can have very positive effects on poor or incomplete schemata. Apart from Frege*, perhaps, everybody else agrees that ambiguity is a very powerful tool.  In a language learning context, simplicity but not simplification is what urges the learners to grasp the technique of assimilating the dubious and ambiguous about texts in order to be able, later on, to go further with undertaking ambiguity resolutions in real life situations.
* Gottlob Frege (1848/1925), German philosopher, Mathematician and logician.