The Role of Ambiguity Tolerance in efl learning Saeedeh Karbalaee Kamran, Iran

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The Role of Ambiguity Tolerance in EFL Learning

Saeedeh Karbalaee Kamran, Iran
Saeedeh Karbalaee Kamran is an EFL instructor at Kish Institute of Science and Technology in Tehran in Iran. She holds an MA in teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) from Science and Research Branch, Islamic Azad University, Tehran, Iran. She is interested in SLA, language learning strategies, syllabus design, and CALL.

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AT scales

Background of AT studies in EFL Learning

To better understand the notion of ambiguity tolerance (AT), and its relation to language learning context, it is beneficial to trace its origin, clarify the role it plays and determine the way through which it can influence learners in a language learning setting. AT was introduced by Frenkel-Brunswik in 1948, when her article published in the journal of American Psychologist. Frenkel-Brunswik (as cited in Furnham & Richbester, 1995) reported very briefly on a study with 100 adults and 200 Californians 9 to 14 years old in which she looked at their attitudes to ethnic prejudice and argued for the AT variable to be conceived of as " a general personality variable relevant to basic social orientations" (p. 268). According to Brown (2000), AT is regarded as one of those styles that have emerged in second language research as" potentially significant contributors to successful acquisition" (p. 114). AT depicted in language learning environment, is ability of dealing with new ambiguous situations without being frustrated or without resorting sources of knowledge (Ellis, 1994). In such a way, students who are tolerant of ambiguity are expected to feel comfortable with learning a new language, and also when facing uncertainties and unknown phenomena in its structural and cultural aspects.
Naiman, Frohlich, Stern, & Todesco (1978) characterize ambiguous situation by "novelty, complexity, or insolubility, and further characterizes responses to such threatening situations by expressions of dislike, depression, attending to avoiding the situation, or by destructive behavior" (p.70). Moreover, Ely (1989) suggests that ambiguity in language learning is appeared as uncertainty, which is experienced by language learners whenever they feel they have not pronounced a sound accurately, or understood exploitation of a grammatical point or grasped the exact meaning of a word.
Therefore, when ambiguity is not tolerated reasonably, it can involve learners in a stressful situation in which language learning, risk taking, and application of the appropriate strategies may be negatively influenced. Hence, when ambiguity is not tolerated, the learners' career towards being a good language learner might be blocked.

AT scales
Measuring the level of AT became a controversial issue in the past decades; as several AT scales were developed around the world, which were mostly self-report questionnaires. One of the best known and well used scales in this area was developed by Budner (1962) who devised a 16-item (half positive, half negative) scale. Although the test correlation was good (.85 over 2 months) the internal alpha was poor (.49). Rydell and Rosen (1966) developed and validated an AT scale, consisting of 16 true-false items with relatively limited validation. Test-retest reliabilities over a month with 41 students provided r = .71 and with 105 students over 2 months r = .57, but there was no evidence of the test's internal reliability. MacDonald (1970) attempted some psychometric evaluation of the Rydell and Rosen (1966) scale but added 4 extra items to that, which results in development of AT-20 tolerance of ambiguity scale. Norton (1975) developed a 50-item measure (MAT-50) which was tested 7 times to develop high reliability which was r = .38 (Kuder-Richardson) and with a test-retest reliability of .86 after 10-12 weeks. McLain (1993) designed the Multiple Stimulus Type Ambiguity Tolerance test (MSTAT-I) consisting of 22 Likert-type items, twelve of positive and ten of negative polarity with regard to shortcomings of Budner's (1962) scale. Not providing test-retest reliability data, McLain (1993) reported an internal reliability of .86.
The only scale designed to measure AT in second language learning, is Second Language Ambiguity Tolerance Scale (SLATS), developed by Ely (1995). A major criterion in the design of the SLATS was that, items represent a broad spectrum of language activities: listening, speaking, reading, writing, pronunciation, and grammar. The Cronbach's alpha internal consistency reliability for SLTAS is .84. Considering the number of scales available to measure AT, one may find it difficult to select a scale in the area of language learning. Among all scales of AT, the use of SLATS seems to be more reasonable, as it is the only scale of AT designed specifically for language learning context. Another significant reason confirming the selection of SLATS in language learning is emerged from a study by Durrheim and Foster( 1997) who suggested that within a single individual, high levels of AT within one content might associate with low levels in another domain, and might be unrelated to AT in a third domain.
Background of AT studies in EFL Learning
The first documented research on AT, available in academic field of language learning goes back to 1978. In a study on high school learners of French as a foreign language in Toronto, Naiman et al. (1978) found that, "when a learner was tolerant of ambiguity, he/she also wanted the teacher to use more foreign language (French), and was not ethnocentric" (p. 128). They also stated that student's attitudes towards the teacher's use of the foreign language seemed to be one of the most important variables for predicting success, and from the intercorrelations conducted, they inferred that " those students who wanted the teacher to use more French, were also field-independent, tolerant of ambiguity, and positively motivated towards the learning of French" (p.129).
Later, several studies were conducted around the world to discover the relationship between EFL learners' level of AT and their achievement in general English tests. Results of these studies indicated that AT level was positively correlated with EFL learners' general English scores (Chapelle, 1983; Horng-Yi, 1992; Khajeh 2002; Mori, 1999; Yea-Fen, 1995). It is implied that the more an individual tolerated ambiguous situations, the higher was his/her scores on general English tests. Mori (1999) who examined the AT level of EFL learners' through both qualitative and quantitative methods, reported that avoidance of ambiguity is associated with lower achievement, suggesting that students who seek a single, clear-cut answer tend not to do well in a foreign language class. Mori (1999) recommended teachers to "design or select instructional activities which encourage students to think about alternative answers or to use multiple strategies or sources of information to handle a problem" (p. 409).
To shed more light on nuance aspects of the AT influence on EFL achievement, some studies investigated the relationship between EFL learners' level of AT and their achievement in English skills. El-Koumy (2000), who examined the differences in English reading comprehension scores among 150 high, middle, and low AT Egyptian EFL learners, found that the moderate AT group scored significantly higher than the low and high group. Moreover, Erten and Topkaya (2009) reported a strong relationship between tolerance of ambiguity and success in English reading comprehension, implying that subjects with high AT performed better in reading comprehension. A study by Kazamia (1999) on Greek EFL learners provided researchers with considerable results, indicating that AT could vary, depending on skills and language learning situations. He explored that Greek EFL learners could not tolerate the ambiguities produced by their failure to express adequately their ideas in writing and speaking. This situation triggered a considerable amount of intolerance that might impede their progress in these skills. This finding was supported by results of a study by Liu (2006), who reported that Chinese EFL learners could not tolerate the ambiguities produced by their failure to express adequately their ideas in writing and speaking.
Moreover, some studies on the relationship between EFL learners' level of AT and their language learning strategy use, were conducted in past two decades. Results of these studies indicated that AT level was positively correlated with language learning strategy use of EFL learners (Jun-yong, 1998; Khajeh, 2002; Yea-Fen, 1995).
As discussed earlier language learning environment is abundant with new dimensions, structures, pronunciations, lexis, grammar and totally a new horizon for a learner. To be ambiguity intolerant can thoroughly jeopardize language learning career , as any new language is replete with lexis, grammar, structures, and phonological system, in which the learner seem to be overwhelmed. However, too much tolerance of ambiguity can "be of a detrimental effect, which may lead learner to become wishy-washy, accepting virtually every proposition before them, not efficiently subsuming necessary facts into their cognitive organizational structure"( Brown, 2000, p. 120). Considering the results of the studies on the relationship between AT and language learning, it is inferred that both extremes of AT can result in outrageous outcomes.
Regarding the role of AT, as a style, it can be one of the factors influencing learners choice of strategy. Cohen (2003) illustrates the role of teacher as a "language coach", who should provide situations for learners to make them aware of their own style preference, and help them in "style stretching", shifting their style to let them completing different tasks (P. 289). Therefore a teacher may find her/himself responsible in providing a context in which, learners can promote their AT, if it is low, and limit their AT if it assumed to be undesirably high. It is also vital that teacher tends to be vigilant towards ambiguous situations which deteriorate learning, and can predict or detect them and deal with them reasonably rather than trying to eliminate them. The teacher , then, needs to think twice before designing activities in the classroom, or assignments, to see how much do they provide an environment appropriate to let learners discover their styles, and become aware and capable of keeping AT, in a level beneficial to his/her learning . Designing guess provoking activities, teacher's appropriate reaction to what may seem uncertain and ambiguous to learners, the provision of risk taking environment and encouraging learners to take risks and guess, implying indirectly but continuously the fact that language learning is full of ambiguous dimensions, may all lead to having a potentially suitable context for learners to explore their AT style and enhance it towards academically recommended extent and directions.
Brown, H. D. (2000). Principles of language learning and teaching (4th ed.). New York: Pearson Education Company.
Budner, S. (1962). Intolerance of ambiguity as a personality variable. Journal of Personality, 30, 29-50.
Chapelle, C. (1983). The relationship between ambiguity tolerance and success in acquiring English as a second language in adult learners. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Illinois, United States.
Cohen, A. (2003). The learner's side of foreign language learning: Where do styles, strategies, and tasks meet? International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching, 41, 279-291.
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El-Koumy, A. A. (2000). Differences in FL reading comprehension among high-, middle-, and low-ambiguity tolerance students. Paper presented at the National Symposium on English Language Teaching in Egypt. Egypt.
Ellis, R. (1994). The study of second language acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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Ely, C. M. (1995). Tolerance of ambiguity and the teaching of ESL. In J. Reid (Ed.), Learning styles in the ESL/EFL classroom (pp. 87-95). Boston: Heinle and Heinle .
Erten, I., & Topkaya, E. (2009). Understanding tolerance of ambiguity of EFL learners in reading classes at tertiary level. Novitas-Royal, 3(1), 29-44. Retrived May 4, 2010, from
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Horng-Yi, L. (1992). Classroom anxiety, learning motivation, ambiguity tolerance and adult foreign language learning: Evidence from Chinese language classroom. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Southern California, United States.
Jun-yong, L. (1998). Language learning strategies and tolerance of ambiguity of Korean midshipmen learning English as a foreign language. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Ball State University, United States.
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Naiman, N., Frohlich, M., Stern, H., & Todesco, A. (1978). The good language learner. Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Reprinted 1996 by Multilingual Matters, Clevedon, UK.
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