ACA Explorers – Blog

Coping with Chaos – Ambiguity Tolerance: The Life Lesson Language Learning Teaches Us

How tolerant are you of strange, new, confusing, situations?

Could you have a fifteen minute instruction in French – or any language you aren’t familiar with – and be confident enough to take part of a conversation with French native speakers?


In such a situation, would you be more likely to:

  • laugh off any mistakes
  • or get frustrated?


For plenty, it would be like deciding to go bungee-jumping.  And for most of them it may even sound more difficult.

And yet, perhaps the best indicator of successful learning is such a spirit of adventure, this ability to jump into the deep end, to start with Mastery work, what is often referred to as a high ambiguity tolerance, I prefer the term Coping with Chaos.

How can we learn to be comfortable in the chaos of being ‘newborn’ and starting from zero in a new language and culture?

Coping with Chaos – Ambiguity Tolerance – The Best Predictor of Learning Success

Ambiguity Tolerance (AT), within a language learning environment, and as defined by Ellis in the 1990s, is your ‘ability of dealing with new, ambiguous situations without being frustrated’ (Ellis, 1994).

It is the uncertainty you feel when speaking a different language.  Was that the right word/form of the word/pronunciation/etc.?

Krashen, with his Affective Filter hypothesis in the 70s/80s, warned us that a language learner needs to relax, and be in a stress-free, “low hurdle” learning environment. The hormone cortisol is produced in stress and has effects on learning and memory. It should be no surprise that a positive ‘set and setting’ is critical for a language learner.

When faced with such a situation, where you are out of your element, and may or may not end up looking and/or sounding like a goofball, who are you more like?

Coping With Chaos
How do you Cope with Chaos?

Cope Well, Learn Well

Ambiguity Tolerance is one of the “potentially significant contributors to successful acquisition” (Brown 2000).

Several studies have already shown positive correlations between English language learners general English scores and their “Ambiguity Tolerance” level.  (Chapelle, 1983; Horng-Yi, 1992; Khajeh 2002; Mori, 1999; Yea-Fen, 1995).

Complete avoidance of any ambiguity, i.e., those learners/students that always needed a single, clear answer to any question, was strongly correlated with lowered achievement (Mori 1999).


How Well Is He/She Coping?

How do we know when a student is able to cope with chaos?

Easy.  When you speak English to them, what is their reaction?  Do they want to hear more or less?

In a study in Toronto in the 1970s, researchers concluded that a French student’s learning ability was dependent on such a question, stating that, “those students that wanted the teacher to use more French, were tolerant of ambiguity, and positively motivated towards the learning of French” (Naiman 1978).  The students attitudes towards hearing more or less of the new language were the best predictor of success.


The Middle Path – Can You Cope Too Well?

However, to be too ambiguant can be a negative as well.  Such an attitude could easily lead a learner to accept anything they come across as correct, without taking the care to internally process it.

And in 2000, when 150 low, middle, and high Ambiguity Tolerance (AT) students learning English in Egypt, they found that the middle AT group scored significantly higher than both the low AT and high AT groups. (El Koumy 2000).


So don’t care too much.  Don’t care too little.  Goldilocks it.

But it seems easier said than done.

How To Cope With Chaos – Three Core Learning Values

Coping with Chaos is only possible when you have a good foundation of a few key values, and the environment with student and teacher (even if you are self-learning and therefore you take on both roles) is well defined.

Basically, you want to setup an environment in which you have no fear, you’re able to jump high (reach for the stars!), and you learn to believe in yourself and your newfound abilities to not only live but thrive in the unknown world of a new language.

How Do You Teach No Fear, Jump High, Believe In Yourself?

First of all, it is a definitely successive in nature.  That is, a base of No Fear, followed by a second tier of Jump High, with a final topping of Believe In Yourself.


No Fear

This is all about environment.  In a ‘fear’ based environment, cortisol and other stress hormones are high, and learning and memory retention are negatively affected.

A teacher, or language self-learner, has the responsibility to lower inhibitions in the student/learner (a central facet of Krashen’s Input Hypothesis – The Affective Filter) enough so that there is no real fear in producing (speaking/writing).

The difficulty of this is to classroom management.  One ‘bad seed’ with laughter/criticism, can raise the inhibitions enough of the students to make them lose both accuracy and fluency.

Low stress, low fear, high accuracy, high fluency

With a judgement-free zone, stress will be low enough to where the learner feels no fear and fluency will naturally flow easier, like unclogging a pipe.


Jump High

This is the ability to take risks.  To practice Mastery exercises and to push for fluency without ‘fear.’

To jump off the garage roof into the pool because your friends egged you on (aviso: this is actually a bad idea).

The more you err on the side of reaching for not just i+1, but even i+2, i+3, the more you push yourself, the more likely you will be to continue to advance.  (See: Learning a Language vs. Acquiring A Language)


Believe In Yourself

Foster enough self-confidence to where you can find yourself comfortable in situations you wouldn’t have been before.  Confidence is the automatizing everything to extend your safe no-fear, judgement-free zones, to the real world.

With enough self-confidence in your language ability, your can promote such an ambiguity tolerance, that you will be able to Cope with any Chaos thrown your way.


Chaos is the unknown. 

-You train in your dojo, in a safe place without fear. 

-You jump high, reaching for newer, more challenging, more realia, more native/fluent.

-You learn to believe in yourself, each mini-success feeds off its predecessor, building to a confidence that will only serve to keep your brain open and neurons firing in the most information-welcoming manner possible.



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