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Beyond a Tolerance of Ambiguity: Symbolic Competence as Creative Uncertainty and Doubt

  • Author(s): Richardson, Diane
  • et al.

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https://doi.org/10.5070/L29232839Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License
Abstract

Tolerance of ambiguity has been referred to as “the indispensable component of symbolic competence” (Kramsch, 2006, p. 251) and the recommendation was later made for college-level language instructors interested in emphasizing symbolic competence in their classrooms to “bring up every opportunity to show complexity and ambiguity” (Kramsch, 2011, p. 364). Within foreign language (FL) education, however, there is often a tendency to encourage negotiation of meaning in intercultural communication as a means of overcoming ambiguity. Yet ambiguity is an integral attribute of poetic and academic language as well as of day-to-day interactions, and embodies the very experience of language learning. Thus, FL pedagogies that incorporate the notion of symbolic competence emphasize that ambiguity—that is, multiplicity or indeterminacy of meaning—is not to be reduced, solved, or overcome. Rather, it should be promoted in order to emphasize the creative, productive side of the accompanying uncertainty and doubt. This can lead to the enhancement of creative abilities in learners—abilities that may be useful in navigating the ever-changing language game in which they are engaged.

This article makes the case for FL education to move beyond a pedagogy that simply tolerates ambiguity, to one that wholeheartedly embraces it so as to promote and activate symbolic competence. Drawing from a curriculum-development project for an intermediate German language and culture class at a large public university in the southwestern United States, I explore the three types of ambiguity that were highlighted in that course; namely, ambiguity of genre, ambiguity of perspective, and ambiguity of silence as they are experienced in and through a variety of literary and non-literary texts. The course focused on the ambiguity of a seemingly familiar genre, the fairy tale, and how learners’ understanding of this genre became more nuanced by engaging with multiple versions, perspectives, and cultural narratives related to it—from a variety of sources, including celebrity interviews, medieval literature, and sports discourse, among others. Based on the analysis of student reflections to various tasks and assessments, this article illustrates which moments of ambiguity learners identified, how they reacted to those ambiguities, and how this contributed to the enhancement of their symbolic competence.

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