science of us

Learning a Language Makes You Better at Handling Ambiguity

Photo: Dennis K Johnson/Getty Images/Lonely Planet Image

In psychology, “tolerance of ambiguity” is a measure of how comfortable you are with the unknown. Entrepreneurs are supposed to have lots of it, since they work in unpredictable situations; sexists have little of it, as revealed by their need for rigid gender norms. Indeed, as Science of Us has noted before, one of the things that makes Trump so appealing is that he’s so unambiguous.

With all that in mind, it’s tremendously fascinating to see a point brought up by University of South Florida applied linguist Amy Thompson in a new post for the Conversation. Among other findings, she highlights the research that correlates knowing a second language with a broader tolerance for ambiguity.

This is because, Thompson argues, when you’re learning a language, you have to suss out the underlying meaning from expressions that you might not have full fluency in. It’s something immediately relatable to anyone who’s tottered through Berlin with broken Deutsch or Paris with limited Français.

“Conversations in a foreign language will inevitably involve unknown words,” she writes. “It wouldn’t be a successful conversation if one of the speakers constantly stopped to say, ‘Hang on — I don’t know that word. Let me look it up in the dictionary.’” But if you can tolerate ambiguity, you’ll be fine with continuing the conversation even if you don’t know every word that’s said. Weirdly, not needing to exhaustively know everything lets you learn more.

Learning a Language Makes You Better at Handling Ambiguity