Jean-Marc Dewaele and Li Wei. 2013. ‘Is multilingualism linked to a higher tolerance of ambiguity?’ Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 16 (1): 231-240
The personality trait ‘tolerance of ambiguity’ (TA) has been described as a tendency to see ambiguous situations as positive or desirable. Ambiguous situations might be ones that are difficult to categorise, that lack familiar cues, or that present a person with complex or contradictory signals. TA has been studied in organisations, businesses, and classrooms, and relates to flexibility, adaptability, learning, and positive experiences in diverse groups and situations.
Surveying over 2000 people, Dewaele and Li Wei found that monolinguals have the least TA by a significant margin, and multilinguals are significantly more ‘tolerant of ambiguity’ than both bilinguals and monolinguals. Knowing more than 3 languages wasn’t associated with greater TA, but greater proficiency did correspond to higher TA scores. Interestingly, even relatively short, intensive acquisition of another language correlated with TA, suggesting psychological benefits of language learning later in life.
How should we interpret this link? Is it greater TA that causes people to seek out new experiences like language learning? Or is it the learning of languages that creates greater TA in a person? The authors acknowledge that further work is needed to establish the causal relations involved, but previous research suggests that the second reading is certainly plausible. Here, I reflect briefly on two important implications.
A distinction is often drawn between ‘elite’ bilingualism (becoming bilingual by choice, e.g. for travel or cultural prestige) and ‘folk’ or ‘minority’ bilingualism (becoming bilingual as a consequence of one’s family or community situation). Elite multilinguals are often admired in the UK, whereas community multilinguals are often viewed as a costly burden. Dewaele and Li Wei’s research stands to bridge this artificial divide. In fact, both groups are likely to develop greater TA, which in turn corresponds to inter-personal flexibility, empathy, ease of cross-cultural communication, and desirable professional and leadership skills.
Dewaele and Li Wei’s work is also important in shifting discourses about multilingualism beyond just economic advantages (in public discourse) and cognitive advantages (in academic discourse), towards interesting questions of personality and psychology. Supporters of English monolingualism in the UK and in the US routinely assert that the ease of speaking English internationally means that teaching other languages is a waste of funds. Dewaele and Li Wei’s findings imply, however, that this reasoning could create nations of subtly less tolerant people, less psychologically able to cope with diversity, difference, and change.