Getting Comfortable with not Knowing

I can distinctly remember being in Japanese classes and feeling like I had to know every single word, grammar point, and idiom—that if a single jot of meaning slipped past me, it would fundamentally and totally compromise my ability to make meaning and to understand. There are some issues with this misguided belief, one that I no longer hold as I muddle through gaining proficiency in Chinese. One of the biggest issues is all the wasted time revisit chapters in my textbook that I, for the most part, knew. The second biggest waste was the all of the communicative opportunities that I let slip by me because I was too afraid to engage, “What if they say something that I don’t fully understand.” I’m of the mind that there’s the need, as language learners, to get comfortable with not knowing.

Gricean Maxims

There are, to my mind, three aspects of language, communication, and learning, that make not knowing valuable. The first issue deals with Gricean Maxims. Gricean Maxims are part of the cooperative principle posited by British philosopher of language H. Paul Grice. Taken together, his maxims are about contributions to a conversation, show us that people are, for the most part, willing to work with their interlocutors to negotiate meaning and to craft their utterances and repairs to utterances in such a way as to facilitate meaning-making and communication.

That is, since most communication is guided by principles designed to help individuals align to the communicative act, this means that your interlocutors can contribute to extending your cognitive and linguistic resources. Simply put, it’s ok not to know everything because the people that you’re talking to, all things being equal, will be willing to help make up for gaps in your own linguistic knowledge. Think of the last time a word was on the tip of your tongue. Did your friend just leave you spitting and sputtering? Most likely they came to help unless you two enjoy a rather playful relationship.

Strategic Competence

The second item deals with a particular component of communicative competence—strategic competence. Strategic competence is what allows us to come up with strategies for repairing conversation that runs off track and for making up for gaps in our linguistic abilities. It also allows for online modifications to our contributions to, again facilitate meaning-making.

So, if we always know exactly what to say and how to say, it can be very challenging to gain proficiency in strategic competence. This is because strategic competence is about by working through communicative gaffs. It can’t be studied for, it can’t be learned from a book. It has to be won over by challenging experiences in communicating in an L2. It has to come about from interactions with other human agents. So, here, not knowing is key to gaining strategic competence.


Finally, there’s the matter of pushing beyond our boundaries. That is of exposing ourselves, as language learners, to input that is slightly beyond our current abilities to parse, or i+1. It is through this act of exposing ourselves to new words, new syntactic patterns, new idiomatic expressions and, perhaps even more importantly, how they’re used, that we gain in both linguistic and communicative proficiency. And, it will provide the opportunity for i+1 style input may never come up if you don’t allow yourself as a learner to be exposed to things that you simply dont know.

So, as language teachers, we must come up with ways to help our students become comfortable with not knowing. Part of this involves showing them, explicitly, the value in not knowing and the doors that this can open in regards to language learning and acquisition. Second, it involves creating value around not knowing, a difficult thing to do when we must teach to a test that penalizes not knowing. It’s a tricky area, but there’s already some literature out there around this idea. What we need now is to make that literature even more accessible and applicable to practitioners and learners.

Source Material

Canale, M. (1983). From communicative competence to communicative language pedagogy. In Richards, J. C., & Schmidt, R. W. (Eds.), Language and Communication, 2-27. London: Longman.

Canale, M., & Swain, M. (1980). Theoretical bases of communicative approaches to second language teaching and testing. Applied Linguistics,1, 1-47.

Grice, H.P. (1975). “Logic and conversation”. In P. Cole and J. Morgan (eds). Syntax and semantics (pp. 41–58). New York: Academic Press.

Krashen, S.D. (1985) The Input Hypothesis: Issues and Implications. New York: Longman


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