Confidence, Willingness to Communicate, and AAC

Idea of Confidence

An individual in a wheelchair skydives out of an airplane.

When you consider confidence, what is it that first comes to mind? Do you imagine someone who is a risk-taker and fearless? Maybe you view that person as admirable, but you doubt you could achieve their level of confidence. Do you perhaps picture someone who verges on arrogance? Maybe that person has exceeded the level of confidence you want. People can be over-confident. People can be under-confident. There seems to be an optimal level of confidence that people value.


Those ideas imply that there is a reservoir of confidence that may be tapped as necessary. We typically do not consider a specific moment in which someone is feeling confident. Instead, we think of confidence as something that is tied to one’s personality. This is valid, of course! Our personality often relates to what we can think of as our general confidence. Some people are, in fact, risk-takers, and they participate in activities that others would never even contemplate. Individuals tend to have a basic perception of their own confidence level, and it is likely something we consider to be stable—a part of our personality.

As we begin to delve into this idea of confidence, the situation becomes more complex. This is especially true with confidence in communication. To demonstrate this, let’s consider a couple of speaking situations. In this first scenario, you are communicating with your family members about your day. This is a typical conversation regarding a familiar topic and involves familiar communication partners. You are not concerned about what you will say or even how you will say it. Now, consider a scenario in which you are delivering a talk at work to a number of unfamiliar yet important people, including your boss. The content of this discussion is relatively new, you are communicating with people who are not your daily communication partners, and the dynamic of the communication exchange is entirely altered. It is one-sided, and everyone’s attention is on you. In the first scenario, confidence is likely not something that even crosses your mind. This is just a typical conversation in your daily life, but the second scenario may spark feelings of anxiety and doubt. Will you effectively deliver your message? What will the audience think of you as you present? Hopefully, you won’t make a mistake or leave out any critical information. These are all things that could be going through your head as you prepare your presentation even though you would never consider them in the first scenario.

Confidence in a Second Language

The previous depictions display how confidence can change when communicating in our native language, but let’s consider how the same could be true for those learning a second language. Most people have some experience with at least attempting to learn a second language. As you learn more and more of a new language, the idea is that you are preparing to communicate in all situations with all people who may speak that language. However, what happens when someone is fully proficient in a language, let’s say Spanish, yet they still do not jump in to communicate using that language? Maybe they even travel to Spain, where in theory, they could put their Spanish skills to use, but they continuously rely on their native language to communicate. In the previous examples with communicating in a native language, factors such as who the communication partner is, the content of the discussion, and the dynamic of the conversation exchange were all identified as possible contributors to a change that someone may see in their confidence level when speaking. Just as a number of factors influence confidence in speaking in our own native language, variables have been identified in the field of second-language acquisition to better describe the complexities of confidence and—as it is referred to in that literature—someone’s willingness to communicate.

In second-language acquisition research, a model for this construct of willingness to communicate has been defined and displays the relationships between a number of personal and situational factors. In fact, a crucial piece of this model is that it is truly situational, demonstrating how one’s willingness to use a language is influenced not only by personal attributes but characteristics of a given situation. This includes one’s surroundings and the impact that the environment and dynamic of a situation can have on a speaker’s motivation, attitude, and desires. Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) is not a second language in the strictest sense, but there are many similar lessons.

Confidence and AAC

AAC has drawn on second-language learning to provide a theoretical background and foundation for research. More specifically, there is a large body of evidence in the second-language acquisition literature that is applicable to language learning and use in AAC. The model of willingness to communicate (MacIntyre, Clément, Dörnyei, & Noels, 1998) specifically coincides with established psychosocial factors that are proposed to have an influence on the overall communicative competence of a person who uses AAC (Light, 2003). These four psychosocial factors are motivation, confidence, attitude, and resilience. Confidence is defined in relation to the use of AAC as a precursor to one’s use of a language in a given situation (Light & McNaughton, 2014). Again, as confidence relates to language use, it is largely affected by the specific situation that a person is in as opposed to their underlying personality alone. This parallels the willingness to communicate model in which the immediate precursors to one’s willingness to communicate are situation-specific antecedents of self-confidence and a desire to communicate with a specific person. Recognizing this connection, this model provides effective guidance as we move forward in understanding confidence or willingness to communicate for those who use AAC.

For professionals working with individuals with complex communication needs, it is crucial that we contemplate people’s confidence and willingness to communicate using AAC. Speech-language pathologists may enjoy seeing improvements in a client’s acquisition of language, but what good is this ability if they lack the confidence to actually use AAC to communicate across all settings and with all people? Unfortunately, research on the development of confidence in using AAC is limited. Fortunately, as mentioned earlier, there is a large body of applicable evidence in the area of second-language learning.

Second-language learning not only offers a theoretical foundation that aligns with principles in AAC, but also provides guidance for developing measures and interventions to foster the growth of linguistic confidence in people who use AAC. As we begin considering confidence when using AAC, we can start to understand the complex interactions among various factors. This will aid the effort to identify best practice for targeting confidence and willingness to communicate, ultimately resulting in increased language use.

This model, backed by years of research and analysis of willingness to communicate, is comprehensive, but quite complex. Although one could view this as disheartening, it is also an important reminder that confidence is no simple thing. Personality and self-confidence are only parts of the model. People are not described as being confident or not confident. Instead, individuals have a willingness to communicate in different situations for a variety of different reasons.


MacIntyre, P. D., Clément, R., Dörnyei, Z., & Noels, K. A. (1998). Conceptualizing willingness to communicate in a L2: A situational model of L2 confidence and affiliation. The Modern Language Journal, 82, 545-562. doi:10.1111/j.1540-4781.1998.tb05543.x

Light, J. (2003). Shattering the silence: Development of communicative competence by individuals who use AAC. In J.C. Light, D.R. Beukelman, & J. Reichle (Eds.) Communicative competence for individuals who use AAC: From research to effective practice (pp. 3-38). Baltimore, MD: Brookes.

Light, J., & McNaughton, D. (2014). Communicative competence for individuals who require augmentative and alternative communication: A new definition for a new era of communication? Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 30, 1-18. doi:10.3109/07434618.2014.885080


Alyson Spitzley is a second-year graduate student in the joint MA-SLP/PhD program in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Ohio University. Her research interests include supporting participation for people who use AAC. She is also interested in psychosocial factors of communication, such as confidence and willingness to communicate, specifically as they relate to AAC. She has no financial or nonfinancial relationships to disclose.


Jill E Senner, PhD, CCC-SLP

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