A test for measuring distinguishing ambiguity in Japanese

By | May 24, 2021

My friend and collaborator Kaimai Mizuhiro (開米瑞浩) is working on an project that I think will be interesting to those studying Japanese, so I’ll talk about it a little here.

Kaimai has a bunch of books out, and a common thread throughout them is how to communicate effectively (both verbally and with diagrams) in a work environment. Lately he has been doing research related to testing logical reading ability (読解力), and distinguishing ambiguity is an important part of this. While in daily life, often miscommunication doesn’t lead to major problems, in the IT world a single misunderstanding can have serious repercussions (“Oh, you just wanted me to delete one of the files…”) 

He has created a simple, quick test that you can take online: https://gs.ideacraft.jp/gst/DQ7TXNB06G

It has only five multiple choice questions, where you are asked to pick which sentence is especially ambiguous. 

Even though Kaimai’s main area of concern here is IT engineers in Japan, when I heard about this test I thought it would be a good way for Japanese learners to test their understanding in a way different than typical tests. Depending on your level, there may be some words you don’t know, but there is no time limit so you can freely look up words as needed. I think it’s a good exercise to try thinking about how the sentences presented can be interpreted in different ways.

I want to talk about one of the questions in detail, but I would highly recommend taking the test first as I will be giving the answer to the first question below. 

While I think it’s important to try to read and understand both the questions and answers in their original Japanese, ut I will translate them so Japanese learners of all levels can benefit from this discussion.

Here is the first question:

  • 下記の箇条書きの中から、2種類以上の解釈ができる「あいまいな文」を1つ選んでください。
  • From the below items, please choose the vague sentence that can be interpreted in two or more ways.

Here are the answers:

  1. その案は全員が賛成していません
  2. その案には賛成していない人もいます
  3. その案に賛成している人は一人もいません。

And my translation of them:

  1. All people are not in agreement with that plan.
  2. There is also someone who doesn’t agree with that plan.
  3. There is not even a single person who agrees with that plan.

Which of these do you think is vague?

It turns out the answer is #1. The reason is because this can be interpreted in two ways:

  1. Every single person is not in agreement with that plan
  2. One one more people are not in agreement with the plan (but not everyone)

This is academically referred to in Japanese as a “全称否定” (universal negative). 

I can’t say the same for the other questions, but at least for this one I think the vagueness is also apparent in the English translation, and even in English I think this problem can occur.

It’s hard to make a broad generalization, but I feel like such miscommunications are even more common with foreign speakers of Japanese since they are not used to making interpretations of Japanese where subjects, objects, and other words are omitted as a matter of course. Japanese has some built-in mechanisms to help you make inferences, like different classes of verbs for levels of politeness (i.e. 召し上がる vs. いただく), but ultimately Japanese learners have to hone their skills of inference over time.

I will omit analysis of the other questions and let you take the test yourself, but let me know if you have any questions. You can also put in comments for Kaimai at the end of the test itself.

By the way, I got a 80% when I took the test, though I admit there was probably a little luck involved (:

Here is the link again: https://gs.ideacraft.jp/gst/DQ7TXNB06G

I’ll be looking forward to Kaimai’s future developments in this area.

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