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Encountering Ambiguous Language: A Recommendation for "Forbidden Words"


The other day, a certain educational magazine organized a symposium on the topic of the "decrease in scholastic ability." At that time, someone who had attended the Central Council for Education meeting said that the term "gakuryoku" (scholastic ability) had to be strictly defined even at the committee meeting. There might be talk about the "decrease in scholastic ability," but what problem that actually refers to is different depending on how one defines "scholastic ability."

Certainly, the Japanese word "gakuryoku" suggests a variety of meanings. It is thought that one of its aspects includes things like "the ability to learn for oneself, and think for oneself," and "zest for living." On the other hand, being able to solve quadratic equations in math is also considered gakuryoku. In the case of gakuryoku teika, decrease in scholastic ability, it refers to the latter kind of gakuryoku, therefore, there is an idea that suggests that if we take the view that gakuryoku refers instead to "zest for living" we cannot necessarily speak of a decrease in scholastic ability. It is for this reason that there seem to have been calls for a proper definition of gakuryoku.

I do not think that definitions are unnecessary. However, before we define gakuryoku, I would like to point out that there is a problem with the situation in Japanese education itself, where all kinds of ambiguous language is used.

For example, in the recent Central Council for Education meeting, the words "individuality" (kosei) and "room for growth" (yutori) were frequently used. However, both of these words subtly changed in meaning and content according to the context in which they were used. In the case of "individuality," in one case, if one thought that it might have meant each individual person's personality, in another case, it meant special intellectual potential. The result of using such ambiguous words is that the reader reads a variety of different meanings into the words, and it becomes a virtually arbitrary interpretation.

In such cases, I advocate recommending that some words be "forbidden." When I come across a buzzword with vague, ambiguous meanings, I do not use it, but instead try to find another expression to use in its place. When I come across words like "individuality" and "flexibility," I think about what words I could use instead. Although doing this takes a bit of effort, it prevents me from being taken in by power of words that one thinks are understood. Even when I do use these words myself, I try to find other words to rephrase them. In this way, if we gradually change this ambiguous, vague educational jargon, when we normally talk about education, how much clearer arguments that we "more or less understand" will become!

The problem of gakuryoku is similar. In my case, when I would have to use the term gakuryoku, I can usually replace it with the English phrase "academic achievement." Following the English meaning, it also includes the extent to which students learn by the national curriculum; a standard by which we can judge the success of goals in learning. Even in the case of quadratic equations , the question of the extent to which they are part of the curriculum is indisputably important. If these achievement levels drop, questions as to whether is it a problem of the curriculum, or a problem of ways of teaching or learning emerge. Here, too, there is no room for debate.

However, once one starts to theorize about the word gakuryoku in this way, we have to face issues like "What do you mean by gakuryoku?" "Is this based on an old viewpoint of gakuryoku?" "There are test questions that measure 'quantifiable gakuryoku 'but none to properly deal with 'unquantifiable gakuryoku' (zest for living)." If there were no societal consensus on curriculum, even this kind of viewpoint would be understandable. However, even when one may ask about the extent to which a curriculum succeeds in achieving the educational content it aims for, the use of this ambiguous term gakuryoku leads the arguments to a conclusion: it is OK even if students' academic achievement (quantifiable gakuryoku) declines, as long as they acquire "zest for loving" (unquantifiable gakuryoku).

At a time like this, points of the argument would be clearer if the word gakuryoku were not used. What sort of meanings are ascribed to gakuryoku? If one presumes that a particular meaning applies, what sort of preconceptions then arise? Before rushing to establish a definition, it is important to have a sense of the power of words that people believe are understood. The important thing is that one shouldn't arrive at a strict definition without that sense. This is because strict definitions could end up adding to the magical power of these words. We need to debate education with a good grip on reality and without being taken in by the power of words.

This article is a translation of
Kariya, Takehiko. 1999. Encountering Ambiguous Language: A Recommendation for "Forbidden Words" (in Japanese).. Gekkan shinken nyusu chugakusei ban Vol. 246 (published by Benesse Corporation): 6.


Takehiko Kariya
Sociologist of education; Ph.D. in sociology from Northwestern University. Books include "Gakko tte Nandaroo" (What is School?) published by Kodansha Publishing Company.
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