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Growing world-beating communication skills

by Sadaaki Numata

In recent years, Japan has faced increasingly tough competition especially from South Korea, China, India and other emerging countries. The mounting concern over the lack of Japanese human resources with proficient language and other communication skills has given rise to debate on the need for “global human resources development.”

The debate has been encumbered by three problems:

(1) “Global human resources development” has tended to be equated with “language education.” While curriculum changes in English-language teaching have been introduced at junior and senior high school levels and English will become compulsory at primary schools, little appreciable progress has been achieved to date.

(2) Focus has not narrowed on the range of people to be developed as “global human resources.” As for linguistic skills, there has been a juxtaposition of goals for the average Japanese and for those Japanese who are most acutely in need of using English.

(3) Insufficient attention has been paid to the need to foster the global mindset required for global communication as well as the linguistic skills that are the “means” of communication. Such a mindset consists of attributes such as openness and willingness to break out of one’s shell, respect for diverse values and humanity, and foresight.

In 2005, 820,000 Japanese took the TOEIC test for nonnative English speakers designed to measure their listening and reading skills. They accounted for 65 percent of the test-takers worldwide, but their mean score — 457 out of 990 possible — ranked them 25th out of 27 countries, behind China (20th) and Korea (22nd).

Even some Japanese business persons who have scored more than 900 are known to have complained that, in their actual international dealings, their foreign counterparts set the pace, and that they ended up losing the chance to say what they wanted to say.

TOEFL iBT, which tests English-language proficiency in listening, reading, speaking and writing, has become an admission requirement for nonnative English speakers at many English-speaking universities and colleges.

In 2010, the mean score of Japanese test-takers was 70 out of 120 possible, placing them 27th out of 30 Asian countries. This is way behind South Korea (which scored 81 for the No. 9 spot) and China (77 for No. 16). It is said that one needs to score 109 and 100 to gain admission to Harvard and Stanford Business Schools, respectively.

To break out of this impasse, we need to set clear goals on the communication skills needed by “global human resources” and go on to take steps to achieve them.

First of all, we should place our immediate priority not on leveling up the English-language proficiency of the average Japanese but on enabling those at the forefront of interaction with the outside world — such as politicians, senior officials, international businessmen, journalists, university professors and researchers — to “do their work using English” without having to use interpreters every time.

The required level of English-language proficiency should be set, in terms of TOEFL iBT, at 80 points at least, to be on a par with China and South Korea, or at 100 if the aim is to enroll at first-rate business schools in the U.S.

In carrying out intensive English- language teaching to this end, it should be borne in mind that widening the target will result in diluting the quality.

Many Japanese come to hate English because of their struggle with grammar and vocabulary when taking entrance examinations for universities. What is necessary is to learn English that one can actually use in reading, writing, listening and speaking.

To this end, at the primary school level, emphasis could be placed on listening to train the ears. Junior and senior high school students can gain valuable cross-cultural experiences through short-term stays abroad for a few months abroad.

University students could ideally learn how to speak in public and write through studying abroad for about a year during their first or second year.

It is also necessary to learn to think in English. As you engage in a two-way dialogue with foreign interlocutors who come from different social and cultural backgrounds, you try to persuade them. To do that, you need critical thinking skills by which you present arguments through your own logic and reason without swallowing uncritically what others say.

In Britain, the U.S. and other English-speaking countries, debate is widely used as a means of nurturing these communication skills. The English-Speaking Union of Japan, with which I am involved, has been hosting university competitions as well as competitions for working adults in parliamentary debate, a highly extemporaneous form of debate patterned after the British Parliament.

Our work over the past 15 years has helped foster a growing cadre of global communicators who can vie on the world stage. The circle is widening these days to high school students as well.

At the same time, there is the “inward-looking tendency” in Japan, one example of which is the decline in the number of Japanese studying abroad from more than 80,000 in 2005 to fewer than 60,000 in 2010.

It is also true that Japanese corporations are not fully utilizing the human resources available to them — those who have logged extended international experience such as studying abroad.

There must be a broad range of stakeholders on this issue, including the government; teachers and pupils at primary, junior and senior high schools; professors and students at universities; parents who help their children plan their future; aspiring international business persons; corporate managers in charge of recruitment/human resources development; etc.

It is time they all joined forces to raise Japan’s profile through global communication.

Sadaaki Numata is former ambassador to Canada and Pakistan. This article originally appeared on the website of the English-Speaking Union of Japan.

  • Nielsen

    Coming from a small Country in Europe now living in Japan I am slightly surprise by the lack of English skill here. I have also stayed for longer periods of time in other EU countries such as Germany and even there, you can sometimes find English skills lacking tho not in the same way as here.
    So why are small European countries (Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands etc) typically very good at speaking English? Its not because we are taught English in schools from we are young. That happens everywhere. No, it is because we are too small to be able to only watch TV in our own language, play computer games where whatever dialogue is translated and when you go to university, most books are in English, because its not worthwhile to translate them.
    You can teach English all you want in schools and you should, but I know young kids back home at the age of 6 years who play games on their parents I-pad and already they know simple English words like the numbers, game-over, begin, start, button, gold coin, dragon, etc etc. It is natural to speak and listen to English as we are exposed to English from we are very young.

  • Mints

    This so-called debate over “global human resources development” in Japan is misguided to begin with. The main problem, at least in the private sector, is that the concept is limited to Japanese personnel.

    If you look at any corporate responsibility report by a major Japanese company, you are bound to see a section on jinzai-global-ka (globalizing human resources), a misnomer given that these corporations already have international workforces. All the related training and education programs covering things like “values,” “communication,” and “diversity” are intended for passive learning by Japanese staff, conducted in the safe and familiar environment of the local office.

    What is missing is real diversity in the workplace here in Japan. Companies need to bring over more foreign employees and hire Japanese-speaking foreigners who already live here. Workplaces in Japan should be microcosms of their respective company’s international operations. Then Japanese employees will learn how to communicate beyond their linguistic and cultural bubbles.

  • fcarb samuwry

    Excellent article. Thank you!

    > … foster the global mindset … Such a mindset consists of attributes such as openness and willingness to break out of one’s shell, respect for diverse values and humanity, and foresight.

    Exactly. And one sure way to speed up that fostering is by restructuring the compulsory educational curriculum to incorporate a structured and rigorous plan to sharpen “critical thinking” skills all around and for everyone involved in education — not just the students, but also the administrators, teachers AND especially, the parents.

    A strong tradition of group mentality, as here in Japan, stunts the dynamic individual’s sense of what can and should be improved. That’s what I see as the big, macro problem in Japanese society.

    In a culture where it’s okay to critically examine daily life from an individual perspective and not worry about group feelings, repercussions or potential bullying, society can only thrive and grow stronger. Critical thinking skills are a prerequisite to helping us get there more efficiently.