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The communication skills for vying in the world

by Sadaaki Numata

In recent years, Japan has been faced with increasingly tough competition especially with Korea, China, India and other emerging countries.

The mounting concern about the lack of Japanese human resources with language and other communication skills has given rise to the debate on the need for “global human resources development.” However, the debate is encumbered by the following problems.

Firstly, “global human resources development” has tended to be equated with “language education.” Curriculum changes in English-language teaching have been introduced at junior and senior high school levels and English is to be made compulsory at primary schools. However, little appreciable progress has been achieved to date.

Secondly, there has not been a narrowing of focus on the range of people to be developed as “global human resources.” As for linguistic skills, there has been a juxtaposition of the goal for the average Japanese and the goal for those Japanese who are most acutely in need of using English.

Thirdly, insufficient attention has been paid to the need to foster the global mindset required for global communication, in addition to linguistic skills that are only 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 at 457 out of 990 ranked 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 they themselves end up losing the chance to say what they want 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, placing them at 27th out of the 30 Asian countries, way behind Korea (81, 9th) and China (77, 16th). 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. In the first place, 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 recourse to 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 Korea, or at 100, if one aims 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 would result in the dilution of quality.

Many Japanese come to hate English because of their struggle with grammar and vocabulary when taking entrance examinations to 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 can be placed on listening to train the ears. Junior and senior high school students can gain valuable cross-cultural experiences through short-tem stays for a few months abroad. University students can ideally learn how to speak in public and write through studying abroad for about one 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 your argument 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 also 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 these human resources who have had extended international experiences through, for example, 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 that 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.