Helping Foster Global Communicators

NUMATA Sadaaki

The results of the National Assessment of Academic Ability of Third-Year Junior High School Students last April revealed a key deficiency in the teaching of English at Japanese schools or, for that matter, in Japanese primary and secondary education as a whole.

More than 60% of the students failed to answer correctly even one question concerning the proliferation of plastic bags in Japanese stores in the speaking section of the test. In the writing section, only 20% correctly answered a question on the role of robots. Many either did not know what to say or, even if they knew, they could not put it into English sentences or express the reason for their view.

Several years ago, the then Director of English Language Services, British Council Japan, made the following comment in a symposium held by the English-Speaking Union of Japan (ESUJ): “Of the four systems of language prioritized by the British Council, i.e., grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, and discourse, it is discourse which typically receives the least attention in Japanese classrooms. This is partially because Japanese teachers of English are more comfortable teaching grammar or vocabulary through pre-set teaching materials. However, one could argue that discourse is the most important, albeit the most difficult, of the four.”

“Discourse”, for which I can think of no adequate Japanese translation here, can be paraphrased as thinking and expressing the thought in spoken or written words. I do not personally recall being taught “discourse” in my education in Japan until I went to the United States at age 17 as an exchange student. Then, at Oxford University where I studied as a novice diplomat, I faced the tough challenge of putting “discourse” into practice in tutorials (one-on-one sessions between the tutor and the student) on such complex subjects as philosophy.

As a professional diplomat, I had numerous opportunities to engage in “dialogue” and “negotiation” with foreign interlocutors and trying to “persuade” them. In these two-way processes, what matters is that you convey your message clearly and also have the empathy to think about your interlocutor. Upon retirement from my 41-year diplomatic career, I wanted to pass on to younger people what I had learned through my experiences, so as to help them develop the skills needed to act as effective communicators on the global stage. These skills cannot be easily gained through language education in Japanese schools, and I felt the need to help fill the gap.

That is why I became involved in the activities of the English-Speaking Union of Japan (ESUJ), a non-profit, voluntary organization focusing on the promotion of public speaking and parliamentary debate in English in Japan. I served as ESUJ Chairman for six consecutive terms totaling 12 years until the end of June this year. Looking back on ESUJ’s activities over this period, I am gratified that we have been making steady progress toward the goals that I envisioned of fostering global communicators.

Public speaking is an effective way of learning the important elements that construct a discourse: key message, coherent logic, structure (introduction, body and conclusion), and non-verbal communication such as voice and gestures. ESUJ has held a number of workshops on public speaking led by people such as former diplomats, senior international civil servants, professors, bankers and business executives, etc. where businesspersons, teachers and university and high school students practice their speeches and gain confidence in speaking.

Parliamentary (impromptu) debate has been a main pillar of ESUJ’s activities. Debate is a game where, on a given topic, the affirmative side and the negative side exchange speeches to persuade a third party. Parliamentary debate is modeled on the British parliamentary system. The Government side supports a given motion and the Opposition side opposes it. Each side is required to give extemporaneous discourses with logic, evidence/examples and presentational charm to persuade the judges who represent common sense. Since its establishment in 1998, ESUJ blazed the trail of promoting parliamentary debate in Japan by hosting the ESUJ Debate Competitions (for university students and for working adults). Over 1,700 participants in these competitions are now active in various walks of life, making use of their debating experiences. Since 2019, ESUJ has cosponsored the HPDU Competition, which has fully grown into an authoritative national competition for high school debaters and its management will be left in the hands of the HPDU organizers from 2024.

ESUJ recently conducted a survey of past key participants in ESUJ parliamentary debate competitions and workshops on what they have learned through debating. The 36 respondents unanimously felt that debating was helpful, for example, in giving them the confidence to present their views logically and clearly in their business and other careers. Also important was the ability they developed to listen to and understand the views of others. They learned to respect the diversity of views and approaches on any given issue, and recognized the need to respond flexibly to such diversity. At the same time, one needs to think on one’s feet without being carried away by the majority view. They have also nurtured the habit of comparing the merits and demerits or the positive and negative elements of each proposal or idea, and have found it useful in their business and other careers.

ESUJ has an important task ahead in instilling the value of “discourse” in people’s minds through public speaking practices. It should also actively spread the message that debate is not a quarrel or verbal combat but an invaluable tool for honing a broad-minded, flexible and multi-faceted approach to solving problems and the art of persuasion through clearly conveying one’s opinions and ideas. If we can sustain these efforts, I feel optimistic that Japan will have many more global communicators who will help Japan play a more influential role in the world.

NUMATA Sadaaki is a former ambassador to Canada and Pakistan.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan.

Note: This essay originally appeared on the website of the English Speaking Union of Japan.