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  1. 1. ACTIVE COMMUNICATION PRACTICES FOR JAPANESE ENGINEERS Kirthana Shankar1), Kohji Tokimatsu2) 1) Center for Urban Earthquake Engineering, Tokyo Institute of Technology, 2) Dept. of Architecture and Building Engineering, Tokyo Institute of Technology 2-12-1, Ookayama, Meguro-ku, Tokyo 152-8550, Japan kirthana.s@cuee.titech.ac.jp, kohji@o.cc.titech.ac.jp ABSTRACT It has become essential that Japanese engineering graduates require an ever increasing range of skills to maintain relevance with the global environment. In Japan, while Engineering faculties have a fine record of accomplishments and have adapted well to the rapid changes in Science and Technology, increasing pressures and challenges arising from the broadening roles of engineers has enhanced the need for the Japanese engineers to acquire good English communication skills. Good English Communication Skills are a vital element of an engineer’s profession and the lack of such skills only undermines the image of an engineer. A number of engineering faculties in Japanese universities fail to address this need for the introduction of such courses. There is a growing expectation that universities should directly meet the needs of industry standards and deliver global engineers who are not only competent in technical skills but also in non-technical skills such as communication skills. This paper reviews the Japanese education system and the importance of these skills for engineers in Japan with an emphasis on how such communication courses can be designed and incorporated into the engineering curriculum in the Japanese universities. INTRODUCTION The global business environment of Japanese firms is moving into a new phase with international relations becoming more complex as the world is getting smaller due to the information revolution and technological progress. The rapid globalization of the world’s economy has placed a significant impact on the way Japanese engineers work. It is rapidly exerting a homogenizing effect on communication and management styles around the world. While offering opportunities, it also poses significant challenges for engineers in Japan. The role of engineers in society is changing and places new pressures and demands on engineering faculties in the Universities around the world. Engineering education requires a more outward look with the ability to produce graduates who would be able to lead the engineering profession with its increasing pressures and challenges arising from the broadening roles of an engineer. Engineers are required to perform not only in technical capacities but also in the non technical capacities. In this context, communication skills in English have become crucial for Japanese engineers to be effective in international relations. Japanese engineers are increasingly being involved in offshore ventures and globalization is forcing them to cultivate these communicational skills. The globalization of companies, in Japan and elsewhere, makes it imperative that communication skills in English become a familiar and major business language. It has become vital for engineers to rethink the
  2. 2. way they communicate their ideas, manage their staff and construct their drawings to ensure that they are understood in a global workplace. As knowledge based society develops, international activities for engineers become increasingly dependent on good communication skills. A lack of these skills can lead to misinterpretations resulting in problems in international projects. By understanding the impact of good communication skills, Japanese engineers can increase the probability of success in international ventures. Due to the lack of sufficient communication skills in English, many Japanese engineers are restricted in their exchanges with foreigners. Engineering education in Japan is presently lacking in producing engineers with competent English Communication skills. This could be attributed to the way the educational system is structured in many of the universities in Japan. In recent years engineering education in many universities stresses the need to improve the abilities of students in communication skills as well as people management skills. A number of universities in Japan have gradually started offering courses in English Communicational skills for engineering students. This paper addresses the vitality of communication skills in English for Japanese engineers and explains why they have become a critical concern in engineering education in the universities and also addresses on how such courses should be designed and incorporated into the curriculum. ENGLISH EDUCATION IN JAPAN After World War II the Japanese educational system was reformed. The old 6-5-3-3 system was changed to a 6-3-3-4 system (6 years of elementary school, 3 years of junior high school, 3 years of senior high school and 4 years of University) in 1947 when the Fundamental Law of Education and the School Education Law were enacted (MEXT, 2005). Japanese students only start learning English as a second language for three years at junior high school and another three years at senior high school. Even after these 6 years of formal English education, students are still unable to speak or to comprehend English properly. As Murphey and Sato (2003) have pointed out,, English teaching in Japanese schools emphasizes mainly on grammar and translation skills, and students generally study English in this pattern for six years. Ability to use English for the purpose of communication is rarely practiced in these years. English language proficiency is assessed for the admission into National universities. Entrance to universities is highly competitive and students all across Japan who wish to enter universities sit for the College Examination Center test. The entrance examination also measures the English proficiency of a student and this test is designed primarily to measure the student’s grammatical competence. As mentioned by Nakayasu (2004), concerns have been raised about the adequacy of the English test items in the examinations, especially in terms of whether the test items adequately measure students’ abilities to use English in a non-test situation. The test requires students to exhibit improved competence in speaking and understanding English as well as competence in reading and writing the language. However the speaking skills part of the examination is tested through multiple choice questions (MCQ), and does not really test a person’s verbal communication skills. According to Nakayasu, (2004) based on the Real Life approach which emphasizes non-test language performance,
  3. 3. the language used in these test items does not reflect non-test language performance. Students taking the test can only demonstrate knowledge of English structures and vocabulary, but not the use of language to communicate in real language usage situations. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) has continuously introduced various measures such as the revision of the Ministry’s courses of study with greater emphasis on cultivating students basic and practical communication abilities. In July 2002, a strategic plan to cultivate Japanese students with English language abilities was formulated for the purpose of reforming the English skills education. Building on the Strategic plan, the Action plan established a system for cultivating “Japanese with English abilities in 5 years” (Atsuko, 2003). MEXT plans to achieve this goal by the year 2008. The goal can only come to reality when not only universities but also elementary schools, junior high and senior high schools take the initiative to improve the educational system in respect of English education from their respective positions. WHY GLOBAL ENGINEERS? The rapid advancement in globalisation requires global awareness and internationalised communication skills for success in the current international business world. It has become a requirement for engineers to have a global perceptive and to know the communicational requirements of a Global Engineer. The focus towards building global engineers in an organisation has become essential with the expectation and belief that good communication skills in English will lead to successful International projects. To meet the challenges of a Global Engineer the educational system for engineers in Japan should focus on producing engineers with good communication skills in English, which is required for working in a range of international settings and work environments. Volvo, the Swedish automobile manufacturer, has made English the language for communication for managers at its plant in South Korea. Many firms in Japan are using the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) to evaluate their employee’s language ability. Computer manufacturer, Fujitsu Ltd, had all its 30,000 regular employees and executives take the TOEIC test in 1996 before implementing a new global marketing strategy (Yanagawa, 2003). A similar situation took place at Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. In 2000, Matsushita encouraged all its new employees to attain a TOEIC score of 650 within 3 years of joining the company and those who were expected to work overseas needed to obtain a score of at least 730. Matsushita felt the need for English speaking managers, who could explain Matsushita’s corporate philosophy to its overseas affiliates and train its overseas employees (Yanagawa, 2003). Along with a prolonged economic slump and high unemployment rates, the Japanese system of employment, which traditionally has been supported by long-term employment and seniority-based pay, is undergoing a drastic change. Japanese companies have responded to the need for flexibility in coping with the ups and downs of the economy. Nonetheless, the shift has been a painful one for the employees. This has resulted in many engineers venturing out to multinational companies and to foreign countries in search of employment. As a result it becomes even more vital for engineering graduates to have an ever increasing range of skills to
  4. 4. match the needs of the global environment. There are only limited immediate incentives for individual engineers working in Japanese government and private companies to develop these skills while they are at work. Often these skills are only being exercised and gained as a by-product for being selected to work on an international project. The rise of globalization on the other hand has directly affected the activities of engineers in Japan in many ways. It has led to increasing opportunities for engineers to come in contact with the global market and to participate in its activities. Participation in a global market involves the exchange of knowledge and information and the ability to transmit information and engage in communication (Atsuko, 2003). In this context, it is essential for engineers to acquire effective communication skills in English as it plays a common language in linking people around the world together. The growth of foreign investment and multinational corporate alliances due to globalization, involving technology transfer and engineering cooperation as well as the development of products and manufacturing processes increasingly require good communication skills among personnel based from different countries. With the increase in the number of international projects, and with the cross cultural communication and collaboration on the rise, it has become essential to master these skills. The forces of competition have also started to reshape Japan. The emergence of the competitive global economy has a particular impact on engineering education. Such forces have a direct influence on the industry’s needs and it is required that an engineer be able to cross national and cultural boundaries. Global communication skills have become an essential requirement for engineers. Insufficient level of instruction of communication skills in engineering education serves to undermine the profile of a professional engineer. It becomes even more important that these skills be incorporated into the Japanese engineering education system at an early stage. WHAT SHOULD BE INCORPORATED INTO THE UNIVERSITY ENGINEERING CURRICULUM? Japanese students still seem to have difficulties when it comes to conversational skills in English. Hence there should be greater focus on the verbal communication skills. The Japanese education system does not emphasize on teaching or testing the conversational skills ability of the students. In response to the present educational system, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) is looking at revising the Ministry’s course of study with a further focus on cultivating student’s communicational abilities in English. The framework for the communication course for Engineering faculties in Japan should rest on a subject, which introduces students to basic principles of effective communication skills relevant to engineering. The course should preferably include the following aspects: 1. Effective Communication: It is essential for engineers to recognize the impact of culture on communication style which plays an important part in the success of cross-cultural business communication. Engineers should understand the nuances of different communication styles which will greatly enhance their effectiveness when communicating with foreigners.
  5. 5. 2. Communication through Technology: Technology provides a significant advantage in communicating but it can also become ineffective if not used appropriately. Engineers should be taught on how to communicate effectively when using e-mail, telephone, voicemail, or video conferencing. In Asia in general, relationships are not developed over the telephone, via fax, or through email. Engineers should be aware that communication technology should not be used as a substitute for interpersonal communication in certain parts of the world. 3. Written Communication: Verbal communication is very different from written communication in English and it varies from one country to another. As there are different types of written communication the importance of presenting written communication in an appropriate form is obvious. 4. Understanding Gestures and Body Language in Countries around the World: As the global village continues to shrink and cultures collide, it is essential for engineers in Japan to become sensitive, aware, and be observant to the myriad gestures, and body language that surrounds us each day. When crossing over cultural boundaries, it would be important for us to respect, learn, and understand more about the effectiveness of gestures and body language. It is essential for graduates to have an understanding of international communications and to gain better knowledge and appreciation in learning the skills. English has established itself as the prime instrument for communication in an international setup, and it is the most widely accepted language spoken internationally; hence it is essential for engineers to gain the above skills in English. This will greatly influence the language of communication among professionals internationally. Designing a New Curriculum Changes in the engineering educational process will lead students to participate in communicational development courses and the engineering faculty to focus on the need for a broader set of educational competencies to cope with the changing educational culture. For the Engineering faculty these changes involve the use of new educational teaching methods for the course, and ways in which the faculty can help students to increase their ability in enhancing their communication skills in English. There are various ways to developing communication skills in the Engineering departments for the students. 1. The Engineering faculty should embed into its curriculum, courses in communication skills to help students with their communication abilities. The subject should be made compulsory to all engineering students in order to ensure their active participation in learning English as a valuable tool in the Engineering curriculum. 2. When designing the course, it should be recognized that students in Japan generally tend to avoid signing up for such courses mainly because of their hesitation towards attending a course taught in English and the failure to see the relevance of the course and how it might help them in future. Hence the Engineering faculty should try to highlight the importance and relevance of
  6. 6. learning such skills in the 21st Century. CEOs and eminent engineers from the corporate sectors should be invited to give talks and to impress on the students the requirements and challenges of today’s engineering profession and the roles that they will be playing. This will give the students a better understanding on what is expected of them and a general overview of their work profiles in future. 3. The course should provide a forum for interactive learning. It should demand a high level of person to person communication and interaction that centres on the challenges of real life contextual communication. Lecturers who have a formal approach to teaching style tend to focus only on content. This style is generally teacher-centred, where the lecturer feels responsible for providing and controlling the flow of the content and the student is expected to receive the content. Teacher centred classes will not be effective for the engineering students learning English communication skills in Japan since it will only restrict communication due to very less participation from the students. Lecturers will hence have to play an integral role in designing successful, active learning environment. When designing the topics, a situative approach should be used. It emphasizes that the educational process should be linked directly to real life situations in context. (Greeno, Collins, & Resnick, 1996). The situative approach characterizes a student's development as a social learning experience and process which gradually increases with the desire to participate and his or her feelings of acceptance and belonging in the situation. Through this the students can experience the fulfilment of expressing themselves and understanding others. 4. The teaching abilities of the staff should also be monitored. Staff from an engineering background who have the skills and knowledge to teach communication skills courses would be able to provide a valuable opportunity for the students to learn communication skills from an engineering perspective. It is however essential to confirm that the staff recruited have the required levels of English ability upon selection. Center for Urban Earthquake Engineering Communication Skills Course The Center for Urban Earthquake Engineering (CUEE) established on September 1, 2003, to carry out the 21st Century Center of Excellence (COE) program, at Tokyo Institute of Technology has been cognisant of the importance of developing good English communication abilities in its engineers. In order to foster ability in international communication, teaching, research, creativity, and practice for doctoral and post-doctoral fellows, the CUEE education program found the necessity to design and offer courses that would help the students. With this notion, Advanced Technical Communication Skills (ATCS) 61063 & 61002 courses were specially customized for the doctoral and post doctoral fellows to embed them with the essential communication skills. It is based on the premise that one of the major keys to being a successful engineer is the ability to effectively communicate. The courses have provided a springboard into the areas of communication skills and a draw card of the courses is the variety of topics across a dynamic field that are being addressed. The course provides a forum for interactive
  7. 7. learning and demands a high level of person to person communication and interaction that focuses on the challenges of real life contextual communication. There are many topics that are integrated within the courses and they include: ♦ Presentation Skills ♦ Engineering Communication ♦ Technical and Business Writing Skills ♦ Leadership Training ♦ Business Skills ♦ Stress Management ♦ Power Talk ♦ Creative and Critical Thinking CONCLUSION Japanese engineers are increasingly being involved in offshore ventures and globalisation is forcing them to consider and cultivate the necessary skills needed to succeed in this competitive world. With increasing pressures and challenges arising from the broadening of roles that engineers fill, the current Japanese engineering education system must work towards meeting the needs of the industry by delivering “global engineers” who are competent in both technical and as well non technical skills such as communication skills in specific. Abilities in English Communication skills must be considered as vital for the present day engineering graduates. As mentioned earlier, the Japanese university English entrance examination which measures the English proficiency of a student is designed primarily to measure the student’s grammatical competence, hence it not a good gauge of a student’s verbal communication skills. It is thus important for these examinations to incorporate new language testing methodologies. It is suggested that English verbal communication skills be tested in these examinations. This will invariably result in elementary schools, junior high and senior high schools to improve their English educational content by introducing new courses that will emphasise communication ability among its students. This paper has addressed the importance of communication skills for practicing engineers and explored the critical gaps that are present in the Japanese engineering education system that need to be narrowed or eliminated by incorporating appropriate courses in communication skills into the engineering curriculum. The paper also explores the design and incorporation of such courses, and impact of introducing these courses into the engineering curriculum. Neglecting the learning opportunities in communication skills at the university level can lead to a shallow level of understanding in the engineer if he or she does not see the relevance and application of these skills in engineering profession. These skills should be acquired within the four years of an engineering education at the university. As discussed on how best to teach these skills or conversely how students can most effectively learn these skills, a situative approach of teaching has proven to be successful in enticing the engineering students to participate and contribute in lectures. The situative approach emphasizes that the educational process be linked directly to real life situations in context. Bringing real world practices into the engineering curriculum through such English communication courses will expose the engineering students to have a broader vision. The incorporation of communication skills courses in English for engineers in Japan at the universities is becoming an essential element of continuous learning. As such the Center for Urban Earthquake Engineering (CUEE) at Tokyo Institute of
  8. 8. Technology has been running two communication skills courses for its engineers since 2004. The aim has been to develop good English communication skills abilities in its engineers. The goal of developing communicatively competent users of English, as the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (2003) advocates, can be realized effectively if elementary schools, junior high and senior high schools and universities take the initiative in improving the educational system in respect of English education from their respective positions. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS The authors would like to express their immense gratitude to the Center for Urban Earthquake Engineering of Tokyo Institute of Technology for supporting and encouraging development and offering of courses in Advanced Technical Communication skills in English. REFERENCES 1. Greeno, James G., Collins, Allan M. and Lauren B. Resnick. 1996. Cognition and Learning. pp. 26 in Berliner, David C. and Robert C. Calfee (ed.) Handbook of Educational Psychology. New York: Simon & Schuster Macmillan. 2. Murphey, T., & Sato, K. 2003. Demonstrating the making of Japanese university entrance exams. In C. Coombe & N. Hubley (Ed.), Assessment Practices (pp. 41-48). Alexandria, VA: TESOL, Inc. 3. Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. The course of study for foreign languages. http://www.mext.go.jp/english/shotou/030301.htm, March, 2003. 4. Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. Japan's Education at a Glance 2005 - School System http://www.mext.go.jp/english/statist/05101901.htm, 2005. 5. Yanagawa, S., English, the lingua franca of Business. Daily Yomiuri Online, ftp.ets.org/pub/corp/Daily_Yomiuri_article.pdf , August 10, 2003. 6. Nakayasu. M., 2004. Grammaticality Judgment Tasks on Japanese University English Entrance Examinations. TESOL Graduate Student Platform Spring 2004. Vol. 1 Issue 1. 7. Atsuko.T, 2003. Regarding the Establishment of an Action Plan to Cultivate Japanese with English Abilities. Ministry of Education, Culture, Sport, Science and Technology.