Thirty-some years ago when I came to Japan I had the opportunity to work for a large heavy-industry company. Sixty-percent of its sales came from overseas. Global communication then was very different from what it is now. There was no Internet, no email, not even any fax machines or computers. Letters could take up to 10 days or two weeks round trip. When there was a problem with an overseas customer or supplier, we picked up the phone. In every department, there were a few very fluent English speakers. These chosen few were the contact points to the outside world. The telephone was the “information highway” of the time, and understanding and speaking English were prized above writing it.
Today, I work in one of Japan’s largest and most global electronics companies. It has partners all over the world and is a player in every market. The Internet and email have transformed the world. Email has replaced the telephone as the information highway, and writing is now the primary form of global communication. During company email seminars, I emphasize how the world has changed: “Good writing has become a necessity; speaking English has become a luxury.” Indeed, almost 80% of our employees need to write emails in English. Some employees spend several hours a day writing emails to partners they may never meet or speak to. In the global economy, speed is a competitive edge. Companies that write emails quickly and clearly can improve their turn-around time. Effective writing has become a competitive edge.
As a teacher of writing in the university system, I try in a small way to do what I can to prepare students for life. They will enter a global workforce, which means that they must be able to communicate clearly and quickly in written English. Sadly, I find many graduates are not prepared to do this. They took academic writing at university which has prepared them perhaps for writing research papers, but not for communication.
Interactive Writing develops these needed written English communication skills. It emphasizes through pair work that writing, not just speaking, is communication. It also emphasizes that we need to do almost everything through written communication that we do through oral communication. We can introduce ourselves, give information, give directions, describe things, make invitations, make plans, and build relationships. We equip our students to do these things verbally. We must also equip them to do it in writing.
Business is about relationships. Interactive Writing lays the foundation for building and maintaining important relationships with people our students might never see, but communicate with on almost a daily basis. In my experience, writing is the most practical, valuable English communicative skill we can give our students.