There are numerous advantages, and some challenges too, when it comes to a seafarers life on board a vessel. And the very nature of the maritime industry means that crew members of all levels of experience will find themselves working alongside people who hail from different cultural backgrounds, and who speak a different language. The tired old cliche of native English speakers being able to get by speaking English L-O-U-D-L-Y is exactly that - a tired old cliche. Therefore it falls to seafarers of all nationalities to do the very best they can to overcome language barriers when at sea.
But that can be easier said than done and it may be tempting to argue that English is the lingua franca that the shipping industry, and indeed global business, operates upon. However for native English speaking seafarers to attempt to communicate in another tongue the outcome will usually only be a positive one.
Firstly, showing respect for another culture is a huge deal and whether you’re a ship owner or manager, a cadet or an officer, being empathetic to the different nationalities you have on board will help to foster a mutually respectful workplace. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that when all crew members feel appreciated and valued - regardless of their background, religion, language or ethnicity - they will likely be a more engaged and loyal workforce.
Respect is really the foundation of conquering communication issues and at its most basic a seafarer can show consideration by at least knowing which language their fellow crew members are speaking. With that in mind, learning a few key words and phrases in the languages that are likely to be encountered on board will go a long way to helping create a friendlier and more favourable working atmosphere. These words could be as simple as ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ in Russian or more technical and industry related in Tagalog.
When communicating in English with non-native speakers or with those who don’t have a good grasp of the language, using simple and direct speech will help get the message across and avoid misunderstandings. Something that is definitely not in a vessel or crew’s best interests. That means not using slang or idioms and only using jargon when necessary and when it has been established that everybody knows its meaning.
On a similar note, using visual methods of communication - such as charts, diagrams, drawings, and pictographs - will be helpful for all crew members, regardless of language, particularly during training sessions. And while we’re on the subject of training, ship owners or managers may also want to consider introducing language classes. These could be informal and fun or related to different topics such as navigation at sea or trigonometry in marine engineering. Of course language classes can go both ways and will be extremely beneficial for non-native English speakers who need to learn specialized words and terms related to the maritime industry. However for English speakers who are on board a vessel mostly crewed by Ukrainians or Indonesians, learning basic communication in their fellow seamen's mother tongue will go a long way to ensuring a safer, more efficient and amicable voyage.
There are challenges that come with any seafarers life on board but they don’t have to be insurmountable and the likelihood is that the ship as a whole will benefit from having a crew that can communicate more efficiently and effectively. Not only that but the well-being of those on-board will increase as they are given the language skills to be more productive in their working life and more social in their downtime.