Aug 01 2017

Language or lack of it. What are the Dangers?

Just recently while cruising by boat in New Zealand I couldn’t help noticing of how in a large commercial set up, a luxury boat, so many people appeared from different areas, the lifts, entertainment areas, dinning rooms talking in many and various languages.

My wife and I happened to have some problems with the State Room for accommodation that we were given on the cruise. (But this is the only reason why it also appears below). This looked to me  insignificant compared with the rest that I wrote about the other topics.

Because I couldn’t get this past the employees at desk in the cruise( because they had no available means to make a copy from my iPad and send it to the captain, I thought best to hide names and other personal details here.

I must also point out here, that this isn’t everything that I mention at the desk either. For instance in the case of reminding them about Health Safety and The Written Word in English I gave them specific examples where things could be going wrong between say misunderstandings between patients and doctors and nurses.

I presented the fact that too many people were visibly sick in the cruise ship, coughing and splattering everywhere.

I put to the manager at the desk that with so many nationalities on board and no interpreters/translators to help the doctor, could easily be mislead in preparing a prognostic unless if he/she/they spoke half a dozen languages.

I explained that the medical term/word ”constipation”,(pardon the pun), echoes the same sound in a dozen European languages, but in Portuguese, Constipado/a  in French Constipé/e, Italian, Costipato/a, Spanish Constipado/a, can confuse the doctor or nursing staff and end up giving the wrong kind of medication to a patient.

My point is how language or rather lack of understanding of it could be in some way contributing to the general health epidemic that we hear talking about happening in cruise ships. We only have to google and they come in buckets full of

Gastro breaks out again on Sun Princess cruise ship docked in Brisbane
Sick passengers on board Diamond Princess cruise ship in Sydney

This is nothing new and that I was witnessing on board. One patient had to be evacuated overnight by helicopter out at sea.

It was visible even more credible because the captain and his PR would continuously repeat during his daily announcements… And don’t forget to wash your hands… and avoid flooding the toilets… You are responsible for that…In English of course; no other language.

Regarding Safety Issues I could’t stop thinking as I wrote, about the many passengers that had died on the Costa Concordia. I did see a parallel of how easier it would have been difficult for any captain of any ship, under these same circumstances as I saw them displayed why Captain  Francesco Schettino was found to abandon his vessel.

Costa Concordia in Majorca, Spain on September 28, 2011

Below this is what I wrote and presented at a meeting with the cruise desk manager, who agreed that I was right in what I wrote, That I had strong come up with strong points etc, but as far as  his Company Legal Requirements were concerned were in order and suggested that I sent it directly to the Ocean Company. I did and did’t receive a reply. Therefore I ask  and thank you having read this.

Let me know your thoughts as to what this means to you.

Are Ocean Companies and these Government Associations that dictate these laws to the Ocean Companies showing enough regard for the Passengers and crew safety at sea?

Imagine that you were doing a cruise and couldn’t speak any English All the information on board is/was in  English?!

…And don’t  forget to wash your hands… No: exactly it wouldn’t make any sense.

Are there similar cases happening elsewhere, that you know? On Land? In Space/Air?


To whom it may concern
I like to start by saying that overall has been a good experience travelling on board of xxxx.
We both my wife and I, and friends on board, have always found that the staff in general on board the xxxx are very friendly and always eager to help.
This doesn’t and should not detract from the fact that there are other serious problems that in my view need to be given serious consideration.

A – Noise Nuisance (as per our report)
As for the extreme noise above our stateroom n. xxxx it hasn’t stoped yet, and is some nights worse than others.
We were told that is on report and so it should be.
The noise nuisance capacity was improved but it hasn’t ended and needs to be fixed, (sound proof insulation above), during the next ship’s maintenance period.

B – Safety Issues

Another matter of concern more important than anything else is the Safety and Security at Sea on the cruise ship, that I am sure everyone at the xxx have as their first priority and preoccupation.
In this regard I would like to point out that I am no safety expert and that in no way this note/letter serves to criticise any of the security measures implemented on board of this vessel that I and my wife are travelling.
My concern is of a general linguistic nature, directed not to just the xxx but to all companies engaged in the transport of large numbers of foreign passengers at sea adopting similar communication policies.
These concerns, come from observation of what I witness during the evacuation safety procedures, or improvised drills, specifically designed for passengers on board xxx

I note the following regarding the Health and Safety Issues and Practices:

1 – Communication channels or rather lack of.

The fact that the simulated drill was conducted only in the English language, as I perceived it.

2 – False Assumptions.

The fact that it was assumed by the safety officers in charge that everyone could understand what was being carried and said in English is a fallacy.
That is not the case and far from the truth.
In fact my wife and I personally met couples and singles travelling on the xxx who couldn’t speak English at all. Of French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian background and I am sure doesn’t stop there.
An example was given by a couple, who could understand English, but only managed to understand 60 to 70 per cent of the captains message on board; a message which is based on safety. Other couples said that they rely on their children to get around.

3 – lack of Help from Professional Linguists.

With so many nationalities on board and a good percentage of non English speakers present, I personally notice during the staged evacuation drills that there were no interpreters, no translators, in other words translations of what was no doubt a very important safety message being passed on by the officers to the passengers on board.

4 – Officers in Charge need Extra Help.

What I observed was a lot of angst, stressed words, loud voices that showed almost disorganisation by the officer(s) in charge of this exercise or staged drill. I could not help thinking: ”Are there trained professional linguists to help them when it matter most?” ”Can they control, calm the passengers and crew without proper systems of communication in place?”

5 – chaos, Confusion.

I felt at the time that in a real case of a real situation/evacuation, maybe due what I said above (re: meeting the people in question on board), this tension in the air would account to chaos with very little added to the control over the passengers on the water edge.

6 – Health Safety and The Written Word

The safety evacuation instructions, on board, behind Room doors and elsewhere where they are prescribed and displayed i.e. Statesman Rooms or other guest crew rooms and premises as far as could see are all written in English.
I believe that it would add to the level of Safety and Health conditions on board if written and translated at least in five UN languages.
These could be English, French, Chinese, German and Spanish but more is better.

7 – Part of the Solution. This is How it Could Work.
Two single professional polyglot could be hired to cover translation/interpretation on board of a cruise ship in 10 languages. These languages including any of the 3 specified obligatory language on board.
During the evacuation drills or improvisations procedures, or real unfortunate situations, these professionally trained interpreters /translators in as many languages as possible could be placed among the passengers listening for signs of confusion or showing signs of distress, needing assistance in any way. I imagine that families can get lost or separated easily and questions emerge wanting answers there and then .
These linguists could also carry name tags for the languages they represent or that they can assist with on board. Soon enough they would be recognised by these in need of their linguistic services.
Furthermore these professional translators could help translate health issues, daily reports, information on board, videos on board, on TV channels, instructional material, shop and menus advertising and so on. And very much in particular take care of the written safety issues on board. For instance for the Russian passengers safety instructions in their room it makes sense to have them written in Russian. In particular because in the case of Holland America asks for passenger nationalities at times of bookings.

8 – The Deaf or Hard of Hearing

Any important message verbally conveyed on air should be repeated at least in these five languages of UN, taking into account these passengers that are hard of hearing and/or deaf mute in which case should receive messages in writing in a language of their choice.

We all are aware that nowadays everyone has got an intelligent mobile phone and with it they can translate words and phrases in 100 languages plus.
Lets not dispute the quality or validity of these translations.
Let’s just imagine for a minute that this was their latest recourse in case of a safety evacuation issue on board.

9 – Decline of Education.
There are many passengers on board who do not speak English or hardly. But it does not stop there and this is less known among many people in society.
There are many people who can speak a language or languages without knowing or being able to read and write in these languages. This includes people of all ages including these that even went to an English school.
Many Passengers on board who might be relying on their children to interpret and translate everything for them. Children that for lack of knowledge, lack of will and patience or even because education failed them at school, can and could be offering their parents the wrong information.
A very serious issue that can have consequences in the level of Safety and Health. Socially and Economically these seem to represent great losses.

Finally I am not suggesting for a minute that Oceanic Companies should cover all the languages spoken by passengers on board travelling across the nations, but that in their endeavours to establish and complement their Health and Safety procedures do not fall into the trap to believe that language(s) and therefore improvements in daily communications on board are not to be believed and therefore can be ignored during these simulated drills that can turn into real unfortunate situations on board or/and not realising that safety instructions, health issues, daily instructions, movies and videos, documentaries, Company website etc etc, should be understood by everyone on board written in English.
There is much to gain and I personally have trouble understanding where are the benefits or advantages for this situation if in fact exists. Ignoring all other issues, Economically the company is not tapping on these resources where the passengers can’t hear or read the message and it is like asking: ‘what comes first the chicken or the egg?’

Manuel Seixo

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