The native language bias

24 May

It’s another one of those sea days, with eleven hours of work lying ahead. I am lucky to start my work at half past noon, leaving the morning to ponder on the meaning of my existence. As an added bonus I wake up just before 9 o’clock, thus having enough time to rush into the Staff Mess, and bag a few bread rolls for breakfast. I do try to return to sleep, but after an hour of rolling around I decide to just pack my laptop and head for the crew bar. Staying in the cabin is out of question, because my cabin mate will start his first shift when I do, and he attempts to sleep until ten minutes before work begins.

Crew Bar aboard the ABC RypMeOff

The Crew Bar aboard the ABC RypMeOff is a desolate place. At least there are two TVs, tuned to different channels, mounted on opposing walls.

The crew bar lies nearly desolate in the mists of late morning. Three figures lumber their way through the depths of the internet-ready computers, shrouded in the fog of late alcohol and early work. They are accompanied by the catatonic babble of an Italian morning TV show. Since nobody is actually watching I manage to reduce the volume of the TV to a manageable level. After about ten minutes the three zombie waiters leave the bar, and I turn the telly off. Now that is a great start!

Apparently yesterday some terrorist exploded at a concert in Manchester, and I realize once more how far removed I am from the happenings of the outside world. It is rather difficult to follow even the most poignant global news, if every TV on the ship is tuned into Italian or Portuguese channels, your cabin mate sleeps all day, and every second of internet usage costs you money that you barely have. And so, instead of chasing after the latest global gossip, I continue writing my blog, because I generally have precious little time to do so.

The Plaza aboard the ABC RypMeOff

A cruise ship is a lonely place, if you have nobody to talk to.

The crew on this ship originates from a few dozen countries, and although the official language aboard the ABC RypMeOff is English, most people continue to talk in foreign tongues. From my Eastern European colleagues, to the Brazilian bar tenders, Filipino laundry personnel, and Italian officers – at least half of the crew prefers speaking in their first language. That starts with watching Brazilian news for breakfast, continues through the conversations at work, and ends in the nightly gym visit, where the TV exclusively plays Portuguese summer hits, and the occasional music video from the 80s Pop charts.

Unsurprisingly, English skills are dearly lacking from most of the personnel aboard. Not a day goes by without me having to resort to charades and spelling competitions in order to communicate to one of the working hands I depend on. It is frustrating and time-consuming to labour through anyone’s bad language skills, but it is particularly annoying when I see that person turning to his colleague and discussing my problems in Farsi, and after several minutes condensing the entire conversation to the words “Is OK”. Maybe if you didn’t spend your entire work day talking in your mother tongue, you would actually be able to communicate with me directly!

Vigo, Spain, a view of one of the many narrow back alleys

Even the shop personnel in the cities we visit usually speaks better English than much of the crew aboard the ABC RypMeOff.

I know that my English is better than that of some of our Bristish guests, and I understand that not everybody gets the opportunity to study at a Canadian university, especially if they are straining for a career in mopping floors. But the blatant unwillingness of this crew to assimilate even the smallest specks of English is really taking the piss. Barely any of the officers speak English well enough to hold a conversation, and the lower-ranking crew members fail accordingly in their own feeble attempts to communicate. Since every department predominantly hires new personnel from their own home country, the situation has no internal drive to improve. Most Photo Managers are Rumanian, and almost only Rumanian photographers appear to ever make it into the management program. There is no way of changing this country-based recruitment bias without making vast changes to the cruise company itself, so it is not likely to ever happen.

However, ABC Cruises could take at least one simple step towards improving the language skills of all crew: remove non-English TV. By allowing the kitchen personnel to chose Portuguese breakfast TV for the Staff Mess you exclude everyone else who eats there from understanding the program. Yes, it would be beneficial for me to improve my Portuguese language skills, but the need for that is far smaller than that of all other staff to learn proper English. Crew should not have to learn Italian to communicate with their officers, Rumanian to advance in the Photo Department, and Farsi to get their laundry done. First and foremost we should all be able to form complete sentences in English. That can only be achieved by challenging everyone to speak that one language, and by removing the needless use of all others. And the simplest way to do that is by eliminating non-English TV channels from the menu.

The people I share this boat with have stopped asking whether my cruise experience differs from what I expected. Maybe that’s because they know that with every day the broken expectations keep accumulating. I have to get up before nine o’clock to avail myself of breakfast. I have to pack up my equipment, and arrange it in the crew bar, in order to be able to write. I have to battle Italians and Brazilians for access to English TV and/or silence. This is definitely not what I expected. And that’s not even counting the terrible management, the less than average food, and my blatantly profit-oriented job description.

Maybe I will learn some Spanish curse words, just to properly complain about the food aboard.

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