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Autonomous learners and autonomous ships

OTG A headshot of Catherine Logie
Equipping seafarers with better language skills is essential for shipping’s transformation and enables the next generation of maritime leaders, writes Catherine Logie, Director, Direct to Consumer Services, Ocean Technologies Group.

Communication is the bedrock of collaboration — and the maritime sector’s ambitions of digitalisation and decarbonisation rest on our ability to establish connection and understanding across our industry. At shipping’s core, multinational teams need to be able to exchange information and agree actions effectively through a common working language: this already works well and keeps global shipping running smoothly and vital trade channels flowing. But now, as shipping evolves, our communication skills are being tested like never before.

There is no doubt that the increased adoption of technology is contributing to changes in the nature of work onboard, with digitalisation becoming the norm and the development of a new code for autonomous shipping underway at the IMO. Seafarers need to absorb a lot of new information far beyond traditional seamanship as new equipment, and new ways of interacting with colleagues, emerge. At the same time, communication between ship and shore is increasingly important, with crew members working to keep shoreside teams up to date and receive essential support from them in a shorter time frame. 

And, of course, your officers of today are your superintendents tomorrow, so ensuring they have a solid foundation in language and communication skills will help them perform to the best of their abilities and pave the way for a career move ashore. 

Communication is key 

Having a common language for all onboard communication offers the opportunity for improved team cohesion and the building of stronger working relationships. The concept of testing English language skills was introduced to maritime as the industry experienced a boom in mixed nationality crewing in the 1990s, a trend that is now commonplace in the industry. The unfortunate truth is that there are numerous incident reports which have highlighted the role that language barriers have played during an incident, with individual crew defaulting to their mother-tongues, misunderstanding of commands and even incorrect information being communicated. Ensuring a minimum level of proficiency in English is a way to unite the crew and lower the likelihood of accidents at sea caused by misunderstandings.

The maritime recruiting and employment landscape has been reshaped by the shock of the pandemic, shifts in geopolitics, and changes in how technology is utilised, putting new pressures on crewing pools and the people that rely on them. Not only do we now need to recruit the brightest minds to help us digitalise and decarbonise, but there are also more countries that are eager for their workforces to benefit from the quality jobs that shipping’s green transition will bring. As the industry looks to recruit talent from new areas, we are seeing increasing demand for industry-wide language standards and testing.

When crew are recruited from countries where English is not widely spoken in the general population, you tend to see a wide variance in skills and language competence. If companies overlook the importance of assessing language competence to benchmarked standards in the rush to recruit, this can pose a risk to safety. Oversights in recruiting can be costly when crew are found to lack the necessary skills to communicate with their colleagues, causing fragmentation in onboard environments that can affect mental health and crew morale. Repatriation and re-crewing with competent crew is both a financial burden and an operational disruption, which can be avoided if appropriate language testing is carried out in the first place.

Diversifying language skills

Language and culture are just part of the story. Religion, sexuality, age, and gender all have a role as the industry grows more diverse. Concepts embedded in onshore culture, such as equal opportunities, discrimination, bullying and harassment, are gaining elevated importance at sea, too, suggesting that seafarers will need the appropriate language and interpersonal skills to address these sensitive issues. 

Even today, communication skills can make or break social relationships on board. Loneliness, isolation, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide are real problems and speaking up is hard enough in your first language, let alone when living and working with crew from other cultures. Research shows that cultural concepts of distress vary greatly between languages and cultures, and non-English terms that equate to pleas for help can easily be missed. Crew may lack confidence in speaking about mental health and may need training in the concepts and terms around aspects of mental health.

It is our job to train seafarers for these needs. But beyond any STCW requirement, surely it is important to ensure that people have sufficient language ability to not be isolated, so they can converse socially and talk about their wellbeing.

Talking technology

Trends in IT, ship technology and decarbonisation are also affecting the language skills crew need. Today, Maritime English classes are mainly focused on maritime terminology while OEMs provide type specific training through English language. Technical language is changing rapidly and, particularly in IT and cyber security, new vocabulary is emerging as fast as you can say ‘ChatGPT’. Are college Maritime English curricula being updated to include this new technical vocabulary? Or do we leave it to cadets and seafarers to use Google Translate to understand the detail of company cyber policies and report or resolve issues with new technology? 

Classification society, DNV, published a report last November on seafarer training and skills for decarbonised shipping. It emphasised the need for training in leadership, language, communication and soft skills, describing these as ‘pre-requisites’ to deal with the changes that new fuel technologies will bring. These ‘will have to be managed through communication and negotiation,’ while tomorrow’s seafarers may require ‘a different academic profile’.

The message from the industry has never been clearer: language and communication skills are critical to sustainable shipping. 

But are we ready for this challenge?

It is not a big leap to imagine a future in which crew communication will be measured during Port State Control campaigns. We saw movement in this direction during a concentrated inspection campaign from the Tokyo and Paris MOUs late last year, when STCW compliance, including communication skills, was assessed. As SIRE 2.0 rolls out, crew of all ranks will need to be able and confident to converse with inspectors. A lack of English language competence leading to misunderstanding or inability to answer questions during an inspection could negatively impact the outcome of inspections.  

The pace of change in maritime is fast, but language skills enable crew to change with the times and to take a greater role in their own development. Without English language competence, how will your seafarers learn new subjects as they emerge? Without gaining study skills using English, how will they continue to learn independently? We talk about autonomous ships and machine learning as part of shipping’s future. Perhaps we should focus more on hiring and training the autonomous learners that will become the maritime leaders delivering this shared future.