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The Human Factor on the Costa Concordia: How Can We Address Onboard Communication and Cultural Barriers?

Posted to Maritime Training Issues with Murray Goldberg (by on September 24, 2012

According to press reports of the leaked investigation into the Costa Concordia tragedy, poor judgement, inadequate training, and language barriers were all apparently contributing factors. Of these, communication issues are in some sense the most problematic. This article highlights one approach to bridging language and cultural barriers on board.

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The Human Factor on the Costa Concordia: How Can We Address Onboard Communication and Cultural Barriers?

We have all read with great interest the various press reports of the leaked investigation into the Costa Concordia tragedy. This report, commissioned by the judge investigating the matter, cites a number of problems which contributed to the tragedy. Despite extensive searching, I have not been able to locate the full text of the report. However, the various press reports on the leaked investigation all indicate human factors as the overriding cause of the accident. And although we must be careful not to arrive at conclusions based on a reporter’s interpretation of an investigation, poor judgement, inadequate training, and language barriers were all apparently contributing factors.

Poor Judgement and Inadequate Training?

Of these three issues, poor judgement and inadequate training are easy targets for criticism wherever they occur. We should be able to rely on trained and experienced experts in positions of responsibility to exercise excellent judgement - especially in routine matters.  Likewise we should be able to rely on vessel operators to ensure all crew are at least adequately trained - especially with the great advances in techniques and tools which are readily available now. Neither of these can be forgiven because they are largely avoidable - yet they happen regardless. Speaking very generally, we already know what to do about these two issues - it is primarily just a matter of doing it and doing it well.

Communication Issues

Communication issues were also reportedly identified as a contributing factor in the Concordia. For example, it was reported that some of the crew in charge of lifeboats did not understand Italian, the working language on the vessel. The reports also indicate communication issues due to language barriers on the bridge, particularly between the captain and an Indonesian helmsman.

These communication issues on board are in some sense more problematic than the issues of poor judgement and inadequate training. After all, crews are international. Members come from different countries with significant language and cultural differences. While English language training can improve the situation, those of us who have studied languages in a classroom setting know that the outcomes often leave much to be desired. And even if this were not the case - what about the cultural differences? These can impede effective communication almost as much as a language barrier, yet culture is even more difficult to “teach”. So what can be done?

There is likely no perfect solution to the problem of language and cultural barriers on board. Yet some great minds are considering the problem and making inroads. One example, which is the subject of this article, is an interesting approach being taken at the Shanghai Maritime University. Xie Jieying and Wang Yingming, lecturers at the university, describe the universities approach in their paper “Study and Practice: Establishing an Innovative Student Exchange Program In SMU“ which was presented at IMLA 2012.

As an aside - for those interested in maritime training, you should probably know about IMLA if you do not already. IMLA stands for the “International Maritime Lecturers Association”. As they describe themselves on their website:

“IMLA is a no-boarder forum: a round table for discussions on sea-related issues. Teachers and other interested parties from all over the world dedicated to mediating in the process of Maritime Education and Training are invited to become members and to freely present their achievements, share experiences and exchange ideas.”

I was attracted to IMLA initially because of their international conference series on maritime education and training. I attended for the first time in 2012 in the Netherlands and I highly recommend it for anyone seriously interested in maritime training and education issues.

Improving Communication Skills, Cultural Awareness, and Interpersonal Skills in Seafarers

According to the paper by Xie and Wang, China has the potential to become a supply country of seafarers for the international maritime market. As such, it is critical that Chinese sailors are able to work and communicate effectively with mariners from other parts of the world. It was with this goal in mind that Shanghai Maritime University established a maritime education exchange program in the merchant marine college. As the authors put it (emphasis is mine):

“Shanghai Maritime University is increasingly moving to establish international partnerships in its education and research programs. One of the main purposes for this project is to provide students value-added technical and cultural experiences. This growing trend is fuelled by many factors, including the need to give students the education they require to work in an increasingly globalized world.”

It is interesting to note that according to the authors, Shanghai Maritime University is a significant organization which has graduated over 50,000 mariners. They have now established partnerships with 50 overseas universities. They clearly have the critical mass to create a notable impact in the maritime world.

The Exchange Program Between SMU and the Massachusetts Maritime Academy

In 2010, SMU and MMA began a student exchange program. According to the authors:

“The exchange program was a one semester exchange program … one [semester] in Shanghai and the other in Massachusetts. Every year, these students from MMA were divided into different international classrooms held by different colleges of SMU according to their majors.”

The classes for the MMA students also contained students from the SMU as well as other maritime colleges. In addition, the lecturers included not only SMU faculty, but also faculty from other institutions including those from the West. Moreover, these students were immersed in cultural and social experiences in addition to educational experiences. Therefore the semester was a truly international experience where students with different nationalities, cultures and languages worked, studied and socialized together providing each with a more global outlook and some of the skills necessary to work in a multinational setting.

Many of these benefits extended to the lecturers as well. Notably, the authors found that the teaching styles were very different between SMU and MMA lecturers. Consequently, the learning and interaction styles of the students were also quite different. As the authors put it:

According to the interview of some exchange students, they believed that teaching styles of the teachers involved in the program were different and these were indicated in several ways. The teacher from MMA used several different methods in teaching, while most of Shanghai teachers used the lecture as their sole teaching method, without giving opportunities for discussion or for question and answer sessions. The foreign students therefore were actively involved and participated in the lecture while the shanghai students accepted what the teachers said or what the textbook described. The foreign students tried to understand what the teachers were saying while the shanghai students wanted to memorize the points in the lecture content. Therefore, the students thought the learning in the course given by the American teacher was more flexible, independent and colorful while in Shanghai it was seen to be more mechanical and a little dull. It’s difficult to judge which style is better, but overall they seemed to appreciate the teaching style of the teachers from their own countries.”

The differences in the teaching and learning styles noted above provides some very interesting insights into the cultural differences between the countries. Is it any wonder that these cultural differences create implications for on-board operations?

Conclusion

The problem of cultural and language barriers onboard is a difficult one to overcome. The approach taken by the Shanghai Maritime University is one approach that attempts to bridge the gap by creating an immersive learning experience which is comprised of students and lecturers from a variety of countries. Through this immersive educational experience, students learn both formally and informally how to interact and communicate effectively with shipmates from different parts of the world. While it might be said that such a program would be difficult and expensive to broadly apply to all maritime students, it does provide some very valuable insight into how these human factors can be dealt with.

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About The Author:

Murray Goldberg is the founder and President of Marine Learning Systems (www.marinels.com), the creator of MarineLMS - the learning management system designed specifically for maritime industry training. Murray began research in eLearning in 1995 as a faculty member of Computer Science at the University of British Columbia. He went on to create WebCT, the world’s first commercially successful LMS for higher education; serving 14 million students in 80 countries. Murray has won over a dozen University, National and International awards for teaching excellence and his pioneering contributions to the field of educational technology. Now, in Marine Learning Systems, Murray is hoping to play a part in advancing the art and science of learning in the maritime industry.

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