What an interesting afternoon we had onboard the Statendam Wednesday!
I was invited, along with Trisha of CruiseCritic, to sit in on one of Helen Haanen’s English classes for Statendam crew members. This was a rare chance to get a glimpse into just how arduous a task it can be for crew members of different nationalities to become familiar with the English language; one totally unlike their native tongue. Not only do they need to learn the basic concepts, but they have to become comfortable enough with English to interact with passengers on a daily basis -- passengers who can sometimes ask them what may seem like very complicated questions.
The first thing I must say is that Helen sure makes these classes fun for crew members. She told me that they attend of their own accord and often on their own time. They do this because they truly want to learn. “I rotate these classes in groups of four to a maximum of eight, unless I decide to invite two separate groups to one so that they can challenge each other,” Helen told me. “By rotating the classes, they each get to attend for one month before another group is selected. This way it is less like work for them, and I’m not infringing too much on their rest time, nor adding more pressure to their already heavy duty schedules. If they desire more practice than the classes provide, I encourage the more proficient students to volunteer as escorts for tours. There they get the chance to further practice their English skills by interacting a bit more with the passengers.”
“The main difficulty with the English language,” Helen explained “is that English is full of slang and other idioms that can make learning it quite difficult. The same word can have multiple meanings, and to determine the meaning of a word means having to take it in the context of the particular sentence in which it is being used. That’s not easy.”
To help crew members with this, Helen uses a variety of fun exercises requiring her students to ask each other questions in English; questions that require them to pronounce the words and understand them. Their partner, as well, must break down each word into the context of the question in order to provide an appropriate answer.
To illustrate: Helen had four crew members in class this particular day – two of them (Jing and Li) are shop employees, while Wisnu and Danu work in the ship’s laundry. Sitting around a large conference table in her husband’s office, Helen asked each of us to write our first names on folded tent cards. This would enable participants to address each other by name during the exercises. She then selected her first student and handed him a card with a printed question on it. The question was “If you could be any animal, which would you be?” This individual first had to understand the question, and then had to select a person to whom to pose it.
After struggling to grasp the meaning of the question, Wisnu selected a crewmate.
“Jing,” Wiusu, asked “If you could become any animal, which would you be?”
“Ummmmm,” Jing said, as she clearly was mulling over the meaning of the question. “I guess I would be a dog, because almost everyone loves dogs and I would want to be loved.”
Good answer, I thought. This lady has a head on her shoulders.
The questions soon became more difficult, sometimes involving moral dilemmas. “How would you feel if upon your physical death, your body was thrown into the woods to rot?” Li asked Wisnu.
That one required Helen’s assistance for Wisnu to break down.
“My soul would not be happy,” he responded.
Another smart cookie, I thought.
Another question – this one from Danu to Li: “Would you be willing to be physically ugly if it meant you could live for a thousand years?”
She didn’t have to think about that one for too long. “No,” Li laughed shyly, “because that would mean I would have to hide away inside all of the time.” Every one of us got a laugh out of that answer.
Things became even more intense when Helen asked participants to make up their own questions to ask each other.
“What is the most romantic thing that ever happened to you?” Trisha was asked. She then told a story, trying to use simple English sentence construction, to describe a romantic marriage proposal she had received many years ago.
“And what was your answer?” Jing prodded, wanting to get to the romantic conclusion of the story.
“I told him no,” was Trisha’s response.
“No? But, why?” asked Danu, somewhat disappointed with Trisha’s answer.
“Because I didn’t love him.”
Jing seemed initially perplexed by this answer, but then an expression of understanding filled her face. “Oh,” she said, “now I understand.” Danu also shook his head in understanding.
Amazing how the deepest emotions of the soul can be so easily communicated and understood if you only have the right teacher.
Helen was constantly facilitating the group exchange, handing out new questions and prodding the group to make up others on their own. Clearly there was significant learning taking place here and everyone was becoming more comfortable with their understanding of the English language as well. They were not only learning new words, but often complicated cultural concepts as well.
“I keep these classes fun,” Helen told me, because these folks really want to learn and I want them to enjoy the process. It is only when they become frustrated that they will close up and the learning will cease. So, when I see that beginning to happen, I step back and we slow down. I don’t want the process to ever stop being fun for them.
“English is a very difficult language to learn – probably the most difficult one out there,” Helen elaborated. “That is because it is not a ‘universal’ language – meaning that there are a lot of regional variations, and since people from all over the United States can be found on our ships at one time or another, crew members need to have at least some familiarity with all of it. They also have to know some of the subtle humor contained in the language, not to mention the slang – meanings of which can also differ by region. It’s not an easy task for them. But if they want to advance in their jobs – wherever they may work on the ship – they have to become comfortable conversing with passengers in English.”
As the class broke up after about 45 minutes, it was clear that everyone had really enjoyed themselves. They also seemed proud of the progress they had made in today’s session.
“I’m proud of these young people,” Helen told me. “They really work hard and so badly want to do well in their jobs. And, many of their jobs are not easy, believe me,” Helen added. “Some of these people work long hours, in physically demanding jobs. They take their own time to join these classes, and that says something about their character and their work ethic.”
While I’ve never been faced with being thrust into a foreign work environment and culture, I can only imagine the difficulties that would ensue. Having to understand and speak in a different tongue from my own, having to understand a multitude of cultures – well, one can only imagine how difficult that would be. A simple attempt at light humor could result in an offensive comment if one misunderstands another’s culture, and feelings could easily be hurt. On a Holland America ship, that would certainly not be a good thing.
I know that after watching this class in action, and seeing the determination and desire to learn on the faces of each of the participants, I will have a whole new appreciation for the work people like Helen do, and the unique, caring brand of humor with which she does it – one that makes the whole process of learning truly enjoyable.