The Lingua Franca on most Cruise Ships is English. For the decades I worked at Sea, Americans were, by far, the majority of those sailing with us. However, most of the crew - with the exception of the Entertainment and Cruise Staff Departments, were not Americans, or even English Speakers. At least not as a First Language.
Most of us Americans could only offer a single greeting, way of saying thanks, or asking for a beer- in one language other than English. Some could utter phrases, and that was it. The Crew…well, on the ships I worked on, every single one of them was at least bi-lingual, quite a few were trilingual, and then there were the polyglots.
The polyglots could speak five to ten languages - and they always seemed to want to learn at least one more! It always stunned me to hear someone speak in a several languages, often without much of an accent.
Every cruise ship I ever worked on had a language lab in the Crew Internet Room. Several stations with headsets, computers, and organized lessons and courses to improve their language skills. A broader more robust command of the English language often meant promotion, or an increase in salary. Folks from other countries work like our grandparents did- hard.
A twelve hour shift - a quick beer in the Crew Bar, then it was off to the Language Lab to study. Sometimes you would see some of the Crew take their entire break, or lunch hour, to study English. It always stunned me. Their desire to learn, to make themselves understood, to develop a command of the language. I was in awe. I can’t even say a simple children’s sentence in any of their one, two, or three languages- and they were apologizing to me for not knowing more? Humbling.
I tell you all that, to show you the power of a note to someone trying to learn.
I had gone to the Crew Internet to get my Internet Card so I could sign in and check my emails. On the side of the room where the Language Lab Cubicles were set up was a Waiter from Serbia. I had seen him a few times around the ship- I knew he spoke at least three languages - besides English.
He had his headset on and was practicing repeating phrases, reading sentences out loud, and correcting his accent. He was so intent on his studies that he didn’t realize I was listening. I didn’t want to break his concentration, but I did want him to know how well he was speaking my Native tongue.
On a scrap of paper I wrote the following note:
How wonderful to hear you speak my language with almost no accent. Your pronunciation is spot on. You are speaking English so well, you could be a Newscaster or Radio Host. Good job! I didn’t want to bother you while you were studying, but believe me, I don’t speak English as clearly as you do, and it is my only language! Your Mom must be real proud of you.
I thought nothing of it. I just laid the note next to him, gave him a pat on the back and left the room. Two years later on a different ship, I got a message on my phone. It was to call that Waiter when I had a chance. I rang his room and left a message. The next day we met for lunch.
First he gave me a giant hug. Then he took me to his cabin to show me something. When he opened the door to his cabin he pointed to a spot just above his desk. There was the note I had written. Framed. Yes, framed. In a very fancy silver frame that you might put an important family member’s picture in, or your favorite photo of your girlfriend.
I was flabbergasted.
At lunch he told me this story:
“Kevin. I only knew you as one of the Entertainers. I knew you said hello to lots of folks. I knew the Passengers often liked your show. But that is all I knew about you. I never saw you in the Crew Bar (I don’t drink Alcohol). I knew you did a Comedy Show but I never saw it.
That day you put that note next to me in the Crew Internet- changed my life. I was going to quit. I thought my English was so poor I would never get promoted to Head Waiter, Supervisor, or even Maitre D. I was going to do that final lesson. Call my Mom that night and tell her I was coming home the next day when we ported in LA.
Then you put that note next to me. You had already left the room when I finished reading it. I must have read it fifty times before I left that chair. You had the Farewell Show to do that night, and for us Waiters, those last two dinner settings are crucial. So I never got to thank you.
Kevin, I was ready to quit. English is so difficult. I thought I sounded like a simpleton, or an uneducated person. To have someone who speaks English fluently, in fact, makes their living off of just talking - tell me I spoke it better than they did. Well…I cried.
I called my Mom the next day. I translated your note into Serbian for her, Russian for my Sister- then I read it out in English so they could hear me speak English. My Mom and Sister both cried. They were so proud of me. They asked me to say “Thanks for believing in my Son- my brother.”
(I nodded. A note. A lousy little three sentence note. And his Mom said prayers for me?)
I didn’t quit. I worked harder. Your note made me more confident. I made Head Waiter. Then, because my English was so good, they made me Assistant Maitre D too. I haven’t worked a ship you were on in two years. When I found out you were coming on this ship, I wanted to treat you to dinner, and say: “Thank you!”
We had a good lunch. He showed me pictures of his family, his home town, his new bride and his favorite motorcycle. Then he showed me a picture of his Mom, Sister, and his best friend standing around him. In his hand, held like a College Diploma, was my note- framed.