traffic stats

How English Language Took Over Shipping


Do you speak English? sign

In the multi-cultural maritime world, “Maritime English” is the key to making things happen. But how did it become that way, is it for the best and just how important is it to understand the language of shipping?


Do You Speak English?

Why English language became international in shipping

English Book

English Book

Having a truly international and global industry is great, but people have to talk and understand each other to really make it work. There is no babel fish yet, and we can’t always rush to Google translate…so a language of the seas has been needed. That language is English.

Over the centuries, English has established itself as the lingua franca at sea. But why? Well five hundred years ago, between five and seven million people spoke English, almost all of them living in the British Isles. Now, anywhere up to 1.8 billion people around the world speak English. That is quite an upturn…

The growth of English has nothing to do with the structure of the language, or any inherent qualities, and everything to do with politics and history…and Empire building.

English was the language of the British Empire, and the goal of the Empire was trade – which was driven by shipping. Over time the growth in trade and shipping settled on the common denominator language and English fitted the bill.

Miscommunication, or what causes accidents in shipping? 



With flags of many nations and seafarers from even more, shipping has to have a unifying voice – and English is that. It is vital that communications are understood, are simple and can be acted on. According to a major study, “Deficits in communications account for up to 35 % of ships’ accidents”.

Accidents can happen because of misunderstandings, and sometimes they can be made worse. Such as the fire on the ferry ”Scandinavian Star” in the Skagerrak in 1990, in which 161 people lost their lives because there had been practically no communications from the crew.

In another accident, there was a breakdown in communication between the engineer and the bridge – instead of just a fire in the engine the result was a total loss of the ship. Also in the case of collisions, the causes are often difficulties in understanding.

A shared language, comprehension and responses are the bedrock of a safe industry. Shipping can only work with all its component parts in harmony. The ship has to fit the cargo, the fuel needs to fit the engines, and seafarers need to be able to communicate.


International crew – international problems (Project “Seaspeak”)

Languages of the world

Languages of the world

As more and more multinational crews began to become ever more the norm, there was a rise in accidents attributed to miscommunication. Initially the concept of a common language originated at the International Maritime Lecturers Association (IMLA) Workshop on Maritime English in 1985 – and was called, “Seaspeak”.

With more and more accidents, and pressure to find answers to communication problems, the early 90’s saw the International Maritime Organization (IMO) set up a workgroup to develop “Seaspeak” into a language for shipping, “Standard Marine Communication Phrases” (SMCP).

From 1997 to 2000 some 3,000 phrases were tried out world-wide, further simplified and finally reduced to 1,700. The SMCP were adopted by the 22nd Assembly of the IMO in November 2001 in a resolution which also promoted the wide circulation of the SMCP to all prospective users and all maritime education authorities.

The SMCP includes phrases which have been developed to cover the most important safety-related fields of verbal shore-to-ship (and vice versa), ship-to-ship and on-board communications. The aim is to reduce the problem of language barriers at sea and avoid misunderstandings which can cause accidents.

Maritime training in native language

Time to learn

Time to learn

While the language of the SMCP is frequently very simple and is the answer aboard ship, it is not really suitable for seafarers to use during their actual training ashore. Teaching non-English speakers wholly in English is impractical at best, and is therefore not a viable alternative.

To get lots of complex information over to students, training is usually conducted in the native language of the students. Yet this creates a problem as there can be academic knowledge gaps between the transfer from English to the native language.

The answer, according to academics, is to find a means of developing bilingual education – where information is drip fed in English, but explained in the native tongue. This has proven to be very useful in places such as China.

The effect is to build knowledge of the subjects, but so too of English. This approach allows trainees to not only pursue their maritime career, but to do so with a good grasp of maritime English. Making it safer and better for all…a “win-win” as we might say, but that might be a bit complicated to explain in SMCP.