Piracy on the open sea

Ten years ago, a cell phone video recorded by a crewman aboard the Ping Shin 101, a tuna trawler, documented the systematic murder of sailors somewhere in the Indian Ocean. Despite witnesses on other vessels in the area, no international law required anyone to report the murders to authorities. When a cell phone with the damning video was found in a Fijian taxi in 2014, the video was circulated online. Over time, the crew were identified by investigators through social media, found and interviewed to find the captain of the vessel who ordered the executions. Its former captain was arrested when he entered Taiwan in 2020. In June of this year, after two appeals of his conviction for executing pirates, the former captain’s sentence was reduced by half to 13 years.

Merchant ships and fishing boats being attacked by pirates has been a hazard at sea for hundreds of years. It was one of the reasons that a nation depending on seaborne trade with other nations needed a navy to protect their shipping. (Another reason was the practice of conscripting (impressing) sailors and seizing cargo by a warship interdicting trade intended for a rival they were warring against.) In parts of the world where economic upheaval occurs, smuggling, seizure of vessels and piracy are still occurring. In the 1990s, after the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq flouted an international oil embargo, smuggling oil to other Mid-East nations until ended with his overthrow in 2003. In opposition to the United States and its allies, North Korea, Iran and Syria have been circumventing economic sanctions to deter proliferation of weapons. In March, 2022, industrialists in Russia and at least one industry in the PRC were added for smuggling weapons and technology to the Middle East. While these issues dominate the world stage, it is government instability and economic hardship for small fishermen that seems to breed piracy.

Some researchers suggest after the collapse of Somalia’s government in 1991, other nations’ fishing fleets overfished the waters in the Gulf of Aden. Somali fishermen turned to piracy to survive. They attacked shipping (Aden links Indian Ocean traffic to the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal); Ransoming cargoes and crews continued until the US and its allies began protecting international shipping in the region. (The hijacking of the Maersk Alabama in 2009, and its captain’s rescue by the US Navy was made into a movie.) In addition to the waters off Somalia, the South China Sea and Indian Ocean, piracy has escalated in the southern Caribbean. With the economic upheaval following Venezuela’s election of Hugo Chavez, fishermen turned to piracy in the Caribbean waters between Venezuela and Guyana.

International merchant groups and insurers such as the World Shipping Council, the International Maritime Organization, and Merrimac Marine Insurance coordinate to guard against piracy. However, the pandemic, war in Ukraine, Chinese naval expansion, and other threats, piracy has not made headlines as it did 25 years ago. Piracy still is a major concern for large and small operators. It is why one site, the ICC Commercial Crime Services, posts an updated international map to aid sailors. As for the imprisoned Chinese national in Taiwan, executing “pirates” and avoiding jurisprudence for eight years, a 13-year sentence seems a slight deterrent if international maritime law cannot deter rivals committing bloodshed.

Remembering September 11, 2001

Twenty-one years ago today, in the early hours of a late summer morning, evil attempted to destroy the American ideal. They thought by striking symbols, the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the White House, they would succeed in their endeavor. They were wrong. Three thousand men and women, airline passengers and crew, working people, First Responders and members of the Armed Forces perished that day. Instead of fear, the terrorists ignited resolve, beginning first with the passengers in the plane above Shanksville, Pennsylvania who opposed them. Though perishing, the passengers halted the attack on one of Al Qaeda’s targets. Like the surprise attack of Imperial Japan sixty years earlier, a “sleeping giant” was awakened. Before the towers collapsed, Americans (whatever their actual citizenship) demonstrated this evil “holy” war was a failed attempt. Heroism, courage and sacrifice emerged that day.

Men and women rushed into the burning buildings to save others, and some perished in doing so. In the ensuing months, fatherless and motherless children, widows and widowers, neighbors and strangers were comforted. The World these terrorists hated, put aside their differences, then united in crushing the safe haven in Afghanistan and sending its leaders to prison or to hell. Twenty years later, most Americans living today have at least one family member, co-worker, friend, or neighbor who served in the military after September 11th, some of whom returning with the scars of war. Though collective memory of nations fade, governments equivocate, and old ways persist, veterans still remind us of duty and responsibility of the defended. Ordinary citizens support, encourage, and volunteer to assist the injured, homeless, addicted, and refugee. Though many who have come of age in the two decades since question the purpose of the sacrifices in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, this day should be remembered and honored.

Embrace those who lost a loved one on that day. Put aside any differences in race, politics, religion, economic condition or gender. Thank a member of law enforcement, firemen, veterans and Active Duty service members for their dedication. Get to know your neighbor. Praise your God for peace and love. Most importantly, teach your children respect, honor, courage, and selflessness.

prayer remains the only secure comms

What hath God wrought?

Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph, cit Library of Congress

Before someone discovered the Rosetta Stone, a fragment of stone which had inscriptions written in classical Greek and Egyptian, allowing modern transcription of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, the pyramids and other ruins were secure witnesses to Pharoah’s secrets. Until modern times, protecting military communications took several forms from handwritten letters in cyphers that used increasingly more inventive means to encode them. When machines were developed to encode communications and transmit them over wires and then in the Twentieth Century wirelessly, communications had to grow more secure. Old diplomats who assumed “gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail” (Henry L. Stimson, d 1950), were being unrealistic. As quickly as the medium changed, the means to obfuscate the messaging grew. The leap from the invention of the telegraph (1837 – 44) to global communication satellites and the Internet (~1980) is barely 140 years. And in that time, messages were intercepted and read that thwarted the Kaiser’s plans for Mexico, Hitler’s and Imperial Japan’s war effort, and other campaigns up to the present day.

With the invention of the cell phone, the move to secure civilian communications was spurred by reports that governments were listening in to narcotics traffickers and could determine the phone’s location using ELINT (electronics intelligence) methods. In the last thirty years, companies have made data stored on or transmitted via smartphones more secure, but encryption of voice communications over cellphone is still costly and not generally available. With smartphones becoming the ubiquitous means of communication, whether texting, looking up recipes online, or signing and sending electronically signed contracts to vendors, the expanded need for radio frequencies changed other inventions. Landline telephones, television, and commercial AM and FM radio which had been both a means to inform the public and filter messages through Government censors, are on their way to museums.

In autocratically-controlled countries, filtering the flow of information is a primary concern to those in power. As we have already learned from global corporations that “socialized” the Web, Google, Facebook, and other players throttle dissent and focus (target) messages to audiences that are in line with their beliefs – but mostly to benefit their corporate advertisers. Yet this means of control can also be circumvented in some areas, like we have seen in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, where other entities (SpaceX, for one) shipped satellite receivers to the Ukrainians to connect to the world via its new satellite network. But as we saw with a recent network disruption of Viasat’s satellite network, regimes and other adversarial actors are daily working to corrupt communication or spy on those whose data they wish to steal. However, as nations’ cyber warfare apparatus are becoming very proficient both in attacking and defending, old technology is coming back into vogue. With the focus on the Internet and satellite transmissions foremost in Russian and Chinese state filters, Ham (amateur) radio operators are able to communicate with people hunkered down in bomb shelters and isolated areas in the Ukraine. Frustrated Russian military units, hampered by Command-and-Control problems, fuel supply problems and soldiers complaints over unencrypted radio, are being intercepted by civilian operators half a world away.

Yet one medium is still unassailable by technology. Though a favorite target in science fiction, a person’s thoughts remain secure and unable to be monitored by an adversary. At least until they broadcast them on social media or send in military units. However, it may be that Someone is listening in to those “secure” communications. The same Someone who empowered David to slay Goliath, and for now, seems to have been staving off Vladimir Putin’s territorial aspirations.

the restless Earth

Even with all our technology and the inventions that make modern life so much easier than it once was, it takes just one big natural disaster to wipe all that away and remind us that, here on Earth, we’re still at the mercy of nature.

Neil deGrasse Tyson

An undersea volcano near Tonga in the south Pacific Ocean created tsunamis that flooded the nearest islands and were measurable five thousand miles away in North America. An undersea earthquake off northern Japan was so violent it disturbed the Earth’s axis, and the tsunamis caused the Fukushima reactor to break down and release radiation. Tsunamis created by an undersea earthquake in Indonesia caused a quarter-million deaths along the coastline of Indian Ocean and Java Sea. On an island near New Zealand, tourists were killed in an eruption when the tour operators were ignorant of or ignored warnings of the impending threat. All over the world, millions of people live along the tectonic boundaries where continents bump against each other, ocean floors spread apart, or dive one under the other. Though weather and movement in the earth are rigorously monitored by technology and experts all over the globe, a pyroclastic cloud obliterating a Latin American community, or a tsunami that washes away homes and livelihoods in Indonesia may strike the vulnerable before the warnings can be acted upon.

As much as the global community is compelled to act to counter Climate Change, tangible support and actionable assistance or infrastructure, in regions where earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic activity damage and kill or injure tens of thousands is warranted now more than political activism and questionable initiatives. Would collective action to install better warning systems, engineer stronger buildings, or investigate “flood-control” measures be useful to counter natural disasters that are happening now?

garbage in and cannot get garbage out

Garbage is humanity’s biggest problem. Specifically, “what to do” with garbage we humans generate. It is a way more immediate a problem than the ice caps melting as my neighborhood is not expected to be waterfront property even in my grandson’s lifetime. When populations numbered from dozens in an area to a few million across a continent, garbage was not contemplated for the problems it generates today. But nine billion people on Earth generate a lot of waste. Communities in major cities around the world live in garbage dumps. Burning trash, tires and chemical spills make large swaths of the planet barely livable. Plastics and other toxics are collecting in thousand square mile ‘rafts’ in all of earth’s oceans. While I may empathize with global authorities who want to reduce human influence on changing global climate, and where to dump what and recycle other materials, the immediacy of the problem about garbage, for me, is collection.

I live in southern California, and this past December, the company whose trash service I contracted for the last dozen years became embroiled in a labor dispute with its employees. Without weekly collection, residences, businesses and even cities have been overwhelmed with trash. The company quietly noted that subscribers could dump in the company-run landfills without additional cost- but that requires the means to bring it to the landfill which I did not have. A week ago, I paid for a private company to take it all away. Republic Services only yesterday ran a garbage truck down my street. It was almost insulting. They had brought other employees in from other regions to mitigate a potential dispute with the largest municipal contract. Those of us in the unincorporated county had staged our bins each week in hope of being served. After four weeks without further notice from the company, neither of my neighbors had left their bins for collection on the curb! That probably was the emptiest garbage truck moving through our community that morning.

Not mentioned in this whole affair is the new legislation enacted by ‘our’ representatives in Sacramento. California has mandated that food waste as well as other decomposable matter now has to be screened into “green” bins, separating ‘greenhouse-gas’-generating waste, recyclable waste, and landfill -acceptable waste by all residents and businesses. At least, that latest maneuver was anticipated by me late last year. I began a compost program to create fertilizer for my home-grown fruit and vegetables. As for what to do with animal bones – the beef, chicken, pork and fish we eat? I am now supposed to put them in the Green collection. I could crush and burn them at home, as one website advises about minimizing landfill gases, but then the fuel to burn them and the smoke that will generate might get me cited. I am already frivolously barbecuing and smoking away on the pellet smoker Santa brought me for Christmas.

Hopefully, the new service (the one with green, methane-run trucks) I engaged at the end of the year will deliver the means for me to separate my trash today (as promised). At the very least, even if our food waste requires some extra effort to dispose, one effect of the legislation enacted on January 1 will be to minimize burying food that goes unsold in groceries and restaurants in California. Saving the additional space in landfills while feeding people struggling, is noble. What California does to enforce the new environmental rules among the tens of thousands living on the street, whom they were supposed to house by prior legislative initiatives, as they do not subscribe to a waste removal service.

Let us table that discussion. I have trash to dump. Regulations to read. And the environment to save.

Talking like a Sailor: Navy terms and acronyms

For 2022, I wanted to introduce readers (and recall or reinvigorate in my case) terms, acronyms and abbreviations used in the Navy. Earlier today I was reminded of the times I used to talk on the phone with our son while he was serving in the Army, and how his mother found Army jargon unintelligible. However, I would run everything he said through a translator in my head. After a quarter-century of serving with or working with other service veterans, I put others’ jargon into Navy-speak, and pretty much follow along.

Terms

  • Alive. Usage includes “look alive, shipmates!” (energetic, move quickly)
  • As you were. Order to carry on with what you had been doing.
  • Basic Allowance for Subsistence (BAS). Food allowance (pay) received when no military galleys are present/ authorized to mess separately.
  • Black shoe. Slang term for a surface Sailor (ship’s company). Its opposite is Brown Shoe.
  • Brown shoe. Slang term for an aviator.

Acronyms

  • AOE. A combat support ship and the fastest auxiliary ship in the Navy. It provides fuel, missiles, ammunition and general stores.
  • CCOL. Compartment Check Off List. Part of the Planned Maintenance System. There must be a CCOL located in every compartment and weather deck area where a Damage Control facility is located.
  • COSAL. Coordinated Shipboard Allowance List. Contains the nomenclature and nameplate data on equipment, identifying repair parts and materials, and provides for the allowance of such to be in the unit’s supply storerooms.

Ask the Chief: listen and comprehend

I recall a time when listening, and comprehending what I heard, was not one of my strongest qualities. Boot camp “helped” me change that weakness.

“What is your major malfunction, Numb***s?“, the Company Commander bellowed at me. Because everyone was part of a team, he explained when one member fails, the team suffers: He continued, “EVERYONE – DOWN and give me Twenty [pushups]!!!”)

Active listening, which at that time meant, listening intently to the Company Commander (Drill Instructor in the Marines) internalizing or instantly responding to his instructions. For some, it was coerced, due to members of the team encouraging a weaker recruit to focus. Those who successfully completed recruit training, gained skill in listening and comprehending what they were told, so they might become effective sailors, soldiers, airman or marines. However, those proven methods for military cohesion and performance are unsuitable for most other occupations.

Active listening

A service my business provides administers one of the state licensing exams. We provide test candidates with instructions about the exam beforehand and monitor them during the test. Though I repeat myself four times about the bathroom policy or warn about message-capable devices being prohibited during the exams, someone with a need to use the restroom, or another having a cellphone or IWatch on their person, after the timed test begins, tests me. As a matter of state policy, once an exam begins, nobody can be out of eyesight, to prevent cheating. This includes a requirement to monitoring in the bathroom. While a matter of ethics and not necessarily comprehension, there are sufficient reports of people distributing images of the test questions to reinforce these policies.

Most of our test candidates are prepared for admission to the state test. Some have not listened nor understood what they must bring to be successfully admitted. One of the most arcane line items for many teens and Twenty-Somethings, is a properly- sized, properly-addressed and properly-stamped envelope to receive test results by mail. With an Internet of tens of billions webpages and videos, a remarkable number of the young have not searched for things they do not understand. A significant number have not reviewed test checklists – for the acceptable identification, a pencil, envelope, and state application form -which are sent by mail or email from the test administrators a week or two before the test.

Language comprehension

A number of candidates are not adequately prepared to take the state exam due to their lack of English language comprehension. Where the secondary school system or junior colleges may be structured for English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, trade schools on accelerated schedules often omit competency tests (in written or oral skills) as a prerequisite. However, some skills with a state or Federal licensing requirement, are tested only in English.

At the same time, many non-native speakers of English successfully complete training through schools, local governments and community programs that provide classes in ESL to prepare immigrants and adult learners for careers. As for those who fail to certify for licensing, some get the assistance to gain comprehension in written and spoken English for their career field. Some find members of their ethnic community to assist them and they eventually may succeed.

incentivize listening and comprehension

As a retired Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer, I have more than thirty years experience witnessing how a structured system of training, and of unbending standards – in performance or conduct – could advance someone from weakness to strength. People who are incentivized to succeed, provided the tools to do so, and not given special accommodation nor lowered standards, will succeed. The issues that are central to success in one’s country of residence is skill-attainment and comprehension. It is a systemic failure, both in the public sector (government bureaucracy) and society when people are not adequately prepared to be self-sufficient. However, it ultimately is the individual who determines whether they comprehend the information they receive. And the individual has to engage the trainers to gain that comprehension. While some are unmotivated and squander the opportunity, others may find another school or resource that offers additional training in listening or language comprehension. Once these challenges are resolved, I will welcome the day the greater challenge for test candidates, is to properly address and affix postage on a business envelope.

freedom of choice

I make bad decisions often enough. I often regret those decisions, such as eating too much of something tasty, or smoking too many cigars. Sometimes my decisions affect others. When I am driving somewhere with my wife but unfamiliar of the route, I am often adamant I know where I am going. (Worse, I tend to blame my spouse in not giving me good directions.) Yet I try not to make bad decisions on the basis of some jingoist (that is, extreme patriotic or excessive bias in judging one’s own associations, party, or group as superior to others) vision of America.

Constitutionally-protected “rights” and public health responsibilities

Anyone who has a basic understanding of the history and governance of the United States should recognize we are a representative democracy. Framed by our Constitution, the three-branch organization of an executive, legislative and judicial body, depends on knowledgeable citizens who elect representatives to make policy and govern in our collective best interest. Most glaring, given our recent history, the people we elect to public office, and they staff, in all three branches of government are flawed men and women. But so are the people they are supposed to represent. And policies that are implemented are just as flawed.

Public health is everyone’s responsibility

Looking only at decisions that affect the public health of a nation, the last eighteen months of a COVID-19 global pandemic have created confusion, fear, anger, and suspicion that increases the dis-United States. While bureaucrats, politicians and “experts” often find their actions in times of crisis have supporters or opponents, inaction is generally worse for their constituencies. However, in 2020 and continuing in 2021, a large minority of people within the United States demonstrate their freedom by treating public health mandates as akin to tyranny.

Studies prove that people tend to believe others whom they view as authorities (whether or not they actually are such experts). It naturally predisposes us to support those we believe and distrust those we view as opponents. Deciding to refuse basic protection, in the form of masks, or to decline vaccination against COVID-19 based on hearsay, political rhetoric, or Internet-stoked conspiracies, is a bad decision. The majority of those who are refusing masks, or vaccinations, or social-distancing, DO NOT deliberately want to harm their relatives, friends, co-workers or First Responders. But many have been harmed anyway.

The consequences of such behavior have resulted in millions with permanently-altered health and the loss of people who otherwise would be alive today. If Jonas Salk and others had faced such backlash today, millions would still be debilitated by polio, measles, tetanus, Hepatitis A and B, or whooping cough (CDC). That we have forgotten what these illness did is due to the availability of vaccines.

For just a few dollars a dose, vaccines save lives and help reduce poverty. Unlike medical treatment, they provide a lifetime of protection from deadly and debilitating disease. They are safe and effective. They cut healthcare and treatment costs, reduce the number of hospital visits, and ensure healthier children, families and communities.

Seth Berkley, epidemiologist

Consensus in a free society

An online dictionary defines freedom as. (1) the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint. (2)   (f. from): the state of not being subject to or affected by (a particular undesirable thing). One of the tenets of living in a free society is that consensus achieves the best outcome for citizens. The first step toward consensus is hold reasoned debate on such things as public health policy, voter-directed oversight of our legislators, tighter control of bureaucrats, and what policies should be left up to local or state oversight.  Just as some see conspiracies between certain plutocrats, elected officials, and foreign entities, when any group deems public health concerns and their remedy (i.e. COVID vaccination) are politically-motivated, these dissenting voices are as selfish and unpatriotic – as those whose views they claim to oppose. The solution to each of a nation’s divisive issues is reasoned dialogue and consensus. Or Abraham Lincoln’s words will ring true. “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”  .

Ask the Chief: celebrating Independence

Is it only in the United States of America that residents of a country can be split along ethnic, religious, economic, language, and education differences? No. Is the United States unique in one political party’s priorities being different than its opposition? No. Is there a single nation in the world that has eliminated poverty, discrimination, greed, persecution, government corruption, or ignorance? No. Is there an exodus from the United States to other countries due to better social and economic opportunities elsewhere? No, again.

Since the ascent of the United States as a global military and economic power just over a hundred years ago, the basic tenets that the country was founded upon, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, right of self-determination, basic human rights, economic opportunity and so on, has influenced many all over the world to seek the sort of life that Americans have taken for granted. Far more people today in the United States demand “rights” without a willingness to bear responsibility for their condition. Some seek a handout but are unwilling to follow the social ‘contract’. More are not willing to work to achieve what others have accumulated as a result of their hard work and skills acquired over many years.

A nation is unified when all share in common values, language, traditions, and responsibilities. And a unified nation can maintain its security inside and from external competitors and threats. What also defined the United States was respect for civil authority, and making the government responsible to the citizen for its authority. Poor or corrupt representation of a constituent’s desires would subject them to removal by ballot in a peaceful transition of power. These are what made an “American” out of millions of immigrants. The independence that we celebrate every Fourth of July has been misused by lobbyists, politicians, and selfish interests. A nation is intentionally “Balkanized” by institutionally pitting groups against one another by race, education, location, or political affiliation.

I am neither a populist, a bigot, nor a blind nationalist. Having spent twenty-five years in uniform of the United States, and involved in industry protecting the national security, I still see the benefits of a nation that, despite a complex history of injustices, has an amazing history of advancing technology and improving living conditions for billions of the world’s inhabitants. As a veteran, I am still frustrated by veteran homelessness and PTSD that has resulted in suicide of too many veterans. Yet, enlisting in the Navy enabled me to prosper. Had my paternal and maternal grandfathers remained in Europe and not come to the United States in the early Twentieth Century, none would have achieved the American Dream.

I am not ashamed to celebrate American independence.

Ask the Chief: are you a “victim” of your circumstances or an “overcomer”?

I watched a movie last month, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” (2017), telling the story of a Polish family that operated a zoo in Warsaw, Poland at the outbreak of World War II.  The Nazi’s treatment of the Jewish residents shocked them and they decided to help rescue those they could.  Though the grounds were occupied by German troops for the duration of the war, the family smuggled Jews who otherwise would have been exterminated, into hiding there at the zoo and out of Warsaw. At risk of their own lives, they managed to save 300 people by war’s end.

I have been reading stories of ordinary soldiers, partisans, and public safety personnel who have acted selflessly in situations that put themselves in harms’ way. Others who have survived blizzards, been lost in the wilderness, were adrift at sea, or buried in earthquakes or in caverns. It came down to a will to survive that made the difference between living or giving up. But health is something everyone has dealt with at some point in life. Many probably have known someone who diagnosed with a severe illness or suffered a debilitating injury. Of those who refused to give in, but mustered physical and mental focus against an adversary, many survived. Circumstances do seem to foster whether people see themselves as “victims” or “overcomers”. My late father whose engineering career supported the development of Navy submarine missiles was accelerating in his late Twenties, suffered a brain tumor. While that surgery saved his life, he spent years learning to walk and speak again. It became his determination to resume his engineering career; refusing to let people judge him by his use of a wheelchair or cane, he even earned a teaching credential. Though he died in his late fifties, he had never given in to his condition.

Military personnel who volunteer to serve in a combat zone, as many did during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, may be mentally prepared for the hazards of wartime. However, few have battled an illness as merciless as cancer, and won, all while still serving in their official capacity of command. Or having won against breast cancer, promoted, and then volunteered for service in Afghanistan filling a critical role. Then, promoted again being selected for Flag rank. Many should know an “overcomer” in the person of Linnea Sommer-Weddington, Rear Admiral, USN (Retired). She has inspired the careers of many of my Shipmates, female and male, evident in those who honored her at her retirement. (I had the privilege to serve as her unit Senior Enlisted advisor in one of the units she commanded).

Others may be familiar with civilians Mike Rowe and Gary Sinese, two television and film stars who have done amazing work to celebrate people who inspire their communities. Whether it is encouraging servicemembers deployed, taking care of the families at home, helping physically or emotionally-suffering veterans, or publicizing those whose volunteerism helps affected communities, they bring attention and resources to help others overcome. Some twenty years ago, I met a Native American man with cerebral palsy, a member of our Southwestern US fellowship of churches. His accomplishments despite a “handicap” were legendary. He had competed and won in Paralympic games, was a motivational speaker, and introduced a number of people to the Christian faith. He possessed a sense of self-deprecating humor about his abilities that lifted up others with physical or mental challenges.

Should anyone wish to contribute their stories of overcoming severe challenges, I would welcome them to use this blog as a forum. At a time when there are still more than twenty veterans committing suicide each day, understanding what motivates someone to continue to overcome and not fall victim to one’s circumstances might help save lives.

Ask the Chief: bilingual comprehension

My late mother, an Naturalized (immigrant) citizen of the United States, graduated from the Mount Sinai Nursing School and was an RN most of her adult life. Pursuing a lifelong interest in literature, she earned a Masters degree and in her second career, was a junior college English teacher. Her most cherished students were often not the native-born, but the ones who had emigrated to the United States from places English was not the native tongue. These immigrants were “all-in”, that is totally committed to not just speak the language but have comprehension, which would enable them to be successful at work and fully-appreciated citizens in the community.

That was forty years ago and while the same issues over immigration, national identity, and common language existed then as today, there was far less accommodation then for non-English speakers in the community. Today, there are many government services from schools, courts, county and state offices that serve communities where residents primary language may be Spanish, Tagalog, or Arabic. The United States remains a melting pot of cultures and immigrants from all over the world, though in some states Spanish is the largest language group next to English. Yet employment in professions that require Federal and State certification, licensing, or as college graduates, often require a competence in English first and bilingual as a supporting skill. This has been a continuing issue with secondary (high school) education nationally for decades. People are looking to enter the workforce with poor grammar, and poor reading comprehension. Business writing, reading standard government forms and test instructions are often poorly understood and done incorrectly.

College placement tests bear this out, and offerings of remedial writing classes in community colleges, universities and private for-profit institutions testify to substandard high school standards. For both immigrants from non-English speaking places and native-born, the aspiration to be successful in a profession drives performance. However, some for-profit schools do not assess competence in speaking, writing or reading at a level that will enable a non-native speaker of English to be successful. An unfortunate consequence for many candidates for state licensing, governed by both Federal and State statutes, failure of the written exam or other assessment (conducted in English) is a costly lesson.

Yet there have been private as well as government-programs, online and various means to gain competence through ESL – English as a Second Language -adapted for various professions. While many businesses do cater to specific communities, staff who communicate primarily in a language other than English may have issues meeting Federal requirements for that institution. Meeting Federal guidelines at the workplace and successfully gaining employment requires comprehension at a fairly basic level. However, many private post-secondary education businesses attract students with lower fees and quick preparation for licensing exams. It may be outside their scope to add rigorous language preparation in their curriculum.