Recognising the English language and its importance in aviation

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English Language Day at the UN is celebrated on the 23rd of April. It is both the birthday and the date that William Shakespeare passed. He was a famous playwright who wrote in English and had a huge impact on the modern-day language. Through this initiative, UN duty stations around the world celebrate six separate days that are dedicated to one of the Organization’s six official languages (Arabic is December 18th, Chinese is April 20th, French is March 20th, Russian is June 6th, and Spanish is April 23rd).

Though language days at the UN are meant to increase awareness about the achievements of each of the six working languages within the UN, in the aviation community, there is only one.

With one in every four people in the world proficient in English, it is most often used as a way for two speakers with different first languages to communicate with each other. For pilots and air traffic controllers to communicate clearly and efficiently around the world, a universal aviation language had to be established. Both parties work closely together to exchange crucial information about the aircraft, flight, crew members, and passengers as well as other external factors and situational awareness that help ensure safe and efficient operations.

Since miscommunication and language barriers are human errors that could gravely impact flight safety and put those on board at risk, ICAO established English language proficiency requirements for pilots and air traffic controllers serving and operating international flights. Though English was chosen as the language of the skies at the Chicago Convention in 1944, ICAO first began addressing language proficiency for pilots and air traffic controllers in September 1998. In 2008, an English language proficiency test was established as part of the requirements for pilots and air traffic controllers to be fully qualified.

Aviation English is known globally for the phonetic alphabet, specific terminology and phraseology, and the universal jargon that we’ve likely heard in films or onboard a flight. It is actually a lot more complex. While much of the language is technical, functional command of English is necessary to pass along essential messages as clearly, fast, precisely and as naturally as possible, particularly when there is an emergency. Another advantage of having a standard language for pilots and air traffic controllers to communicate in is that pilots flying in the same airspace can monitor air traffic transmissions and increase situational awareness.

There are different language levels used to assess English language proficiency. Although the ICAO language rating scale ranges from 1-6, level 4 is the minimum level requirement for operations, with level 5 (extended level) and level 6 (expert level). Regardless of the proficiency level, testing assesses listening, comprehension, and speaking skills in addition to pronunciation, sentence structure, vocabulary, and fluency.

The validity of the test depends on the proficiency level acquired. Native English speakers and those who dominate the language at the expert level (6) do not need to be reevaluated. Those at level 4 have to test every three years, while those at level 5 every five years.

Safety is a number one priority in aviation, and effective communications are a contributing factor. Slight misunderstandings in language between pilots and air traffic controllers could affect the meaning of a message and become an obstacle that could lead to severe consequences. Introducing language proficiency requirements to demonstrate adequate knowledge of English is an extra layer of safety since there is less room for error or misinterpretation. Pilots and air traffic controllers require intensive training and a series of requirements pre, during, and throughout their careers, and demonstrating language proficiency is one of them. We know that the key to a successful relationship is effective communication, and it couldn’t be more applicable in this field.

There are several language training and testing services available to assist in preparing for the exam: ICAO’s Aviation English Language Test Service (AELTS), English Language Proficiency for Aeronautical Communication (ELPAC), and ICAO Rated Speech Samples Training Aid (RSSTA), are amongst many.