Elgazette Logo newtrans  The magazine for English language teaching and English medium education

The perils of using slang in the air


Headlines suggested that pilots who are non-native English speakers are to blame for aeroplane near-misses. But is this the whole story?

Claudia Civinini talks to the author of the report that hit the news

For Dr Clark, language and aviation are life-long passions. Once a flight attendant for Northwest Airlines, she then obtained an MA and PhD in linguistics from Queen Mary, University of London, and went on to become a researcher and a consultant.

Most of her research work focuses on language-related miscommunication in aviation, which prompted the UK Civil Aviation Authority to draw on her expertise to compile the now famous report*.

Dr Clark explained to the Gazette where she believes the problem with Aviation English lies.

Why is English the lingua franca of the skies, and what are the language requirements for pilots and air traffic controllers?

There was a horrible mid-air collision in India’s airspace in the mid-90s due to a miscommunication between pilots and controllers, as well as poor language proficiency of some of the pilots involved. This prompted India, a member state of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), to suggest that a language be decided upon for international aviation. It could have been any language, but English was voted by member states to be the language used by pilots and air traffic controllers.

In 2011, minimum language proficiency requirements were implemented. There are six levels: Level 1 is absolute beginner, Level 6 is native speaker level. The minimum level for pilots and air traffic controllers is Level 4, which means broadly conversational – but some miscommunication and misunderstanding can still happen.

If you had to rank the top three causes of language-related incidents, what would they be?

I have four! First of all, native English speakers using too much jargon and slang. They also sometimes display a lack of cultural understanding of non-native speakers’ needs and expectations. The next issue is, multilingual radiotelephony in air space – that is, speaking more than one language on radio frequencies shared by pilots and air traffic controllers.

Finally, there is a widespread lack of awareness of what language related miscommunication is and why it is crucial to report it. A lot of times people just don’t report it, but I think it’s fundamental for us to have the data. Without evidence it’s never going to get better, it’s just going to get worse.

“It could have been any language, but English was voted ”

So, what is the issue with native speakers?

It makes me really happy you want to talk about it! It all boils down to the fact that most native speakers don’t undergo the same training in using language in aviation that non-native speakers do. They are granted privileged status by virtue of where they were born and what language they were speaking when they were growing up – I don’t believe that’s fair.

Native speakers end up using jargon and slang that non-natives might not understand. Also, they use too many words, which is not helpful in emergency situations. This doesn’t happen with non-natives, as this is part of their training. I also think that if you are not used to interacting with people that don’t share your language background you might not understand that you need to speak slower and to simplify your language. 

Conversation English and Aviation English are very different, and when native speakers don’t use conventional aviation phraseology and plain English, miscommunication can occur.

With Aviation English being a lingua franca, should native English speakers be tested as well?

Yes – I would like all people working in international aviation to go through the same training and tests, both native and non-native English speakers.

It might be tricky for people to accept that, but I think it’s unfair to expect that native English speakers should know how to communicate in a way that is useful for non-native speakers without some kind of training. With pronunciation, for example, it should be a two (or many) way street. We should teach non-native speakers how to make certain sounds. But we should also make native speakers aware of what certain sounds may sound like if made by speakers of a different language background.

In regards to testing, right now, it’s up to the national regulators to approve their own exams, methodology and standards – and this is quite confusing. I would call on ICAO to establish more explicit and binding guidance and regulations for the Aviation English exams, in order to reduce the number of approved tests and create a standard syllabus.

I would also like testing to be extended to ground staff (mechanics, caterers etc.). At the moment they are not tested, but I think there should be a minimum level of language proficiency for them as well.

What can the ELT industry do to help?

First of all, join the conversation! I would like to see industry insiders, airline crews, researchers, language teachers and examiners all contribute to the discussion about Aviation English.

Then there are certain topics that Aviation English courses could put more emphasis on. For example, numbers: those were involved in a lot of language-related incidents. Numbers are used constantly in aviation and to not be able to think quickly in numbers is a huge problem.

Finally, I would like to see language courses, lessons, syllabi and exams replicate more real life scenarios. Sometimes we get lessons and exams in very quiet places where people can take their time. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works in aviation, especially during emergencies.

Study: *CAP1375: Aviation English Research Project: An independent study, by Barbara Clark