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Aviation English Language Training – A Perspective

All international aircraft operators, whether pilots or air traffic control officers (ATCOs), must meet minimum English language proficiency requirements specified by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) which come into effect on 5 March 2008. The aim of ICAO is to raise standards in ‘Aviation English’ communications globally, as a means of improving safety both in the air and on the ground.

Aviation communications in any language are highly specialized. The term ‘Aviation English’ embraces a considerably wider field of language knowledge and expertise than most native speakers of English utilize in their everyday lives. Moreover, a further important consideration is that of the aviation environment and 2 significant factors of everyday life in that community: those of the emergency situation and of the non-routine situation. Aircraft operators learn very precise procedures, definitions, and rules and regulations, and all are presented in very formal, precise and unambiguous language. Introduce the unknown, those frequent occasions when something does not happen in the way it should, or in the way that those involved are expecting, and we can readily identify where many of the major communication problems lie.


Pilots and ATCOs are well trained to deal with the unexpected; nevertheless, no organization or individual can cater for every eventuality in such a precarious operating environment. In such situations, therefore, yet another factor comes into play: that of the degradation of an individual’s performance under stress and under duress. In a very difficult, ever-changing and ever-challenging working environment, which is fraught with danger and the unexpected, circumstances can change within seconds, inducing both crises and panic in those directly concerned. At that juncture, individual performance levels plummet and instinct takes over. Effective communication becomes paramount and must be instinctive. If one then considers the added complication of a particular individual, if not 2, one in the air and one on the ground, operating in a second language, performance can degrade further. Hence, the importance and necessity of a high level of English-language proficiency in all concerned.

English language trainers therefore face an enormous task in facilitating the service necessary to meet the demands for effective training in Aviation English worldwide. The ICAO impetus, quite rightly, is on general English-language comprehension, which has to be the basis for any training. However, to meet the minimum communication standards for safe aircraft operations internationally, trainers must also consider the contextual issues. It is the enormous scope of English in the context of aviation that presents language trainers with a significant challenge.

Aircraft operators require an enormous range of knowledge, terminology and phraseology to function effectively in their everyday roles. In a short English-language course for aircraft operators, therefore, trainers must consider where to place the emphasis. Many trainers focus on R/T phraseology; however, whilst standard phraseology is an important aspect of aviation communications, it is merely one of many. Most aviators are familiar with standard R/T phraseology; they use it every day. Language trainers therefore need to place the emphasis on the many aspects of non-standard and non-routine phraseology that might be used in emergency situations and that potentially create difficulties for non-native speakers, ie those aspects of English not necessarily covered in aviation manuals.

Often, language training is a requirement more often than not driven by budgetary constraints, operational constraints and logistical considerations on the part of a client, who invariably lacks appreciation that Aviation English training takes time. Trainers are frequently required to train sponsored groups of trainees, a scenario that works well only when the specializations of the individual trainees, their respective training needs and also the English-language levels of each are similar. It must be stressed that the needs of pilots and ATCOs are very different: whilst the sponsored-group scenario generally works well with pilots of similar rating, in the case of ATCOs training must take account of 3 very different professional specializations, each of which has its own particular requirements: Aerodrome Control, Approach Control and Area Radar Control.

Problems arise on those occasions when either a particular sponsor elects for, or the training provider attempts the ‘one-size-fits-all’ scenario, an option that is all too frequently deemed the most practical on the part of the sponsor, for operational reasons, or the most economic on the part of the training provider in terms of facilitation. The outcome is all too often unsatisfactory, with single trainees, or small group of trainees, being placed on courses where the group as a whole is totally mismatched – by far the least effective way of achieving a satisfactory result from any viewpoint.


Provided there is adequate compromise, understanding and agreement between the client and the training provider, nevertheless, the sponsored-group scenario can work well, so long as all the parties concerned ensure that each group selected for training comprises trainees of the same aviation specialization, individuals of similar experience and personnel with comparable English-language proficiency skills. The real key to success, however, is that prior to course commencement, the training objectives and learning outcomes are clearly defined and that, importantly, they are agreed in advance between the client and the training provider. Within such a package, professional trainees can then negotiate their own learning programme and achieve precise and specific learning outcomes both efficiently and effectively.


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