What is Aviation English?

When my colleagues and I say we work in Aviation English, what we usually get is a mixture of awe and perplexity. Ironically, information about Aviation English seems not to travel far and wide. So here are a few initial bearings for those who wish to learn more about it.

(Fingers crossed that I just might stop with those terrible aeronautical puns. Those jokes don’t fly, I think. Oops.)

1.       Aviation English is a misnomer. There are many aviation Englishes.

Aviation is like a movie in that you can see the actors and extras and you might even notice the director’s style, but you have no actual sense of how many professionals are involved. It’s only when the never-ending credits come up that you realize it takes a lot of work to make a movie. Of course it couldn’t be any different with taking you from point A to point B safely and efficiently and thousands of miles above sea level.

So starring aboard are the pilots and co-pilots. Flight attendants or cabin crew are quite conspicuous as well (and not glorified waiting staff, no! They have a key role in aviation safety). Air traffic controllers are often only mentioned when a mistake occurs (kind of like translators, come to think of it), but they are responsible for separating, sequencing, and expediting air traffic. And then there are mechanics, engineers, meteorologists, aeronautical station operators, aeronautical information officers, flight dispatchers, ground staff… The list goes on and on, as you can see here.

2.       You cannot possibly teach all aviation professionals at the same time in the same group.

Or maybe you can, but you would struggle to label your work as English for Specific Purposes. Those various professionals have very different language needs, not only in terms of level of proficiency (a quantitative difference, if you will), but also in terms of registers of English they engage in, tasks they have to perform in the language and even the skills they use (the qualitative part of proficiency, which to me is almost all of it).

3.       If you are teaching pilots or air traffic controllers, they will be worried about a proficiency exam.

And it’s not just your run-of-the-mill proficiency exam. It is a proficiency exam that follows the requirements of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) for radiotelephony communications.

“Wait, what?”

Yes, I know. It’s a lot to take in. First things first: ICAO is a branch of the United Nations that oversees civil aviation, much like Unesco watches out for world education. Fifteen years ago, ICAO reviewed aviation accidents and incidents and realized that communications in English had been a contributing or determining factor in a few of them. After all, pilots rely on air traffic controllers on the ground to separate their plane from other aircraft and obstacles. Pilots and air traffic controllers communicate over the radio, hence “radiotelephony communications”, and when they don’t come from the same country, English is their lingua franca.

It is, however, a very specialized kind of English. You can listen to air traffic feeds here, and if you don’t understand it, don’t fret. It’s not your fault. Most of what goes on in radiotelephony communications is a codified language called “phraseology”, a list of sentences and phrases pilots and air traffic controllers have to say in the exact same way every time. For instance, a controller cannot authorize a take-off in any way he or she likes. The exact wording has to be, “Cleared for take-off.”

Phraseology has to be “efficient, clear, concise and unambiguous” (ICAO, Doc 9432), but it couldn’t possibly include everything that might happen during a flight. This is when pilots and controllers need to improvise with their language skills, trying to keep it phraseology-like whilst conveying meanings that aren’t in their manuals. So in comes their English proficiency to the rescue. Ta da!

4.       Air traffic controllers’ and pilots’ proficiency levels do not have a corresponding level in the CEFR.

As I see it, radiotelephony English does not have a 1:1 relationship with your general English proficiency. (Those of you who did try listening to the air traffic control feeds and failed miserably to understand are probably going “Phew!”) Therefore, there is no easy correspondence between the ICAO proficiency levels and any General English rating scale/framework, including the CEFR. Of course, if you’re more proficient in English in general, it will probably help you learn or use Radiotelephony English (provided that you can keep it concise, precise and unambiguous), but the nature of the two proficiencies is, in my point of view, inherently different.

5.       If you think ESP is more accountable than TENOR, wait till you teach Aviation English.

ESP practitioners love to joke that other teachers are Teaching English for No Obvious Reasons (TENOR) (no offense intended). And because ESP goals are clearer and often linked to our students’ livelihood, some say ESP practitioners feel more accountable for their students’ learning. Now can you imagine what it feels like to have aviation safety as the ultimate aim of all that goes on in the classroom? S-c-a-r-y!

But good scary. A challenge to make us soar. 😉

If you are going to teach pilots, air traffic controllers or aeronautical station operators, here’s the starting point: ICAO Doc 9835. This document explains the rating scale for radiotelephony proficiency, lists the tasks and domains of their language use, goes over the rationale behind the language proficiency requirements, and offers guidances for Aviation English teachers and testers.

 You’ll also need to know what test they are studying for. Brazilian pilots must take the Santos Dumont English assessment, developed by ANAC (the Brazilian Civil Aviation Agency) and delivered by their staff and authorized examiners. Brazilian air traffic controllers and aeronautical station operators sit the EPLIS, an exam developed and delivered by the Brazilian Air Force.

In addition, if you wish to know more about Aviation English, I keep a list of references here.

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Natália Guerreiro

Natália Guerreiro has been a teacher since the year 2000 and currently works in Aviation English assessment and teaching for the Brazilian Air Force. She holds a CELTA, a B.A. in English & Portuguese from UFRJ, and an M.A. in Applied Linguistics from the University of Melbourne. She's been elected BRAZ-TESOL's Second Vice President for the 2019-2020 term.

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