Aviation English Language Testing

A Language Testing Scenario for Group or Individual Study
Prof. Glenn Fulcher

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High Stakes Language Assessment for Aviation Safety

English is the international language of aviation, and the International Civil Aviation Organization requires all pilots and air traffic controllers to be competent in English. Some of the tests that have been developed to ensure that they have the appropriate levels of this very distinctive 'domain specific' English are listed below.

The English that is spoken in communication between pilots and air traffic control is quite restricted, and is referred to as standard phraseology. A largely fixed set of words and phrases is used to cover most operating procedures and eventualities. This is explained in detail in Franz Rubenbauer's book Linguistics and Flight Safety: Aspects of oral English communication in aviation, which is available from his website.

On the right hand side of this page you can see recent news stories about aviation communication. Some of them may report problems that occur even using a restricted code. Both air traffic controllers and pilots must have sufficient language proficiency to be able to manage the complex tasks they have to undertake if they are going to do them with safety. This short video explains just how complex air traffic control is, and shows how air traffic controllers have responsibility for the safe movement of aircraft through the airspace for which they are responsible.

You might expect that miscommunication would be rare when people are working with a very restricted code. But this is not the case. One of the most frequent problems is caused by pronunciation when speaking over poor radio connections, but grammatical and lexical problems are not unusual either. If anything out of the ordinary happens misunderstandings can be compounded by intercultural communication problems and lack of flexibility in language use.

This is a link to a news report from CNN regarding flight 981. The pilot is not able to communicate with the air traffic controller. The kinds of misunderstandings that are described in this video represent critical incidents that compromise the safety of aircraft and passengers, whether they occur on the ground or in the air. When language tests are constructed with the intention of certifying whether pilots or air traffic controllers are linguistically capable of carrying out their jobs safely, the tests are described as high stakes.

For Discussion

  1. Make a list of possible consequences of miscommunication in air traffic communication.
  2. Do you think that all pilots and air traffic controllers should be required to demonstrate an adequate competency in English?
  3. How might you go about defining "adequate" in this context?
  4. Look at the tests of avation English (links below). What are the key features of these tests? What evidence is presented to suggest that a particular test is useful for the intended decision?
  5. Open Live Air Traffic Control, select an airport, and listen to the air traffic communication for a short while. What do you think are the challenges of comprehending instructions through radiotelephony?
  6. The Aviation Safety Network records all air safety occurrences, with links to associated stories, and sometimes recordings of communications. Explore this site and find a recording of cockpit or pilot/controller interaction in a difficult situation. Describe the language, and how you would test one or more of the features you find.
  7. Look at the links on the right side of this web page. Choose one that looks interesting to you. What issues does it raise for the training and testing of aviation personnel?
  8. Open your favourite search engine and type in 'learn aviation English'. Select one course. Who is the course targetted at? Do you think it would meet their needs?
  9. THE MUST DO ACTIVITY. Step 1: Click here to open Air Traffic Control at Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam (AMS). Click on one of the options to listen. Step 2: Click here to open Step 3: In Map Mode centre on Schiphol Airport (see screenshot). Try clicking on planes to see their flight path (this map updates in real time; on the left you see a picture of the plane, flight number, type of aircraft, origin, destination, speed, altitude and heading). Step 4: Select a plane on approach to Schiphol and follow its progress while monitoring instructions from ATC. Question: Could you use this to create a task for a test of aviation English?

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