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English Only in the Air
June 13, 2012 - By: - In: Language - Comments Off on English Only in the Air

English has been the language of the skies since international commercial aviation first spread its wings after World War II.

Since English-speaking countries dominated post-war flyways, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) agreed in 1944 to mandate English as the standard language for international flights. In the air, clear communication is even more important than clear skies.

But as international aviation has become more international in recent decades, the number of pilots speaking English as a second language has increased dramatically.

Unfortunately, more non-native speakers in the air means more really bad English. NYT columnist Joe Sharkey reports a 2006 recording between an Air China pilot and an air traffic controller at Kennedy Airport here in New York, “a favorite among air traffic controllers and pilots who all have their own stories of language misunderstanding.”

“The controller becomes increasingly exasperated by the pilot’s hapless English, to the point where you can almost hear the steam coming out of his ears.”

No question that the pilot’s English was awful. But the air traffic controller’s response was less than helpful, and demonstrated a defect in a best practice domain.

In her 2008 dissertation on aviation communication, Sally Hinrich points out that, “Questions are not considered as part of the routine language in controller/pilot discourse. According to air traffic controller regulations, all communications are to be expressed in command-based or instructional language. When non-routine situations do occur, neither the pilot nor the controller has an available formula-based phraseology that will apply to the situation.”

I love the idea of a command language without questions, since my own command language is all questions, which can be tiresome, don’t you think?

Anyway, concern over all that bad English in the sky has been increasing as the aviation industry has gone global, particularly in non-Western regions were the patterns and cultural context of English differ so much from native languages.

In October, the ICAO issued new recommendations to improve English-language training, “in response to fatal accidents in which the lack of proficiency in English was identified as a contributing factor.”

I posted on aviation language fails in the past, in a post on the Smolensk air disaster that killed some 96 Polish government officials in 2010, and the cause of football riots in Warsaw last week.

The rigor in which the aviation industry approaches communication and cultural issues is instructive for us at 1-800-Translate, particularly for telephone interpretation, where audio-only real-time cross-cultural communication can also be a matter of life and death.

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