"Promoting the science of aerospace medicine"

23rd of May 2012

English Skills a Concern as Global Aviation Grows

(NYT) - "Please, where is ahhty-ahm?" he asked. At least, that's what I heard, even when he slowly repeated the question. I was flummoxed until he took a bank card out of his wallet and made the motion of inserting it into an imaginary slot. 

"Oh, A.T.M.!" I said, and pointed the way to the nearest one. 

As he thanked me, the man seemed to speak English well enough. But his question had been incomprehensible to me because of his pronunciation - a short rather than long A, an accent on the first rather than last syllable of "A.T.M." 

The exchange was inconsequential. But consider similar misunderstandings involving greater complexity in exchanges that are crucial indeed, like those, say, between airline pilots and air traffic controllers who do not share the same native language. 

Confusion often occurs. Sometimes it's just amusing, like a 2006 recording of exchanges between an Air China pilot and an air traffic controller at Kennedy Airport in New York. 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. That recording, on YouTube as Air China 981, is a favorite among air traffic controllers and pilots who have their own stories of language misunderstanding in global aviation. 

"It's the most beautiful example of the problem," said Paul Musselman, the chief executive of Carnegie Speech, a language education company that offers training on how to communicate more clearly in English to people who are not native speakers but need to use English on the job. 

The Air China example is beautiful because it is simply funny and no one got hurt through miscommunication. On the other hand, the list of aviation catastrophes around the world that were caused primarily by language misunderstandings between air and ground is long and tragic. 

In 1977, for example, two Boeing 747s collided on a runway at Tenerife, in the Canary Islands. The disaster, in which 583 people died, occurred in a dense fog. But complicating the situation were misunderstandings of orders and acknowledgments between the aircraft on the runway and the air traffic controllers. International aviation authorities later drafted more strict requirements for the use of standard, clear common English phrases in aviation operations. 

As global aviation grows, concerns are rising about English-language proficiency among foreign pilots and air traffic controllers. In October, for example, the International Civil Aviation Organization, an agency of the United Nations that promotes international air travel safety and development, 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." 

English was mandated as the language of international flying in the years after World War II, as commercial aviation expanded worldwide. While common sense dictates that aviation needs a lingua franca, a language as rich in vocabulary and nuance as English presents some challenges in aviation operations, where communication is supposed to be terse and unambiguous. 

Still, aviation is now inextricably locked into English, and the need for better English communication skills is clear as more countries become major players in commercial aviation. Mr. Musselman's company, for example, offers English-language classes in a program called Climb Level 4 to bring international pilots up to the so-called Level 4 standard set for English by the International Civil Aviation Organization. 

That is defined as a level where vocabulary and grammar are good, but also where "pronunciation, stress, rhythm and intonation" are adequate to communicate clearly and quickly in English. Carnegie Speech has a partnership with Pan Am International Flight Academy to offer its proficiency courses for international pilots at the company's flight training centers in the United States and abroad. "We're in the business of teaching someone how to speak English so they can be understood," Mr. Musselman said. The program's software is customized for each person, "so we can assess your English in terms of your speech, word stress, fluency, grammar and pronunciation," he said. 

And English, as we all know, can be very tricky, not just in sound and meaning but in idiomatic forms we native English speakers take for granted. I remember a pre-theater dinner with my wife some years ago, at a restaurant in Times Square where the waiter, newly arrived from Milan, was clearly proud of his excellent English. When I asked for the check, however, I carelessly told him, "We need to make a curtain at 8 o'clock." 

He looked crestfallen, with an expression that said, "Why does this man tell me he needs to sew draperies at 8 o'clock?" 

Mr. Musselman had a linguistic example more apropos to aviation. "I was in the Army, a Green Beret for 11 years," he said. At parachute jump school, soldiers were required to say "Not clear" to respond negatively to any question, rather than simply "No." 

"The reason is because 'No' sounds dangerously close to 'Go,' " he said. And for a parachutist waiting by the aircraft door for the order to jump, he explained, the crucial command is "Go!"