Cracking the code: Aviation English

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Analysis of the English used by aircrews and controllers shows that it is in some ways a separate language to that spoken on the ground. This makes it something native English speakers also have to learn.

Truth in advertising can be startling—and inspirational. When linguist and flight instructor Dominique Estival saw an ad for a noise-cancelling headset in a 2013 issue of Australian Flying it confirmed both an academic thesis and years of real-world knowledge.

The ad showed a young student pilot, apparently studying, with a radio headset over her ears, and musing, ‘I’m still learning the radio lingo, which is almost more difficult than flying.’ The copy went on to say this was why she need the latest and greatest headset.

For Estival and her colleagues Brett Molesworth of the University of NSW and Canadian researcher Candace Farris the ad confirmed what as specialists in language they had long known. Aviation English involves much more than speaking English in the sky.

‘At the outset, it is important to note that aviation English (AE) is not simply a subset of “general” English but that it is a specific code with conventions outside of “natural” English, which needs to be learned on its own terms,’ Estival, Molesworth and Farris say in Aviation English, recently published in paperback.

Estival says, ‘It’s kind of misleading to call it aviation English: it’s the English version of aviation language. It is based on English, but to an English speaker without an aviation background it is near to incomprehensible.’

Features of aviation English include:

  • a distinct structure of call, response and readback, in the case of pilot-ATC communication
  • a distinctive internal structure in utterances. For pilots contacting ATC this structure is: receiving station—transmitting station—call-sign—position altitude, intentions, e.g. ‘Bankstown Tower, Tomahawk, India Alpha Delta, 2RN, 1500, inbound’
  • readback of messages to ensure comprehension as transmitted
  • dropping of verbs such as join, report and maintain
  • formal politeness. Although not specified or required, messages are often preceded by a greeting and concluded with thanks. This element is sometimes communicated in local languages: a French controller addressing an aircraft in English will sometimes begin with bonjour, a German may say guten tag, and an Australian may say g’day.

Although ICAO has selected English as the international language of aviation, local languages have developed their own aviation codes, which Estival says are more comprehensible to pilots who know a bit of the language than non-flying native speakers of that language. She discovered this while flying in France with her Australian partner and French sister-in-law.

‘I have taken my partner flying in Australia for 20 years,’ she recalls. ‘He knows enough to understand what we’re saying on the radio; he’s done a partners-of-pilots course.’

‘When we were in France, I rented a little aircraft at the local airfield, and I took him, my brother and my sister-in-law flying. My partner had absolutely no problem understanding the whole communication in aviation French. If you look at aviation phraseology in French, it’s the same structure.’

‘My sister-in-law, who is a native speaker of French, could not understand a word.’

‘It crystallised what I had been thinking. My experience as an instructor shows me that after the second or third lesson students say, “the most difficult thing is communication on the radio”. It’s something you have to learn at the same time as learning to fly the aircraft,’ Estival says.

‘Native language speakers need to learn aviation language, both to understand it and to speak it.’

This idea is not always well received by chauvinistic English speakers.

‘I’ve heard American pilots say, “we invented aviation, we speak English, so what’s the problem?” But in our book, we argue aviation English has no native speakers, it is a speech variety that must be learned even by native speakers of English,’ says Estival. ‘In that respect it fits the original meaning of “lingua franca”, a language used by speakers who have no common language.’

Speaking non-aviation, colloquial English in an aviation context is a potential hazard, Estival says. ‘I heard a controller at Bankstown say, “Cleared to the smoke”, to authorise a short flight to Sydney airport. Many Australian native English speakers would understand that, but it would be an obscure phrase, even to native English speakers from elsewhere, never mind to non-native speakers. And smoke, when you think about it, is a word that could cause some alarm. It’s not something you want to be producing or flying through.’

The fact that even native English speakers find aviation English daunting adds to the argument that it is a specific language code.

As Estival and colleagues write, ’Even though the role of ATC is acknowledged to be one of support and help, it is sometimes the case that pilots, especially during their training, are apprehensive about interacting with ATC, mainly because they are afraid of making mistakes. Because of the public nature of radio communications, everyone on the frequency will hear every transmission and this knowledge can be daunting, even for experienced pilots.’

‘It is even more daunting of course when the pilots or pilot trainees speak English as a second language and are aware that ATC and other pilots are judging their performance over the radio. A number of cases of aviation miscommunication have been attributed to this pragmatic level factor and to the fear of losing face.’

Estival would like to see more attention paid to teaching and practising aviation English. Proficiency in it cannot be assumed just because a person speaks English on the ground, she says. ‘The English language proficiency (ELP) requirements for pilots are absolutely necessary, and native speakers of English should practice, and be tested to the level required. It is not enough to say I grew up in Australia and so I’ll be right.’

Further Information

Estival, D., Farris, C. and Molesworth, B. (2016). Aviation English: a Lingua Franca for pilots and air traffic controllers. Oxford, New York: Routledge.

6 COMMENTS

  1. It’s called repetition, do it enuf times & it makes sense, becomes easier. When I first started around 40 yrs ago I bought a Tandy Electronics VHF portable receiver (still got it) & listened till it made sense. Often ATC are half the problem, they at times talk fast, add a lot in one breath and with another transmitting straight after the R/T comms it can make for difficult understanding especially the novice. We have so many diff nationalities that ply our airways that often they are almost clueless yet we allow then to fly in our airspace! Must drive ATC nuts to have to spoon feed these OS drivers!

  2. Aviation English is a ‘lingua franca’, a universal language which is used by both native and non-native English speakers. It accommodates a wide range of accents because it goes across national boundaries. Many Australian pilots think that if someone speaks with an accent they must be an inferior communicator, but often this is far from the case. Part of being an expert speaker of Aviation English is the ability to comprehend a wide range of accents. Our Air Traffic Controllers do it all day. Low hours private pilots need to improve their ability to comprehend English communication across a wide range of accents. The airspace around our training airports is ‘international’ as we take up the training opportunity provided by the expansion of airlines around the world. The failures in communication are not all entirely the fault of those whose English sounds different to us, perhaps we need to concentrate and learn to adapt a little more.

    Young overseas student pilots are on a steep learning curve and it wouldn’t hurt us local pilots to slow down our speech a little to accommodate their needs in their early months of training.

  3. You must fly in a different part of Australia than I do, and all of the VFR pilots I speak with, if you think ’Even though the role of ATC is acknowledged to be one of support and help, …”; if you are VFR then the role practiced, if not publicly acknowledged, by ATC is to keep you out of their airspace at all cost. This often leads to VFR flights being forced over very inhospitable terrain and I am waiting for the day when an ATC instruction “stay OCTA I am busy” leads to the loss of life and the media and lawyer circus that will follow.

  4. Radio procedures require practice to be confident .Mike fright is a real phenomenon for newbies.
    Listen in Live ATC on the internet and follow the aircraft on Flight radar 24 at the same time.Also hand held VHF receivers are cheap ..I still take mine to my local airport to listen in. Practice by recording the set phrases and replay ..your errors become clear to you and over time you should improve..hopefully :)

  5. Immersion is about the only way to understand and be understood in the language of aviation. It is not enough as a pilot to talk on the radio to ATC to become proficient. In the “bad old days” (previous ATC regime in Australia), I spent time in the local Tower talking to Controllers and learning more about their jobs. THAT helped me as a pilot to understand WHY ATC did and said what they did.
    The language of aviation is brief, to the point and lacks verbosity. It has to be to convey lots of info quickly and clearly. Knowing your phraseology.will assist greatly. (Read your AIP and VFG COMMS and commit it to memory.)
    The language has a structure that has elvolved through years of application and analysis of incidents and human factors. Consider the following ATC instruction: “ABC, SAAB 340 on short final. Behind that aircraft LINE UP”. Given that the competing demands for attention of aircrews and ATC, that statement brings the attention of the aircrew to the aircraft on final and the requirement to line up after it lands and clears the runway. If the instruction was structured:”ABC, LINE UP behind the SAAB 340 on short final”, there is a possibility that only the LINE UP component of the instruction would be heard, leading to a runway incursion, near-miss, go-around or worse because the additional info was missed. The latter instruction assumes and relies on the aircrew of ABC having Situational Awareness. The former instruction assists and enhances SA by bringing the aircrew’s attention to the relevant aspects in a timely manner.
    How to beat “mike fright”? Go and meet ATC personnel. Visit every tower you travel to. (They are people despite the maniacal meanderings of management.) This reinforces the aspect ATC are people. You can get a good perspective on local issues and have your confidence grow ever so slightly. Don’t bluff. If you don’t know what to say when or how, don’t bullshit. Own it, learn from it and understand why.
    The language of aviation is nothing special when you compare it to any other vocational language. It has a purpose and evolves in line with continuous learning and continuous improvement.

  6. When I hired on as an air traffic controller many years ago, I approached the phraseology in the same manner I had learned other foreign languages. I opened the book, turned on a recorder, and practiced the phraseology for hours on end. Amazing how hard even the simplest phrases could be when one was trying to multitask, such as write and talk at the same time (a time management tool that is invaluable to controllers). Playing back the recordings allowed my to find my mistakes and overcome them.

    I’ve long said that Aviation English may have English words in it, but has its own syntax and grammar.

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