Monday, February 18, 2008

English Language Proficiency now Required for Pilots

I received an e-mail from a flight school in Ontario that I used to rent from reminding students that English Language proficiency is now required for all pilots.

As an aside, the title of the e-mail was "Aviation Engilsih Language Proficiency requirement for Licensing‏" - Not knocking the sender, as I know that I don't have perfect grammar or spelling, but I just thought that it's a funny place for a spelling error. But I digress.

English is the International Language of Aviation. While this is not without some controversy, having a universal language that everyone talks on the radio in is vital for aviation safety. I don't know the exact history of how and why English is the Universal Language of aviation but I assume that it has to do with the fact that both the US and the UK were the initial leaders in aircraft development and they were the victorious parties in WWII. Regardless, pilots flying Internationally are required to speak English to air traffic control. It would be extremely difficult if every pilot had to learn multiple languages for every different country they flew to. As it is, it can be difficult for non-English speakers to learn English proficiently to fly to English speaking countries. Although, I've found that in general, non-English speakers in general are much better at knowing English than English speakers are at knowing other languages.

Here's a recording from an exchange between an Air China pilot and a ground controller at New York's JFK airport.

This is not to suggest that the pilot is not intelligent because he doesn't know English (besides, his English is far better than my command of any of the Chinese languages), but it shows that there could be very real potential safety concerns if pilots and air traffic control cannot communicate.

While initially the interaction of English speaking air traffic control and non-English speaking pilots was reserved for international airlines which theoretically would be able to control the language proficiency of their pilots, flight training itself is becoming more international. Canadian flight schools specifically market themselves toward international students where flight training is either less accessibly or prohibitively expensive. While this can be great business for Canadian Schools, it could increase the possibility that communication barriers could jeopardise aviation safety.

To address this, ICAO has implemented language proficiency guidelines. Transport Canada in complying with these guidelines has created a new language proficiency requirement in obtaining a pilot licence.

Here is a description by a Transport Canada employee that was posted on AvCanada. The full thread can be found HERE

The Facts regarding the Aviation Language Proficiency Test

As of March 5th, 2008, all licensed pilots in Canada (excluding permits, glider, gyroplane and ornithopter) will be required to meet a minimum language proficiency. Although this will be an ICAO requirement, every jurisdiction (country) has had the freedom to decide how their pilots will meet it. So -- this means that Canada and the USA (for example) will have different ways of assessing this proficiency. How language proficiency will be recognized when converting licenses from one country to another has not yet (that I am aware of) been decided.

The Aviation Language Proficiency Test (hereafter called ALPT) is a 20 question oral examination that is administered either over the phone or in person without the "Test Taker" and "Examiner" having direct visual contact (divider or back-to-back). It is not a test of aviation knowledge, but a test of the candidate's ability to understand and speak english in an aviation context. It can be taken prior to having any flight experience, prior to solo, etc. -- it just must be completed before the license is issued.

It has been decided that Pilot Examiners that test PPL candidates will be offered the opportunity to become ALPT Examiners. They will be required to attend a workshop put on by Transport Canada, and provide an example of 3 examinations (in person or recorded) in order to be delegated. Transport Canada Inspectors will NOT be conducting the examinations, just the initial and recurrent training for the Examiners.

The test can be administered in English or French, depending on the delegation of the examiner and the requirement of the candidate.

Although the ICAO standards has 6 levels of language proficiency, in order to simplify matters, Canada only recognizes 3 of them:

"Expert" - ICAO Level 6
"Operational" - ICAO Level 4
"Below Operational" - Less than ICAO Level 4

In Canada, you must have a minimum assessment of "Operational" (ICAO level 4) in order to hold a Canadian license.

They are scored on each of these 20 questions, and evaluated the following way:

-not more than 6 questions assessed at level 4 and no question assessed below level 4, they are awarded "Expert" ICAO level 6, and never have to take the test again.

-not more than 6 questions assessed at below level 4, they are awarded "Operational" ICAO level 4, and have to take the test again in 5 years.

-if they get more than 6 questions below level 4, they cannot hold an aviation license in Canada.

Regarding re-tests:
Re-tests may be done after a mandatory minimum waiting time, as defined by CARS 400.03 the same as the written examinations.

Regarding all current pilots:
Most (all?) current Canadian license holders have been assessed using their pilot file -- providing there was enough information (what language did they do their written exam in? Flight test? Last medical? Written correspondence?). Licenses issued after mid-November will have a language proficiency statement on them (example "Language Proficiency - English"). Transport Canada should be re-issuing all of the older, outstanding licenses to meet this requirement until the new "Passport Style" licenses are issued sometime later this year.

I hope this clears up some of the confusion.

-TC Guy


Aviatrix said...

Now while that pilot is having trouble, that controller is doing things he should not. Proper radiotelephony does not use the words "clear" or "cleared" unless they are giving or acknowledging a clearance. The difference between "have you been cleared to do X" and "cleared to do X" is far to small for the former to be a reasonable thing to say. Also, MikeAlpha is a peculiar taxiway name and does indeed sound like November, if you are comparing it to the possible letters.

Native English-speaking controllers should be required to take a test in ICAO English so that *they* safely deliver instructions to foreign aircraft.

Anonymous said...

English is not the International language of aviation , there is 4 ICAO Standard languages for RT : English , French , Spanish , Russian with somes restrictions . Yes , that was decided just after WWII .( ICAO is born on december 6 , 1944 at Chicago conference )

Interest of Safety ? Or interest of money ?

How many schools to teach english is created since the announce of ICAO to impose english as a test ? Where they are located ?

In the name of "Safety" today , many people are doing a lot of money .... It's very sad that an institution like ICAO playing that game .

Concerning the controller at JFK , how easy it is to be sharp when it's your airport , your language .... i would like to hear him as controller in Pekin on a local airfield ... to have some fun too .

James said...

I agree with both of you that the controller at JFK shouldn't be getting so upset when part of the problem is his fault. I always find it funny that the typical human reponse when dealing with a language barrier is to talk louder and sound mad - that's not going to make you easier to understand.

I'm not familiar with how the ICAO program is being implemented in different countries across the world - it is up to the issuing country to decide their method of implementation. Therefore, I can't comment on other country's methods for requring pilots to meet the standards.

In Canada it doesn't seem to be a cash grab as all currently licensed pilots were just sent a new licence and the test for non-licensed pilots whose first language is not English (or French) seems relatively straight forward. Mind you, I do not have any direct experience with this.

Finally, while there are other languages in Aviation, from my understanding English is considered primary. So while in some areas, including the Province of Quebec in Canada, it is acceptable to speak French (or other languages) on the radio in an official capacity, when going to different international countries, English is the only language that can be universally accepted.

As you've demonstrated, there are obviously some controversies regarding this policy.

There are many times when I wish English was not my primary language. I am very envious of people who know multiple languages. In Canada, it's very difficult to get practice in other languages. Although I've taken french classes, I cannot speak the language as I haven't had any chance to practice it.

Anonymous said...

If you want to know how a stupidity can be huge, come in Switzerland to do this Language Proficiency Check. Even id you are of English mother tongue there is quite no chance to reach a level 5.
Having done this check, I have seen that even Shakespeare would have surely only 4, if not less.

Barrett R. Byrnes said...

I am a retired Air Traffic Controller from JFK September 30,2008 I testified before the U.S. Congress in April of 2000. That if not addressed the language barrier would lead to another devistating accident as witnessed in the Canary Islands where 583 passengers lost there lives, The worlds most devistating plane crash. I also witnessed, first hand numerous runway incurtions and near mid-air collisions due to the language barrier. There were certain airlines that always had difficulty communicating with the tower. I was working next to the controller who was working Air China and Air China could not communicate with the ground controller. For you to state that taxiway Mike-Alpha sounds like November is another story all to itself, November sounds nothing like Mike-Alpma. The next time that you are on line,look up the map of JFK Airport,you will see that all the single taxiway designators were used, so they had to use other taxiways designators, e.g. taxiway Mike, Mike-Alpha, Mike-Bravo etc, I hope this has cleared up your confusion. Barrett R. Byrnes

Makklijk said...


I am foreigner and non native English speaker, although I converse in seven languages.

I am also a non conformist but I do, for ones, agree, the test will do no harm and makes the aviation safer.

I think it is $40 in Quebec so, what the heck, nothing anyone should be worried about. Just like a medical to me (and that one is costlier).

On top of that, you do not even have to leave home...

So, it is not a bad idea in my eyes to make sure we all have a minimum understanding to communicate with the tower and others.

By the way, I am Swiss and can't see what the comment above was relating to...

Enjoy your flights and keep listening to the students at flight schools, it can be fun.