Aviation English, a guest post by Brenda Shelton

Aviation English

The most common bridge language in the world is English. Whether the implemented communication is online, in business, or soaring above ground through the friendly skies, English is the chosen language of use and connection. After the end of World War II, English became and remained the official language of aviation. However, the English used in aviation is not entirely traditional. Instead, Aviation English, the restricted register of simplified yet structured English used by pilots and air traffic controllers, is the true official language of air travel. Swift, simple, and systematic, this form of English is a scripted, and in many cases highly dangerous, form of verbal communication. Therefore, while individuals within the aviation profession must have a solid understanding of the English language, Aviation English itself is a specialized and unique form of English that cannot be found anywhere else. Aviation English is the plain yet intricate trade language of the skies.

Since Aviation English is a global language, yet simultaneously a language used solely for the profession of aviation, it may be classified as a bridge or trade language. While native English speakers must learn Aviation English, non-native speakers learn English as well as Aviation English in order to fly. As a result, Aviation English exists as a mutation of traditional English, used to allow for all pilots and air traffic controllers to communicate with one another, ensuring safe flight patterns and operation. It is “a language for specific purposes,” or “a code that is used in a very restricted context” (Alderson 169). It contains the addition of specific grammar alterations for the sake of succinct, brief communication and clarity, as well as a unique vocabulary and certain abbreviations due to the distinctive parts of an airplane and the specific protocol of flying. Thus, Aviation English exists as a “restricted register” (Ragan 26) or a situational, limited language confined to a predetermined script and rhythm.

While no exact tally exists of how many people speak Aviation English, undoubtedly you cannot become a pilot or work in the airline business without a firm grasp of Basic English. The official establishment of English as the primary language of aviation took place after World War II, when commercial airlines began to boom in popularity and the primary manufacturer and supplier of airplanes was the English-speaking United States. As a result, American gained more influence in Europe, and worldwide, leading to “English terms and word translations of English words” taking dominance in the colloquial and professional lingo of the global aviation trade (Sauter-Bailliet 76). Additionally, it was during this time that international, and even specifically European, airline conferences began operating entirely in English. While members of ATLAS (Alitalia, Lufthansa, Air France, Sabena and Iberia consortion), specifically Air France, may feel inclined to still converse in their native languages when within the boundaries of their country of origin, all pilots and air traffic controllers are required to speak English and to be familiar with Aviation English grammar and terminology (77).
With many non-native English speakers conforming to Aviation English as a trade language, there can be a reflection of “the speech peculiarities of the mother tongues” (77) within their pronunciations and wordings. Thus, courses and aptitude tests regarding Aviation English vocabulary and structure are required before an individual may become a pilot. Such courses may be taken through various aviation and online academies after an individual acquires a firm grasp on the basics of the English language through previous learning channels.

The goal of Aviation English textbooks and classes is to prepare an individual for compliance with the International Civil Aviation Organization’s Language Proficiency requirements for Aviation English at the operational level 4. Operational level 4 ensures that an individual’s pronunciation, structure, vocabulary, fluency, comprehension, and interactions are at a satisfactory level to be able to converse with native and non-native traditional English speakers within time-sensitive and restrictive settings. For example, the operational 4 Language Proficiency qualifications for pronunciation list that for a sufficient speaker: “pronunciation, stress, rhythm, and intonation are influenced by the first language or regional variation but only sometimes interfere with ease of understanding” (ICAO Rating Scale). Thus, one does not need to speak English perfectly to pass an Aviation English test, but must be fluent enough to be accurately understood. Additionally, interaction is important when it comes to Aviation English, and according to the ICAO’s operational 4 standards, an individual must provide responses that are “usually immediate, appropriate, and informative,” and must deal “adequately with apparent misunderstandings by checking, confirming, or clarifying” (ICAP Rating Scale).

Additionally, there are various textbooks that provide the basics for pilots and air traffic controllers regarding aviation-specific terms and the scripting of language within Aviation English. Henry Emery et al.’s textbook and CDROM Aviation English for ICAO Compliance and Philip Shawcross’ Flightpath are good textual sources for introducing and practicing Aviation English structure and vocabulary. There are also specialized methodology courses for Aviation English available through online organizations such as Jeppesen, which is a Boeing company. While Aviation English is not a literary or extremely expansive form of communication, it is important that all pilots have a firm grasp on the grammar and vocabulary involved in order to perform their job efficiently and prevent the endangerment of lives. Therefore, Aviation English is a prestigious and internationally accepted standard language for the commercial aviation profession, despite the fact that it may not be entirely proper in terms of the Standard English language.

Before examining the structure of Aviation English, it is important to understand the terminology involved in speaking the language. Much of the vocabulary used to describe airplane parts is based on the language used in maritime professions. For example, when it comes to the prominent parts of the craft, the main areas are known as the “deck” and “cabin,” while the cargo or luggage is carried in the “holds” (Murphy 1). Abbreviations are also a common feature in regard to plane parts within Aviation English. Some examples of written abbreviations on plane parts are: “valve assy (for assembly)” and “qty (for quantity)” (Sauter-Bailliet 78). These abbreviations exist in the vernacular of all airlines, due to the United State’s dominance regarding plane production and promotion and the ICAO’s establishment of English as the dominant airline language.

The unique vocabulary and signification system of Aviation English is most important, and most frequently found, within the communication between pilots and air traffic controllers—a practice also referred to as radiotelephony (Alderson 169). Often, the word choice in radiotelephony is brief and many simplistic vocabulary words are left out. For instance, when an air traffic controller is commanding a flight crew to perform a specific task, they will often omit many helping words, leaving only the nouns and action verbs. For example, within the sentence: “Avianca 052 climb and maintain 3000” (Ragan 28), it is vital that a pilot understands that “climb and maintain 3000” is referring to 3000 feet and that “Avianca 052” is the air traffic controller addressing his plane. Additionally, there are many terms that can be found within sources like The Dictionary of Aviation or Flightpath’s “Glossary of Aviation Terms.” Some examples of vocabulary found within Aviation English dictionaries are: the phrase “active runway” in reference to a runway in use, and “DA,” meaning a dangerous area (Crocker 5; 64). Additionally, if a bird hits an aircraft, it will be referred to as a “bird strike” (Shawcross 4). There are also various words that are known as “aviation jargon,” and are therefore not considered acceptable Aviation English. For example, if a plane is “buttoned up” then the doors and panels are closed, or more properly, the cabin is secure (Shawcross 5). These distinct phraseologies are vital for a pilot or aviation professional to know in order to be able to communicate properly with other members of the profession during flights and other professional routines.

Coupled with the unique vocabulary of Aviation English, there is a structural and grammatical pattern to radiotelephony interactions prior to, during, and after flight. All radiotelephonic interactions are structured and scripted for clarity and efficiency. Throughout the course of a flight, policies ensure that “pilots are provided with official wordings they are legally required to follow, and which specify who says what to whom, and when. Pilot’s talk is therefore highly predictable and projectable” (Nevile, “Talking Without Overlap” 226). Therefore, the speech pattern within a flight follows a set sequence of call and response, and pilots complete specific tasks and goals in a sequential, swift manner. However, pilots in their work are not advised to speak at the same time in order to avoid miscommunication and error. As a result, pilots use “nonscripted responses, such as okay or thanks, to establish joint awareness that a task has been completed” (228). While completing checklists, pilots also utilize “and-prefacing” to mark the beginning of a new sequence and the ending of an old, and to initiate a shared awareness of a completion of or arrival at a goal (Nevile, “Making Sequentiality Salient” 383; 284; 295). Therefore, in order to clearly showcase that a task in a sequence has been completed, and re-affirm that all tasks before it have been completed as well, a pilot will begin their sentence with and. The following is an example of typical speech used while checking to make sure a runway is clear on both sides before taxing:

    First Officer: clear left.
    Captain: and clear right (Nevile 284).

Here, and-prefacing is vital in maintaining clarity in terms of following sequences or checklists while ensuring that all necessary protocol is completed. The and in this instance “prefaces the talk, after the activity, that claims the activity has been performed and claims therefore that the state of the plane, and so the plane, are as required” (Nevile 284). Thus, the and signals that both the left and right sides are clear. Sentences will also begin with and when a goal is met and there is a shared awareness of achievement. For instance, when a crew is aware that they are to meet a certain altitude during a flight, the pilot will announce “and at altitude” (297), when such a target is reached. And-prefacing is a result of the sequential nature of aviation work and therefore a necessary grammatical element within Aviation English to ensure clarity when performing listed tasks with minimal word usage.

In conclusion, Aviation English is not only a simplistic modification of the Standard English language, but also a very structure and internationally recognized language. In order to speak this succinct style of English, an individual must have knowledge of Standard English and familiarity with traditional English sentence structure to accurately be able to understand and construct shortened sentences and maintain quick word-flow. Aviation English also possesses a set of phraseologies and vocabulary words specific to the practice of aviation. With its simple, scripted structure Aviation English exists as a restricted and specialized connecting global language with the common goal of safe travel and organized, accessible communication.

Works Cited

    Alderson, Charles J. “Air Safety, Language Assessment Policy, and Policy Implementation: the Case of Aviation English.” Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 29 (2009): 168-187. Print.

    Crocker, David. Dictionary of Aviation. 2nd ed. London: A & C Black, 2007. Print.

    Nevile, Maurice. “Making Sequentiality Salient: and-prefacing in the talk of airline pilots.” Discourse Studies, 8.2 (2006): 279-302. Print.

    Nevile, Maurice. “Talking Without Overlap in the Airline Cockpit: Precision Timing at Work.” Text & Talk: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Language, Discourse & Communication Studies, 27.2 (2007): 225-249. Print.

    Murphy, Cullen. “Airline English.” Slate. The Slate Group, 2014. Web. 9 March. 2014.

    Ragan, Peter H. “Aviation English: An Introduction.” The Journal of Aviation/Aerospace Education & Research, 7.2 (1997): 25-36. Print.

    Sauter-Bailliet, Theresia. “English, The Vernacular of the Airline Industry.” American Speech: A Quarterly of Linguistic Usage, 51.1-2 (1976): 17-84. Print.

    Shawcross, Philip. “Glossary of Aviation Terms” in Flightpath: Aviation English for Pilots and ATCOs, Student’s Book. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Print.

    “About Aviation English.” MacMillan English. MacMillan, 2008. Web. 9 March. 2014.

    “ICAO Rating Scale.” MacMillan English. MacMillan, 2008. Web. 9 March. 2014.

Brenda Shelton is studying English at Southern Oregon University and hopes to become a librarian.

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels will be released by Oxford University Press in March of 2020.
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