In a world where progress in the teaching and testing of aviation English often has stalled, the aviation industry in Brazil has turned a significant corner, making safe aviation communication a priority.
In remarks to an aviation English conference in Brasilia in November 2012, Carlos Eduardo Magalhães da Silveira Pellegrino, the director of Brazil’s National Civil Aviation Agency (ANAC), said Brazil has made a full-scale commitment to improving aviation English in its airspace. Other representatives of ANAC and the Airspace Control Institute (ICEA) also demonstrated the progress that can be made when senior administrators understand the relationship between best practices in aviation English and safe communications.
The progress is especially noteworthy in light of the possible role played by inadequate language proficiency in the Sept. 29, 2006, collision of an Embraer Legacy 600 and a Boeing 737-800 over the Amazon (ASW, 2/09, ASW, 12/11–1/12, ASW, 2/12). All 154 people in the 737 were killed in the crash; the seven people in the damaged but controllable Legacy were uninjured. In its final report on the accident, the Brazilian Aeronautical Accident Investigation and Prevention Center (CENIPA) recommended that the Department of Airspace Control “immediately ensure that [Brazilian air traffic] controllers have the required level of English language proficiency.”
Three years before the accident, in 2003, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) had adopted its requirements for English language proficiency testing of pilots and air traffic controllers; however, they were not applicable until 2008, and little infrastructure was in place to support their implementation.
In the 10 years since the language standards were adopted, ICAO has held international and regional seminars, developed speech sample tool kits and rating aids, and published supporting documents. Nonetheless, until very recently, aviation English conferences and seminars were relatively basic, addressing questions such as “Who can teach? What content should they teach? How should they teach, and for how long?” Progress was halting and uneven, with more reports of missteps and failures than successes.
In that context, Brazil’s civil aviation authorities and the English language training community focused at the November conference on progress made and solutions that are being implemented.
Their presentations, as well as the information from representatives of ICAO and the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations (IFALPA), provide information that is helpful to organizations still struggling with their own implementation of ICAO language requirements.
By the time ICAO organized its Proficiency Requirements in Common English Study Group (PRICESG) in 2000, English had long been both a de facto and an official aviation safety requirement embodied in a number of ICAO standards and recommended practices (SARPs). Nonetheless, despite the obvious safety need for proficiency in a common language, and despite the existing ICAO requirement that pilots and controllers “speak the language used for radiotelephony communication,” there was much evidence — including the “trail of wreckage” of accidents in which language proficiency was a contributing factor — that for many pilots and air traffic controllers, English language proficiency was limited to memorizing ICAO phraseology contained in Document 4444, Air Traffic Management: Procedures for Air Navigation Services. Without formal ICAO plain language and testing requirements, the industry had not invested in the development of the needed aviation-specific English language programs.
Complicating the scenario, commercial testers and training providers rushed to the market; from my perspective, some had more business acumen than commitment to safety or to best practices in language teaching. Even some otherwise responsible aviation organizations have tended toward ICAO minimum standards in aviation English — skimping on teacher training, ignoring best testing practices or using materials that do not correspond closely to the operational requirements. Similarly, but coming from the opposite direction — moving from an existing position within the language teaching industry into aviation — some language organizations have capitalized on the lack of standards by repackaging existing materials into “aviation English” programs.
Again, from my perspective, whether through ignorance or intent, whether drawn by lure of quick profit or a drift into complacency, the effect has been the same: Even some name-brand programs do not deliver acceptable results, maintaining a greater focus on marketing than on content development. This has only added to the confusion and frustration within the industry.
Understanding the many challenges to best practices in aviation English instruction underscores the importance of developments that were recently exhibited at the International Civil Aviation English Association (ICAEA) Aviation English Conference, with its theme of “Testing and Training: A Common Aim?”
Presentations from ANAC, ICEA and the Brazilian academic community demonstrated that Brazil’s efforts since 2009 in aviation English proficiency have been dedicated, sophisticated and mature. So it is worth examining what Brazil is doing right.
Effective language programs share certain characteristics. Successful programs involve understanding the nature of language learning and having realistic expectations for learner progress, as well as providing the conditions that allow for language learning, and for assessment of progress.
The first requirement in an effective large-scale corporate or work-oriented language program is an executive-level commitment to the process. No matter how well-prepared or well-intended instructors or testers are, without a commitment from senior administrators, it is difficult to achieve much progress. The presentations from Pellegrino and others at ANAC and ICEA demonstrated such a commitment from the top.
The next important indicator that Brazil has made safe aviation communication a high priority is found in the academic qualifications of the leadership team implementing the testing and training programs. In keeping with ICAO recommendations, the individuals leading Brazil’s aviation English testing and training have masters degrees or doctorates in applied linguistics or English language teaching.
This matters because English language teaching and testing are unregulated industries, and too many programs do not adhere to best practices. Sometimes this is due to aviation professionals’ lack of specialized knowledge; a close reading of ICAO Document 9835, Manual on the Implementation of ICAO Language Proficiency Requirements, is the remedy for that. ICAO included minimum qualifications in its recommendations because some regions have lacked academically well-prepared language instructors. In those cases, the solution is to ensure a team leader has the best qualifications and to commit to ongoing professional development for teachers.
Most distressingly, too many commercial providers — even those based in English-as-a-first-language countries, with access to well-qualified English language teaching or testing professionals — have tended toward ICAO minimum standards, providing teachers or program managers who have only minimal qualifications to teach English. Being a native speaker of English does not qualify an individual to teach English.
However, the aviation English industry has become competitive. Organizations should insist that the provider either supply instructors with ICAO’s “best” qualifications or commit to providing ongoing, high-quality training to their instructors until all instructors meet these qualifications.
Academic Qualifications Matter
In contrast to the qualifications of many people working in the aviation English field, the applied linguistics and language teaching academic backgrounds of the aviation English specialists who spoke at the conference in Brazil reflected the country’s commitment to best practices. The expertise of their aviation English leadership teams was evident in the programs and the research presented.
Their initial success is a reminder of the importance of ICAO’s recommendation that academic qualifications matter, that the intention is to protect the end user and that the programs offered to pilots and controllers must be effective and efficient. Whether a country or organization is, like Brazil, growing its own in-house programs, or subcontracts the program to an external aviation English provider, the first step is to identify an individual or team representing ICAO’s best qualifications for language teaching or testing to guide the entire process.
The third indicator of the quality of the Brazilian aviation English program was evident in its team approach. Again, in adherence to ICAO guidance materials, English instructors are working with aviation subject matter experts. Each presentation was co-presented by a language specialist and a subject matter specialist.
As essential as English language teaching expertise is, English teachers working alone will almost certainly miss the mark on aviation content. In fact, much experience in aviation English development has proved that more than simply a team approach is essential. Best practices in aviation English require not just that English teachers collaborate with subject matter experts but also that both sides understand one another and learn what is important from their colleagues’ perspectives. Academics need to learn about the culture of aviation safety and have more than a passing familiarity with flight operations. Operational experts need to understand the basics of adult language-acquisition principles and to trust their academic colleagues to deliver aviation English content in ways that encourage learning and stimulate acquisition. Finally, a team approach helps generate organizational buy-in.
Brazil’s aviation English programs take such an approach. The program presented for controllers, in particular, by Patricia Tosqui Lucks and Jairo Roberto da Silva of ICEA, demonstrated this commitment to cross-training, as controllers who achieve ICAO Level 5 English proficiency1 or better can be invited to cross-train as co-teachers to work in partnership with English instructors in the classroom — a resource-intensive but effective technique, demonstrating an extraordinary commitment to best practices.
Research and the Future
Particularly gratifying is that the comprehensive approach to aviation English in Brazil centers on “home grown” programs being developed and led by Brazilian English language experts and aviation subject matter experts. External providers and experts can add meaningful value or direction, but the focus, naturally, should be on developing in-house expertise and capability.
Among the presentations was the discussion by Ana Monteiro of ANAC of her analysis of challenges to oral comprehension in aviation. She recommended that existing taxonomies of communication factors be revised, considering that new categories are coming to light as our understanding of language as a human factor improves.
Overall, the research presented by Monteiro, as well as the programs presented on pilot training by Ana Bocorny of Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul in Porto Alegre, Brazil — responsible for much pilot English training — and on testing by ANAC and ICEA representatives, suggests that Brazil’s aviation English community is taking a leadership role in the industry.
If the academic standards and commitment to best practices that have been demonstrated at the top of Brazil’s aviation English infrastructure are carried down to the base, if the teachers in the classrooms are as well prepared as the leadership teams presenting at the Brasilia conference, then the classroom teaching can be expected to be communicative, interactive and engaging to learners — essential conditions for language learning.
One remaining question that was not entirely clear at the conference is the content focus of aviation English classes in Brazil. ICAO recommends content-based aviation English, an approach that has not yet been well enough understood or embraced by most commercial providers of aviation English. Again, because language teaching is an unregulated industry, material providers sometimes claim a content-based approach, but the claim is based on a tenuous understanding of content-based language teaching, or materials present a haphazard application of content-based learning. However, as the effort matures and as programs undergo revision and development, the industry may grow to better understand and apply content-based aviation English.2
ICAO and IFALPA
Adding to the sense that aviation English is maturing was the presentation by Nicole Barrette-Sabourin, a technical officer with ICAO, who explained ICAO’s recently launched language test endorsement program. Dozens of aviation English tests, as noted, have come into the unregulated language testing market. There have been evidence of poorly designed or inadequately implemented testing, and reports of cheating and outright fraud. Thus far, among at least nine testing programs that have undergone the ICAO review, four have been either endorsed or conditionally endorsed. A voluntary, low-cost program, this ICAO effort represents an important step, pushing the industry toward better language testing and excluding the worst testing offenders.
In another presentation, Rick Valdes, a Boeing 767 captain for United Airlines and the IFALPA representative on the PRICESG, reviewed obstacles to best practices in aviation English in the context of threats to safety.
“We know there are companies out there that rely more on name brand recognition than on delivering quality programs,” Valdes said, adding that the requirements are not only about speaking English well but also about using English to enhance flight safety. Aviation English teachers must also be safety advocates, he said.
Although progress is being made, that does not mean that aviation English standards have been fully implemented, nor does it mean that progress will be rapid, or that the teams will not encounter rough air. The sheer amount of training time required to achieve pilot and controller compliance with language-testing SARPs also can exceed that of other new safety-training requirements. Implementing large-scale language training and testing programs required by a country as large as Brazil demands commitments of time, effort and resources by individuals and organizations.
Considering the difficulties the aviation industry has experienced in the first decade after adoption of the ICAO language requirements, it is only right to celebrate what looks to be a country heading toward aviation English success. From these indications, Brazil has established the conditions to make language-learning programs successful: a commitment from the top, well-qualified linguistic teams guiding the effort and close cooperation between language specialists and operational experts.
Elizabeth Mathews, an applied linguist who led the international group that developed ICAO’s English language proficiency requirements, researches the role of language as a factor in aviation communication and advocates for improving the quality of aviation English training and teacher training.
- ICAO’s requirements, which define six levels of language proficiency ranging from Level 1 (pre-elementary) to Level 6 (expert), say that Level 5 (extended) is characterized by, among other traits, pronunciation and intonation that “rarely interfere with ease of understanding,” vocabulary that is sufficient for effective work-related communication and responses that are “immediate, appropriate and informative.”
- The Center for Applied Linguistics <www.cal.org> and the Center for Advanced Research in Language Acquisition <www.carla.umn.edu> provide information on content-based language teaching and are useful resources.