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Elizabeth Mathews, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Daytona Beach, Florida, USA

In 1995, a Spanish-as-a-first-language air traffic controller suspected that the American pilots flying in his airspace had lost their situational awareness and were off course. He attempted to alert them or to confirm their track with repeated requests for the pilots to confirm their heading, using standardized English phraseology. However, his proficiency in plain English was insufficient to clarify with the English-speaking pilots that they were off course. According to the accident investigation report:

He said that his fluency in non-aviation English was limited and he could not ask them to elaborate on the request. Rather, he restated the clearance and requested their position. He believed that the pilot's response, that [the aircraft] was 37 miles from Cali, suggested that perhaps the pilot had forgotten to report passing the Tulua [marker]. The controller further stated that had the pilots been Spanish-speaking, he would have told them that their request made little sense, and that it was illogical and incongruent. He said that because of limitations in his command of English he was unable to convey these thoughts to the crew. (Ladkin, 1999)

Off track in high terrain, American Airlines 965 slammed into the top of a mountain, killing 150 passengers and crew.

This is only one of many accidents and serious incidents in aviation in which inadequate English language proficiency on the part of a pilot or air traffic controller was implicated in the chain of events that line up to result in an accident (see Appendix).

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), governs international aviation and is part of the United Nations’ system of specialized agencies. With 191 Member States, ICAO functions primarily by publishing standards and recommended practices to which ICAO Member States, signatories to the Convention on International Civil Aviation, are bound. In 2003, the ICAO identified a number of airline accidents in the years leading up to the adoption of ICAO’s global aviation language proficiency requirements, including the American Airlines accident cited above, totaling more than 1,000 fatalities, in which investigators determined that inadequate English language proficiency was a contributory factor in the chain of events leading to the accident.

In 1996, when Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University was asked by Delta Airlines, United Airlines, and FedEx to provide aviation English training to Chinese air traffic controllers as part of negotiated offsets for flyover rights across China, there were no commercially available, off-the-shelf, aviation-specific English language teaching materials available for us to use. The two slim texts that were available were simply inadequate to provide curriculum for the weeks of language teaching the controllers required.

In that same year, inadequate English language proficiency was found to be a contributing factor in a midair collision over India that killed 349 passengers and crew. In response to that accident, and a growing list of aviation accidents in which accident investigators determined that inadequate English language proficiency was a contributory or latent factor, India proposed ICAO Assembly Resolution A32-16: to adopt global English language testing requirements for pilots and air traffic controllers. ICAO adopted strengthened language standards in 2003; these became operational in 2008, and English language proficiency assessment is now required for pilots and air traffic controllers operating along international routes.

As important as the ICAO language proficiency requirements were in focusing industry attention on language issues in aviation, they nonetheless represent a very incomplete first step toward addressing the safety risk that inadequate English language proficiency represents throughout the aviation industry. The introduction of ICAO language proficiency requirements represents significant challenges to the aviation industry, of such magnitude that ICAO delayed the initial 2008 implementation deadline to 2011. In fact, more than a decade after the adoption of ICAO language requirements, the aviation industry has not been able to achieve genuine global compliance. Instead, there is much documented and anecdotal evidence of missteps and a frustrating lack of progress; even ICAO Member States that report compliance also report significant problems. There are a number of reasons for frustratingly slow progress.

While communication is universally acknowledged to be critical to aviation safety, industry understanding of communication and language as fundamental aspects of aviation safety has not kept pace with our understanding of other human performance factors. In fact, there are broad and deep safety gaps around a number of language in aviation issues, from the fundamental level of accident investigation and research on language as a human factor in aviation to the front-end operational problems caused by an unregulated and severely underperforming aviation English training and testing industry.

Overall, there has been relatively little meaningful research into aviation communications from the perspective of applied linguistics. Partly as a result, language issues in aviation are not investigated with the same degree of systematic and expert thoroughness with which other human and operational factors are considered. Accident investigators are trained to be thorough and methodical, first compiling and then analyzing evidence before conclusions are drawn. The aviation industry, in particular, is loath to speculate on the possible causes of accidents. Yet, the investigation into language issues in an aviation accident tend to not receive the same thorough and expert review that do other human performance issues. Too often, language issues in an accident investigation just become, to quote a former National Transportation Safety Board director, “one of those nagging issues,” in an accident investigation, but one whose impact upon the chain of events that led to the accident can often remain obscure (Wald, 1996). The investigation of the role of language in aviation accidents is hampered by a lack of tools and linguistic awareness, and research into language as a human factor in aviation communications is largely uninformed by insights from applied linguistics.

Another issue that continues to hamper full implementation of the intent of the ICAO language proficiency requirements is that the response to the large market for aviation English teaching and testing created by the ICAO standards has been almost exclusively for-profit and commercial; fewer solutions stem from the applied linguistics academic community. As a result, aviation English is a new and unregulated global enterprise that is sustained by an urgent need for large-scale aviation English training but remains sometimes still too little informed by best practices in teaching English to speakers of other languages, such as those found in the infrastructure that supports academia. Though there is nothing inherently problematic with commercial solutions (and indeed, the industry owes a debt of gratitude to commercial projects, the first to respond to the need for large-scale aviation English teaching and testing), to move forward toward genuine global implementation the industry now requires more academic input, input that is informed by an understanding of aviation operational needs.

A rapidly changing cultural landscape for aviation operations has resulted from what can only be called spectacular growth in aviation in Asia and other new markets. In these, as well as in other more traditional markets, cross-cultural and English-as-a-second-language communications are the norm and not the exception, both for pilot to controller communications and for flight deck communications. At a time when the aviation industry, by all indications, will continue to grow most robustly in regions in which English will be the common language between pilots and controllers, it is increasingly urgent that the industry have academic leadership on language issues.

The solution starts with better and more research in language as a human factor in aviation safety that draws on the expertise of both aviation operational and human factors experts and applied linguists. To help address the gaps in the infrastructure needed to support implementation of ICAO language requirements (see Figure 1), Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University is drawing the expertise of linguistic, TEFL, and aviation operational specialists to support and encourage research on the areas of highest priority to the industry.

Figure 1. Infrastructure required to comply with ICAO language standards and recommended practices, with gaps.

Only by accurately perceiving the full extent of underlying causes of the communication failures can we adequately implement safety improvements. At the most fundamental level, there is an urgent need for the link between language proficiency and safety to be made explicit. If only the most glaring language issues are detected, then the industry will continue to misunderstand the critical need for a long-term, industry-wide commitment to language research, testing, and training.


Ladkin, P. (Preparer). (1999, February 8). AA965 Cali accident report: Near Buga, Colombia, Dec 20, 1995. Retreieved from http://sunnyday.mit.edu/accidents/calirep.html

Wald, M. “Language Gap Plays Role in Hundreds of Air Deaths.” New York Times. Dec. 9, 1996.

Appendix: Partial List of Accidents and Serious Incidents in Which Language Was a Factor








Use of two languages in same operating environment.




Misused or misunderstood phraseology.




Imprecise language regarding flight level and position.




Spanish-as-first-language pilot inadequately communicated urgency of fuel shortage.




Pilot didn’t understand “pull up.”




U.S. pilots lost situational awareness; controller suspected problem but did not have adequate plain English proficiency to communicate suspicions to pilots.




U.S. pilots lost situational awareness; controller suspected problem but did not have adequate plain English proficiency to communicate suspicions to pilots.

Elizabeth Mathews brings an academic background in applied linguistics and TESOL (MA-TESOL, University of Alabama, 1991) to language problems in aviation. An assistant professor in the Department of Applied Aviation Sciences at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Mathews focuses both on improving industry awareness and understanding of language as a factor in aviation safety and in raising the standards of teaching and testing English in aviation.

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