Around the world, English is the language of aviation. However, the lack of English language proficiency on the part of the flight crew or the controller has contributed to several accidents and serious incidents. To enhance aviation safety, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) introduced language proficiency requirements for pilots and air traffic controllers to improve the level of language proficiency globally and reduce the frequency of communication errors.
The ICAO English test measures the ability to speak and understand English in an aviation environment. Typically, the test is normally conducted on a one by one basis between the applicant and examiner and is usually broken down into the following sections:
1. Questions – the examiner may ask questions about the applicant’s career including work-related topics.
2. Listen/respond – This where the applicant listens to an audio recording and must describe what the audio clip is about.
3. Photo descriptions – In this section of the test, several aviation-related photos are presented for the applicant to describe.
The test proficiency scale ranges from Level 1 to Level 6, with guidelines published for pronunciation, fluency, structure, vocabulary, comprehension and interaction. For all pilots flying international routes and air traffic controllers, English language proficiency is set at Level 4 and above. The main benefit of high international standards of aviation English is that communications between aircraft crew and controllers are fully understood, particularly when non-standard words and phrases are used.
Pilots and air traffic controllers must take the test to have the proficiency level put on their license. In the US, native speakers can get their native language put into the license as level 6. If a pilot or air traffic controller isn’t satisfied with their rate, they can always take the test over to increase their rating. Language skills of pilots and controllers rated at Level 4 are reassessed every three years, Level 5 pilots and controllers are reassessed every six years, while at Level 6, no additional assessment of English language skills is needed.
Before the ICAO English Language Proficiency test, it was up to each country to create its own standard of aviation English. However, these standards varied by country and as a result, miscommunication contributed to many aviation accidents. With the test, ICAO helps ensure that passengers around the world con continue to look to air travel as their safest way of both global and domestic travel.
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