If you’re training to become a pilot, or hoping to do so in the future, you’ve probably got plenty of questions regarding the qualifications required to become a pilot.
But you might also be wondering about language.
Pilots travel all over the world, communicating with staff and passengers from different countries, and encountering many different cultures both on the ground and in the air.
Not only this, but strong communication is essential in aviation.
Poor communication has been the cause of endless aircraft accidents, such as the Tenerife accident in 1977 - where 583 died - and the 1996 Charkhi Dadri mid-air collision, which resulted in 349 deaths.
So, how do pilots and air traffic controllers communicate?
Do all pilots speak English?
Yes, they do, as the international language of aviation is English.
Pilots and air traffic controllers need to demonstrate the ability to speak and understand English up to a level specified by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
Pilots and staff are required to use ICAO standard phraseology so that the necessary information is communicated, otherwise, accents can easily get in the way, and clear, precise communication is essential in aviation in order to reduce the risk of accidents.
Do Chinese pilots speak English?
Yes, Chinese pilots and air traffic controllers do speak English when communicating with international pilots.
However in China and Taiwan, controllers and pilots speak Mandarin to Chinese colleagues.
This means that they switch back and forth between the two languages, which can be challenging for international pilots flying into busy airports, where instructions are being communicated in both mandarin and English.
How many languages should a pilot know?
All pilots and air traffic controllers must speak English, as we previously established.
However, there are definitely advantages to knowing more than one language if you’re a pilot.
Here are a few reasons why:
- As with any top-tier career, speaking more than one language will always impress interviewers. It demonstrates not only intelligence and an excellent memory, but that you’re more likely to be able to communicate and interact with a broader range of people, and these are skills that recruiters look for in pilots.
- During ground school, knowing another language means you can research in a language other than English, meaning you’ll be exposed to a greater variety of literature. Many aviation blogs are published in languages other than English, so who knows what you’re missing out on.
- Of course, knowing another language will come in very handy when it comes to communicating with other crew members, passengers, and airport staff. The aviation industry attracts people from all over the world, and additional languages will always come in handy.
- Plus, when you’re on the ground in a new country, speaking their language can make a big difference. You’re less likely to be taken advantage of as a tourist - as they may mistake you for a local instead. It can also be useful for ordering food, taxis, and just helping you get around.
- Speaking more than one language helps you to build stronger links with people, as some people may not be confident having a conversation in English. When you’re in ground school, you’ll come across people from a range of countries, and sharing tips and words from each other’s language is a great way to broaden your language skills and express an interest in your peers.
What is the official language of pilots?
English is the official language of pilots, or more specifically, Aviation English.
This is the de facto international language of civil aviation, and was brought about in the 20th century with the growth of air travel.
The ability for pilots and air traffic controllers to share a mutual language is absolutely essential for air traffic safety.
Aviation English is a type of English that was created for specific purposes.
It is also distinctive because it features several specific idiosyncratic structures, such as the word “correction” being used to convey any correction of a misspoken word.
The ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) requires pilots to undertake a formal language proficiency test to demonstrate their level of English proficiency - the results of which are recorded as a way of endorsing the professional licenses of pilots and air traffic controllers.
The ICAO measures an individual’s English proficiency with its Language Proficiency Rating Scale, and the minimum level of proficiency required by pilots and air traffic controllers involved in international operations is Operational Level 4 on this scale.
English is an essential language for pilots and air traffic controllers all over the world and ‘Aviation English’ is a specific branch of English used in the industry.
Good communication is absolutely essential for pilots and air traffic controllers, and the ability to speak English clearly and effectively is highly important.
That said, being able to speak additional languages is also a great skill for any pilot or aviation worker to have.