What Language on the Tin?

Oh oh oh, I have a question: are all pilots and air traffic controllers required to have a decent command of English? That is, around the world, do all those people speak English, or maybe English and the local language?

I think it's important that those people speak a "standardized" language so that if you had to communicate with anyone, you could. But my concern is that in case of emergencies, we naturally revert to our mother tongue -- which means, international flights introduce the possibility of having a communication breakdown as people start freaking out and speaking their native languages.

So ... does that mean that pilots should ideally speak (fluently) both English and the language(s) of the departure and arrival airports, then? I suppose that makes it tougher to find qualified tin pushers and pilots.


Momcy said...

What happen?!

kathryn said...

from what I heard ... they are all required to have the ability to speak english, but if air traffic controllers work in small airport which has no international flights, and pilots fly only within their country. I can see that they may forget how to speak english after they passed their test due to lack of practice. Example: Russia do send their air traffic controllers to U.K. for trainning & laungage school.

ixabelle said...

hi.. this comes really late.. (4 over mths actually), but yes, all air traffic controllers ARE required to speak english. as are all pilots. it is not only english that they must learn, there is a specific set of radiotelephony that is adhered too. (it's almost like learning a whole new set of language/grammar/vocab rules.) the problem is, some pilots have very strong accents, and it's torture trying to decipher them. what makes it even worse is, i know they're speaking the same language as me, why does it sound like NOTHING i've heard before? *grins*. i am a tin pusher.
hm. in answer to the question about emergencies, it is true that the tendency is to revert to the native language. however, all pilots and controllers are trained to transmit only in english. ie, for pilots, from the day they start learning to fly, they start transmitting in english. for controllers, from the day they start learning to control, they transmit in english.
i think, in most places, it is actually highly frowned upon to transmit in any language other than english. and i think, again, (although i'm really not too sure on this one), some places do allow controllers to transmit to aircrafts in their native language, in times of emergency, if the controller has reasonable assurance that the pilot is able to respond better. (don't quote me on this one though. really am not too sure about it.)

Ben said...

Wow, thanks for the comments! I've never talked to or known a real tin pusher before. Do they really call you guys "tin pushers"? (My only "knowledge" of the industry is via the movies, which I'm sure you'll agree is fairly limited and probably tinted for dramatic effect.)

I suppose in times of emergency, your mother tongue will require less thinking. But it does require that both parties in the communication are speaking more fluently in that language before you can revert. I guess if you had one person whose native language was English and the other's was something else, the default would still be English.

So lucky that I learned and speak English natively, although I think everyone else in the world is quite lucky that I'm not a tin pusher.

ixabelle said...

hmm.. do they call us tin pushers? maybe in the states. we call ourselves controllers. (we'd like to think we are actually in control!) a colleague said, he's a condemned octopus juggling tin cans. or something to that effect. *grin* have a good one.

Anonymous said...

Actually, no. Controllers are only allowed to speak to pilots in standard Radiotelephony (R/T) derived from English. When the pilot does not understand the R/T, then standard English may be used.

Under no circumstances is native language allowed. An air accident occurred in Russian airspace because the controller spoked in Russian to one of the pilots during an impeding air crash, and because the other pilot couldn't understand the instruction given to the Russian pilot, he did exactly the same thing (which was to climb or descend, I don't remember).

After that incident, I believe ICAO issued a statement saying that air traffic control instructions must always be given in English.