Proficiency in English for Indian Pilots & Air Traffic Controllers

A Government of India Notification

Recently the Government of India issued a notification prescribing standards of English proficiency for all those who seek or already perform the duties of pilots, air traffic controllers, et al., employed by various airlines. It is certainly a welcome step. This step is in compliance of the International Civil Aviation Organization. In India, proficiency in English was made mandatory since 1996 when there was a mid-air collision in the country.

Why This Proposal, and Why This Urgency?

According to a PTI report, “A major cause of the collision was that the pilot of one of the aircraft could not understand the English directives of the ATC and brought the aircraft down to the same height as that of the other plane, instead of gaining height. This had led to the collision.” The report said that although proficiency was made mandatory, no standards were specifically set until this new order, which stipulates that all personnel should have the International Civil Aviation Organization language proficiency. This, certainly, is a very welcome step.

Indian Accents

While it is possible for us all to figure out what lies behind our thick accent, which varies from one region to another, and from one educational level to another, international pilots may not have our instinctive skill to wade through a variety of Indian accents.

The Holistic Descriptors

The Holistic descriptors of proficiency given in the ICAO documents are as follows:

“Holistic descriptors

Proficient speakers shall:

a) communicate effectively in voice-only (telephone/radiotelephone) and in face to-face situations;

b) communicate on common, concrete and work-related topics with accuracy and clarity;

c) use appropriate communicative strategies to exchange messages and to recognize and resolve misunderstandings (e.g. to check, confirm, or clarify information) in a general or work-related context;

d) handle successfully and with relative ease the linguistic challenges presented by a complication or unexpected turn of events that occurs within the context of a routine work situation or communicative task with which they are otherwise familiar; and

e) use a dialect or accent which is intelligible to the aeronautical community.”

What Can Our Engineering Colleges Do About It?

Aeronautical Engineering colleges and departments in India need to set their curriculum in English taking into account the requirements specified in the document presented below. Hopefully some enterprising English teacher will come up with both written and audio materials to help young students to focus their linguistic training on the goals and requirements set in this document.

A Two-Pronged Approach

We need to train our prospective air personnel to overcome our thick accent and master efficient grammatical structures and expressions. But we also need to impart an ability to figure out content that lies behind the thick accents of other nationalities! So, our curriculum in this regard is to be two-pronged: taking care of our own weaknesses in English communication and making it so efficient that communication with others is greatly facilitated; in addition, we also need to impart skills in understanding the accents of other nationalities from around the world and then communicate with them modulating our own oral and auditory skills. The list of objectives presented in the document below will help us well in formulating our own curriculum.

M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.

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