Interview with Philip Shawcross, author of Flightpath

    Interview with Philip Shawcross, author of Flightpath

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    About Philip Shawcross

    Philip Shawcross has been working in Aviation English since 1972, as a language trainer, technical trainer and technical English consultant for Airbus, Aerospatiale, Air France, and others. He is the creator of docWise, a CD-ROM training programme for using aircraft maintenance documentation, and led a team developing web-based pilot and ATCO language training material for AES. He has been president of ICAEA since 2007.

    1. Why did you decide to write Flightpath? I think that the circumstances of my own career explain a lot.

    I think that the circumstances of my own career explain a lot. Although I had done a certain amount of general and business English before I joined a Flight Training Organisation (Aeroformation, now Airbus Training) in the early seventies, all of my aviation English teaching experience since then has been from inside the aviation community. I have always worked with and for pilots, instructors, engineers, mechanics and controllers; my first boss, Jean Pinet, was a Concorde test pilot.

    While drawing on my own humanities and linguistic background, I felt the need to provide training and training materials which reflected the culture, the learning and operational habits, the cognitive processes and requirements of aviation professionals. This is a process driven by a passion and which took years of observation and learning; indeed, it is a life-long process. I also realised that as a language teacher I had so much to learn from the focus and rigorous analysis of technical training with such practice s as specific behavioural objectives, task- and skill-based training, on-the-job training etc., in other words where the final emphasis is very much on know-how rather than just knowledge.

    Later, working in collaboration with airline aviation instructors on very large-scale cascade training projects showed me how language learning could and should be integrated into professional training. One of the compliments which I most appreciated was when someone at Airbus Support said that the training I had developed was the ‘missing link’ between language and technical training.

    Later, the privilege I had working on behalf of ICAEA with the operational subject matter experts in ICAO only reinforced my conviction that aviation English materials both in training and testing had to be written from an operational perspective to meet the requirements of professional pilots and controllers.

    This experience also confirmed my conviction that the training materials offered to pilots and controllers had to be thoroughly content-based, oral and communicative.

    So, when after the issuance of the ICAO Language Proficiency Requirements 2003, I began to see the flourishing of aviation English materials which reflected their EFL and ESP roots, I felt that the aviation community deserved something which came as far as possible from within the profession itself.

    2. What exactly are the ICAO Language Proficiency Requirements?

    ICAO is the International Civil Aviation Organisation and they are the agency which regulates civil aviation worldwide. Several catastrophic aviation accidents in which inadequate radio telecommunication in English was a contributing factor, led to the decision to strengthen ICAO provisions concerning language requirements.

    They identified three ways in which language could be a contributing factor to accidents or incidents: incorrect use of standardised phraseology; lack of plain language proficiency; and the use of more than one language in the same airspace.

    In 2000 ICAO set up the Proficiency Requirements In Common English Study Group (PRICESG), an international group of linguistic and operational experts whose recommendations resulted in the ICAO Rating Scale and holistic descriptors being published in March 2003. These new Standards and Recommended Practices transformed the ad hoc use of English as the lingua franca of aviation into an international legal requirement.

    Ultimately, the aim of the ICAO Language Proficiency Requirements is to improve SAFETY in aviation.

    3. OK, and where can a teacher get hold of these / find out more about these requirements?

    The starting point for any teacher is ICAO Document 9835 (2nd edition, 2010) Manual on the Implementation of ICAO language Proficiency Requirements. The relevant ICAO Annexes, the Rating Scale and the Holistic Descriptors are contained in Appendix A. Indeed, as a teacher I have found myself constantly returning to 9835 to check that I was still on track. Appendix B -Language of Aeronautical Radiotelephony Communications – is particularly useful for a teacher as it is a list of the main communicative functions and lexical domains required by pilots and controllers.

    This and other ICAO documents can be obtained from 

    4. What do you think are the main challenges of teaching aviation English?
    Aviation language proficiency training and testing are high stakes in terms of the safety of the travelling public, the careers of aviation professionals, and airline economics. Aviation language professionals, whose activity is still unregulated, and often still growing towards maturity, have a duty to provide pilots and controllers with training which reflects the requirements, functions and constraints of operational situations. This will be quite different from conventional academic and theoretical teaching practice, and nor should it be ‘teaching to the test’.

    I remember a senior airline pilot who was a founder member of the PRICESG saying in the course of one of our meetings when we were listening to and rating speech samples, “Would you want to put your family on a plane flown or controlled by this person?” Ultimately, this is the acid test which, as teachers and testing professionals, we should constantly be applying to our students.

    Given the specifics of the conditions of its use and the high stakes involved, aviation English is not just another branch of ESP (English for Specific Purposes). Indeed, aviation English is more about performing operationally-specific communicative functions in English than learning the English language.

    Aviation English training should be:

    – Communicative to develop interaction

    – Oral, as writing and reading skills are not included in ICAO Language Proficiency

    – Content-based and work-related both in lexical and functional terms

    – Proficiency-oriented to develop skills rather than knowledge

    – Designed within an operational context and taking into account the ability to switch codes between formulaic standard phraseology and plain language

    – Learner-centred for relevance, effectiveness and motivation

    5. And what are the challenges for the learner?

    It is often said about language that you must ‘use it or lose it’, i.e. that language erosion, attrition, decay, is well-documented phenomenon. Someone who is tested ‘Level 4’ one day will probably no longer be Level 4 two and a half years later if the only use of English has been in routine situations, phraseology and booking into a hotel. Moreover, language proficiency – even in one’s own native language – tends to drop dramatically when one is placed under stress as in an abnormal or emergency situation. So, after 30 months of only routine use of English, a ‘Level 4’ pilot or controller in a stressful situation might actually be performing as a low Level 3 or high Level 2 speaker. This phenomenon points to the necessity of first of all reaching a ‘robust’ Level 4, working in a linguistically supportive environment and then following regular recurrent training.

    This means that the learner must constantly work to maintain their language level, which is quite a commitment.

    6. Are there any specific skills you think an aviation English teacher needs?

    I would say that, as well as basic EFL qualifications, an aviation English teacher really needs:

    – Familiarity with the operational environment of aviation, i.e. obtaining a ‘feel’ for the conditions in which pilots and controllers communicate through personal experience, talking extensively with operational personnel, following technical training and videos etc.

    – Familiarity with ICAO Rated Speech Sample Training Aid

    – Ability to prioritise communicational effectiveness over grammatical accuracy and native-speaker pronunciation

    – Commitment to a fully communicative approach to language learning

    – Awareness of the distinction between standard phraseology and plain language

    – Awareness of those aspects of the language which may be critical in abnormal situations

    And, ideally they would have:

    – Awareness of specific operational objectives and functions

    – In-depth knowledge of Doc. 9835 Manual on the Implementation of ICAO Language Proficiency Requirements

    – Prior experience in another area of ESP

    – Cultural and cross-cultural sensitivity

    – Desire to learn about all aspects of aviation

    – Ability to work as a facilitator and tutor in order to prioritise student speech production

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