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Interview with Philip Shawcross, author of Flightpath

Philip_Shawcross

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 http://www.icao.int/Pages/default.aspx 

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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EnglishCentral Study Tips

We have a lot that students can do on EnglishCentral.   Many students don’t find out what they can do beyond Watch | Learn | Speak | Quiz of the videos.

Here’s a few suggestions to help students  learning English on our world leading platform.

#1  Speak the whole video! 

We set our player with “Focus Speak Mode”.  Students only speak the 5 lines of the video which contain our Focus Vocabulary.   To speak the whole video deselect this setting in the player.

focused speak setting

#2.   Click on words you don’t know. 

When students click on words or expressions they don’t know, these words are added to the final Quiz on EnglishCentral.  The student can study them plus the words we have set as Focus Vocabulary. Plus, these words get added to the My Words page as favorites. Students can then restudy them there, on that page, any time.

click on words

#3   Use the “enter” key to advance through the learning.

Especially in learn mode, use your “enter” key to check if you are right and advance through to the next learn line. It makes life easy!

select enter

#4  Use other keyboard shortcuts.

Click the “?” icon and find and use more keyboard shortcuts to help make learning easier.

shortcuts

#5  Visit your Pronunciation Profile.

After a student records about 100 lines, a Pronunciation Profile is created. Students can access this page and see the sounds they need to work on (red).  Click a phoneme/sound and you’ll be provided a recommended pronunciation course to help you improve the pronunciation of that sound.

pron2

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EnglishCentral’s IntelliSpeech℠ Technology

intellispeech

 

EnglishCentral’s  “special sauce” has always been our  internally developed IntelliSpeech℠ assessment technology.    What teachers appreciate is how IntelliSpeech℠ motivates students to speak outside of the classroom.  Students appreciate the instant feedback and the game dynamic of trying to improve their speaking grade.

EnglishCentral’s Intellispeech℠ system assesses learners’ speaking ability as a combination of 3 elements:

  • Pronunciation Score
  • Fluency Score
  • Completion

Pronunciation Score previously measured learners’ speech across  39 phonemes. In its latest version, Intellispeech℠  measures performance across all 64,000 possible triphones (combinations of phonemes).  This change dramatically improves the accuracy of the system.  

Fluency Score is still based on duration and pause rate.  

Completion is still based on whether user speaks all words, or drops words.

Real Time Feedback in the Player

As the learner speaks, Intellispeech℠  provides feedback according to the follow types of errors:

PRON6

feed

Line Score

Learners get a line score between 0 and 100 points for each line spoken. Only the final version of each line spoken counts towards the video.  So, if a line is repeated several times, only the last version counts towards the video line score.

On each line,  we show the line score earned.     

Video Grades

The video grade is the cumulative measure of  the Intellispeech℠ system across all lines spoken in the video.

Intellispeech℠ computes a percentile relative to other learners in the target language group to produce a video grade. For instance, if we determine that the speech for the video was 75% better than other users from the same geography (based on past speech for millions of users from the geo), the learner would get a “B+” as a video grade.

grade5

Percentiles are mapped to grades for each native language of the learner. Here is the grade table for learners:
grade

Phoneme Tiles

Our IntelliSpeech℠ is always listening to learners speech and is continually assessing the learner’s performance across  39 phonemes.  We have patent-pending (Patent App# 13/338,383) on the system’s ability to determine the learners strongest and weakest pronunciations among the 40 phonemes, thereby guiding the learner on which to practice.   There are 4 states of the Phoneme Tiles which correspond how closely they resemble native speech with Green being the closest to native, and red being the furthest.   Grey means the system does not have enough data to make a determination.

These phones are tracked in each learner’s customized Pronunciation Center.

sp2

Because measuring phoneme performance can be noisy for individual utterances, in general a learner must speak 10 lines before the IntelliSpeech℠ is confident in setting the color of the Phoneme Tile.

Our Speech Database

Our research is supported by what we believe is the largest corpora of non-native speech with transcription in the world.  Our speech assessment system is now based on over 450M utterances collected from over 100 countries or different L1 languages.  

sp1

Our reference models are also training on large amounts of data collected from native speakers speaking the authentic speech from our videos (as opposed to many other corpora which may contain “read speech”).

Common Pronunciation Challenges

IntelliSpeech℠ has analyzed users’ English pronunciation based on over 250 Million recorded utterances in the EnglishCentral database and identified the five most common problematic sounds of speakers for each native language region.   For instance, for Japanese, they are:

pron5

Based on this analysis and speech data, we have designed a pronunciation course  for each of our main market.  — Top 10 Challenges —  where learners can focus on the most challenging pronunciations for speakers from their native language, using authentic videos.

pronj

 

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Evaluating The Impact Of EnglishCentral: New Research

research

EnglishCentral is constantly being evaluated by professionals in the field.  One recent study is by Shane Dixon of Arizona State University titled:”Evaluating the Impact of an Online English Language Tool’s Ability to Improve Users’ Speaking Proficiency under Learner- and Shared-control Conditions

Here is a brief summary of the research and findings.  

Download the full report

The study looked at EnglishCentral as used by 83 advanced level students in ASU’s AECP (American English and Culture Program) listening and speaking course.  All learners were given a pre and post test to measure their English language fluency using the Pearson Versant Test

There were 3 groups examined. 

1. Learner control.  EnglishCentral “free” study. Students chose the videos lessons or courses they would study on EnglishCentral

2. Shared control.   EnglishCentral controlled study. Experienced teachers selected video lessons and assigned them as a custom course for student study. Additionally, students could also select their own video lessons.

3. No treatment.  No EnglishCentral study but were given an equivalent amount of traditional homework as the 2 other control groups

Research Questions.

1.  In addition to the 168 hours of classroom instruction does the use of EnglishCentral (learner or shared) lead to gains in fluency vs the no treatment group?

The study found significant gains in fluency through the use of EnglishCentral as a study tool vs the no treatment group when in the shared control condition.

2. Is the shared-control or learner-control system in the EnglishCentral environment better at achieving learner gains in speaking proficiency?

Surprisingly, the shared-control group (which controlled for language level/appropriateness) had the more significant gains in speaking proficiency.

3. Is student attitude, operationalized as the combination of motivation, ease of use, and feelings about technology, affected by the learner control and shared control models? Do other variables such as age, gender, first language, and teacher effect learning outcomes?

Student attitude and motivation was a factor. Students with higher comfort using technology generally had higher achievement scores. Teacher attitude towards technology and EnglishCentral use in general was not a contributing factor towards student success (as measured by an additional survey).

The research raises many interesting questions which are described in the full paper.  

Is EnglishCentral better used during class time (as opposed to homework done outside of class, in the study)?

Why is EnglishCentral not as effective when students are given full control of the learning environment?

Read and find more research regarding EnglishCentral here and here.