Official Language of Civil Aviation
The ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization), a specialized agency of the United Nations, has acknowledged that communications play a critical role. Miscommunication has been an important factor in many aviation accidents. Examples include the Tenerife accident in 1977 (583 dead) or the 1996 Charkhi Dadri mid-air collision (349 dead).
In the mid-twentieth century when air travel was becoming more common, English-speaking countries dominated the design and manufacturing of aircraft as well as much of their operations. The 1944 Chicago Convention, representing 54 national governments, and aiming to resolve some of the problems of air travel at the time, established English as the language of aviation. The aim was to help avoid misunderstanding and confusion over the radio and between international crews. Today, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is funded and directed by 193 national governments to support diplomacy and cooperation in air transport.
The most important thing is for all players in air traffic communications to be able to communicate clearly. It’s arguably unimportant whether that happens in English, French or Japanese – the language itself is less important than its clarity. There’s an argument that English is a more egalitarian language, one that has dispensed with many formal honorifics or need for deference when addressing seniors, an advantage in a crisis moment. There’s also some evidence that people follow more logical and less emotional decision-making processes when speaking a second language. This is beneficial when dealing with the high-pressure world of aviation communications.
Aviation English is a highly formalized and technical language developed to enhance the very specific type of interactions between pilots and air traffic control. To help smooth communications, air workers are encouraged to develop a neutral accent that makes them as intelligible as possible. Even native English speakers need to spend time learning it. The need for standardization has led to the creation of the Test of English for Aviation for all civil pilots and air traffic controllers working in an international environment.
Official Language of the Seas
Shipping is an integral part of the world economy. In the 1960s, the United States and the United Kingdom dominated ocean traffic, and 80 percent of ships’ crews were native English speakers. By the end of the 1970s, however, the situation had reversed, and today, 80 percent of ship’s crews do not speak English as a first language. It is estimated that 80% of accidents at sea are in some way caused by human error and just under half of those are caused by poor levels of Maritime English.
In 1983 a group of linguists and shipping experts created a new system of communication called “Seaspeak.” English was chosen as the principle lexicon for Seaspeak as it was the most common language spoken on ships at that time, and, importantly, it was also the language of civil aviation. In 1988, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the United Nations specialized agency responsible for safety and security of shipping, made Seaspeak the official language of the seas.
Good communication in Maritime English is essential for the maintenance of effective working environments, the safety of the crew, and general safety at sea and at ports. MarTEL (Maritime Tests of English Language) is a standardized test of Maritime English language proficiency.
You might also be interested in learning why the U.S.A doesn’t have an official language or what the “X” in airport codes actually means! Did you know that the English language doesn’t have an official agency overseeing its use? Click here to learn more!
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