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General and Aviation-Specific English Language Training
English for specific purposes (ESP) is an approach to language teaching that focusses programme content on subjects, topics, and issues of direct interest to learners. ESP training is driven by what learners need to do in English and focusses principally on those features of the language which are required to undertake a particular task. A more narrowly focussed, learner-centred approach to teaching English, ESP aims to help learners establish partial competence in a given, usually work-specific domain, such as (broadly) science, technology, or medicine, or (more narrowly) banking, mechanical engineering, or aviation. English for aviation learning and teaching activities focus on the language needed to function in various aviation contexts.
The role of phraseologies — A cautionary note
What is the relationship of aviation English and phraseologies to "general" English? It may be useful to consider aviation English, radiotelephony English, and phraseologies as increasingly smaller subsets within the larger category of “the English language”.
Aviation English. We can define aviation English as a comprehensive but specialized subset of English related broadly to aviation, including the "plain" language used for radiotelephony communications when phraseologies do not suffice. Not restricted to controller and pilot communications, aviation English can also include the use of English relating to any other aspect of aviation: for example, the language needed by pilots for briefings, announcements, and flight deck communication; or the language used by maintenance technicians, flight attendants, dispatchers, or managers and officials within the aviation industry.
Radiotelephony English (RTFE). A sub-category of aviation English, radiotelephony English is the language used in radiotelephony communications. It includes but must not be limited to ICAO phraseology and can require the use of "general" English at times “Plain language” refers most often to what we are calling here radiotelephony English but also may require "general" English.
ICAO phraseology. The standardized words and phrases approved for radiotelephony communications by ICAO have been developed over years and represent a very narrow, specialized and rigid subset of language.
It should be emphasized that flight crews and air traffic controllers need to acquire phraseologies, certainly, but aviation English training should not be limited to phraseologies. Language proficiency is an intricate interplay of knowledge, skills, and competence, requiring much more than memorization of vocabulary items. Memorization of ICAO phraseologies alone does not constitute language proficiency and is an unsafe practice.
Language Training and Radiotelephony Communications
Aviation English training for flight crews and air traffic controllers, then, necessarily includes practice with phraseologies but also necessarily includes a broader focus on aviation-related English.
The role of “general” English
If we keep in mind that specialized aviation English is built upon proficiency in general English and that individuals entering the aviation environment with a high level of proficiency in "general" English (native speakers and/or expert users of the language) readily acquire the specialized English vocabulary and phraseologies needed for efficient and safe radiotelephony communication, it is reasonable to expect that "general" English programmes and courses may be an appropriate preface to learning aviation English. This is to say that “general” English programmes and learning activities can play a valuable role and are a legitimate language learning activity for flight crews and controllers. This is important in part because much support for “general” English learning exists: many programmes, instructors, texts, and multimedia products are readily and economically available to support general English learning.
The case for aviation English — Safety and efficiency
As has been shown, there is a role for “general” English teaching and learning. However, a strong case for aviation-focussed English language teaching and learning at all skill levels presents itself, based on the safety-related objectives and learner motivation. As increased air safety is the motivating factor beneath any initiative, including the establishment of provisions for language proficiency in civil aviation, it is important that language training programmes address appropriate needs within the domain of aviation operational communications. Aviation English specialists, individuals with the requisite applied linguistic background as described above, as well as an earnest familiarity with or experience in the requirements of aviation communications, can best and most efficiently achieve an organization's safety-related language proficiency objectives.