Aviation English in South African airspace

  • Salome Coertze Department of General Linguistics, Stellenbosch University
  • Simone Conradie Department of General Linguistics, Stellenbosch University
  • Chris R Burger Meraka Institute, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR)
  • Kate Huddlestone Department of General Linguistics, Stellenbosch University
Keywords: Aviation English, English as lingua franca, miscommunication, communication in aviation, aviation safety


A lack of English proficiency and failure to use standard phraseology played a role in the world’s largest aviation disaster which occurred in Tenerife in 1977 (Tenerife Information Center 2009). As a result, the crucial role of effective communication between pilots and air-traffic controllers (ATCs) came under scrutiny (Cushing 1997), with the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) implementing English language proficiency standards and compulsory language testing of pilots and ATCs (Tiewtrakul and Fletcher 2010). Consequently, the use of so-called “Aviation English” (AE) was enforced which consists of a range of operationally-relevant language functions and dialogue management as well as formulaic standard phraseology (Shawcross 2008). The study reported on in this paper has two aims: (i) to investigate pilots’ and ATCs’ perceptions of the role of language in air-traffic communication, and (ii) to investigate the use of AE in authentic pilot-ATC communication in South African airspace. In order to address the first aim, an online questionnaire was designed to investigate issues surrounding the role of language in air-traffic communication. A total of 197 pilots and 66 ATCs completed the questionnaire. To address the second aim, approximately 10 hours’ worth of recordings were obtained of on-site air-traffic communication at two airport towers in Gauteng. These were then transcribed and carefully analysed within the framework of Van Es’s (2004) SHELL model and with the aid of a taxonomy compiled on the basis of two previous studies by Cardosi, Brett and Han (1997) and Van Es (2004). The results of the questionnaire indicated that the majority of the respondents support ICAO’s English language proficiency standards and testing. Although the respondents believe that language-related communication problems can cause serious and sometimes fatal incidents, they are confident that the problems are resolved quickly and successfully, thereby avoiding potentially hazardous situations. The results of the analysis of the voice recordings correlated with the results of the questionnaire. Only a small number of transmissions were identified with read-back errors as well as a small number of transmissions containing deviations from AE and standard phraseology. When miscommunications did occur, pilots and ATCs resolved these problems quickly and effectively using AE as well as plain English to successfully negotiate understanding. After discussing in more detail the results of the analyses of the two data sets, a conclusion is provided with some suggestions for further, specifically linguistic, investigations into AE and pilot-ATC communication in South Africa. A brief illustration is also given of the potential value of research, such as that reported here, for benchmarking speech systems for unmanned aircraft (cf. Burger, Barnard and Jones 2011).


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How to Cite
Coertze, S., Conradie, S., Burger, C. R., & Huddlestone, K. (2014). Aviation English in South African airspace. Stellenbosch Papers in Linguistics Plus, 42, 41-62. https://doi.org/10.5842/42-0-167