Aviation - Specialised vocabulary research and the professions

Vocabulary and English for Specific Purposes Research - Averil Coxhead 2018

Specialised vocabulary research and the professions

Vocabulary in Aviation English is very tightly controlled and is divided into phraseology and plain English (Moder, 2013). This lexis is prescribed by the ICAO (ICAO Document 4444 Air Traffic Management, cited in Moder, 2013). Estival, Farris and Molesworth (2016) provide a basic definition of Aviation English, saying it

is generally considered to consist of prescribed exchange formats, standard phraseology, which is defined as prescribed vocabulary and syntax, and specific pronunciation. Each of these elements is an attempt at solving problems of communication that could be critical for safety.

(p. 15)

Air traffic controllers and pilots are required to have sufficient vocabulary to communicate in standardised language and in ’plain’ speak. As mentioned earlier, Aviation professionals have to be able to communicate in unexpected situations, and through radio-based communication rather than face-to-face (Moder, 2013). The routine communication of Aviation English involves the sharing of information from written documents and radar displays (air traffic controllers) and aviation instrumentation (pilots). Vocabulary presents a major learning challenge for people who are training to be pilots, not just because there is a great deal of new vocabulary but also because they need to learn to leave out ’unnecessary words’ in their communication (Estival et al., 2016, p. 25). An idea of how restricted the vocabulary of Aviation English can be seen in Estival (2016, pp. 37—46), including examples that may cause confusion such as request (as in ’I should like to know or wish to obtain’, p. 39) and require (which is ’not a preference but an operational requirement’, p. 39).

Aviation language has been investigated in several ways. Moder and Halleck (2012, cited in Moder, 2013) found frequent verbs in Aviation follow stages of a flight and include everyday words such as hold, turn, maintain and control. Lopez, Condamines and Joseelin-Leray (2013) carried out a study of ’standardised official phraseology’ using a reference corpus of 16,821 words of radiotelephony communication for radio controllers. A second corpus was extracted from two manuals and an advanced learner corpus of French controllers and international pilots (77,782 tokens). Lopez et al. (2013) report that the reference corpus contained more nouns than the learner corpus, with acronyms making up 8.2% of all noun tokens in the written corpus, such as calculated take off time. The spoken data also contained a large number of acronyms which cover 3.1% of noun tokens.

Testing language skills of pilots is an important area of research. Knoch (2014) carried out a small-scale study in which pilots were asked to rate the performance of test takers in an Aviation test. During the rating process, a concern was raised about one of the test taker’s use and knowledge of vocabulary by four of the ten pilots in the study. The judges commented that the candidate seemed to be able to cope with the scripted or standard language demands in the test, however, the pilot participants were concerned that the candidate would not be able to cope with using plain language for communicating. This lack of flexibility in lexis suggested a lack of technical knowledge. What is interesting in these judgements from a lexical perspective is the interaction between judgements of linguistic ability, level of technical knowledge, and the overall effectiveness of communication. Sufficiency in language and technical knowledge meant sufficiency in total communication. But a judgement of insufficient technical knowledge but sufficient language ability meant insufficiency in total communication. These insights from pilot judgements lead Knoch (2014) to argue that in Aviation, ’the testing of language and technical knowledge cannot and should not be separated’ (p. 85) because these two elements of professional knowledge are so intertwined.

A feature of Aviation English is the challenging environment for this heavily prescribed specialised vocabulary. In an experimental study of native and non-native English speakers in flight simulators, Estival and Molesworth (2016) investigated the effect on error rate in communication of four conditions: the rate of speech of Air Traffic Control (ATC), the information load from ATC communications, pilot workload, and congestion in the radio frequency. In each case, the pilots had a flight which set baseline conditions for the condition (for example, slow rate of speech from ATC with pauses; low information load in transmissions from ATC) and a paired flight with the increased challenge (i.e. fast speech rate from ATC with no pauses; high information load per transmission from ATC). Estival and Molesworth (2016) find that increased pilot workload affected communication accuracy of all the pilots in the study. Lexical errors in communication were more likely to involve omissions rather than errors, and errors were more likely to be in giving an incorrect number. Estival and Molesworth (2016, p. 173) conclude from their data that ’mistakes rarely occur with the limited vocabulary of Aviation English phraseology, but are more frequent with the actual numbers to be transmitted, which are less predictable from context’.

In Aviation-related research, Cutting (2012) investigated English for ground staff, based on four groups: security guards, bus drivers, catering staff and ground handlers. These four ’trades’ have very different roles and different sets of people they communicate with. For example, ground handlers have several main roles, according to Cutting (2012), including baggage handling, communication with pilots, safety and movement of aircraft and driving the truck which pushes the aircraft back from the gate. The research included a range of data gathered through observations and interviews in the workplace in Britain and France. Cutting’s focus was predominantly functional and therefore grammatical. It would be interesting to find out more about the lexis required in these occupations and how much, if any, overlap there might be between the various jobs in the different sections of the same workplace.