The United Nations Organization was established in 1945. It, in turn, established the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). The ICAO made a simple, toothless Recommendation in 1951 that English should be used for all civil aviation. If a Standard had been established instead, English would have been compulsory, and all pilots would have been examined and compelled to speak it. However today English remains optional.

The Recommendation for English was made on the basis of expediency. The U.S. was predominant, having been unscarred by battles. Its economic and political power were matched by the large scale production of aircraft. What could be more natural than to recommend English for world wide use?

No comprehensive study has yet performed to consider the relative merits of other languages. However, on November 20, 1997 the ICAO'S Air Navigation Commission initiated Task No. ATM-9702. It "intends to carry out a comprehensive review of all aspects of air-ground and ground-ground voice communications in international civil aviation," according to Gene Griffiths of the ICAO.

This report is written to help the ICAO's ANC in its deliberations. In parallel with the necessary effort to make the usage of English less hazardous, the ANC must seek a more ideal language for use through future centuries. The deficiencies of English are the reason why its replacement is necessary.


Worldwide, 569 of 1,017 jet accidents have been due to the flight crew. That is, flight crew causes were more prevalent than all other problems such as the airplane and the weather. Therefore, the search for safety will most productively focus on the flight crew instead of physical features. Their behavior is the result of language-based information exchanged between flight crew members and exchanged with the Air Traffic Controllers. The CBS News report by Dan Rather, 30 and 31 March 1998, showed the risks involved with the current arrangement.

The lack of ability to use English by pilots and controllers with different native languages is causing crashes. This is one of the 5 crash categories of the Flight Safety Foundation. Most of these occur outside the U.S., but U.S. citizens are aboard - which makes this a problem for the FAA as well as the ICAO. For instance, the midair crash in India in November, 1976 which involved native-speakers of 3 different languages killed 349, including 2 Americans. Similarly, non-native speakers of English have recently crashed in Guam, Indonesia, Taiwan and again in Colombia early in May, 1998.

Further, Frank Price, manager of Air Traffic International Staff of the FAA said, "Unlike in the past, international traffic is now flying into the U. S. heartland. Every FAA Air Route Traffic Control Center now works international traffic."

American pilots can themselves experience cognitive difficulties with English due to their dialects and to the homonyms and homophones of English which may generate false concepts in their minds.


A. The existence of numerous varieties prevents standardization.

  1. Because English has spread so far through colonialism, there are now many dialects of English. For instance, those of AUSTRALIA, NEW ZEALAND, IRELAND, SCOTLAND, INDIA.
  2. Because English is undisciplined by either an Academy or governing principles, it has many local variants. For instance, in the U.S. we have such types as Brooklyn, Boston, Southern. In England there is the cockney form of speech, as a counterpoint to the west London variety.
  3. Non-native speakers apply their own speech habits to the sounds of English. This produces heavily accented English like that spoken by Nelson Mandela.

B. Incompatibility with the metric system.

  1. The U.K. and its ex-colonies have now embraced the metric system. The U.S. is the only holdout.
  2. Flight instruments are calibrated in inches of mercury, nautical miles, knots and feet, strange units for 95% of the world population who have learned a rational, coherent system.
  3. Thus aviation personnel world wide are now forced to mentally translate into these non-metric units of the U.S. , which are alien to their schooling. This extra cognitive burden can add to the difficulty of dealing with a crisis, particularly if the pilot is suffering from the lack of oxygen or another malady.

C. Massive linguistic irregularities interfere with learning by non-native speakers.

Aviation language must be thoroughly learned. A limited vocabulary is not enough for flight control. Competence far beyond simple rote phrases is needed for coping with emergencies. On 8 May 1998 a hailstorm knocked off the radome and shattered the windshield of a Chicago-bound passenger plane. The pilot, lacking instruments and the ability to see the ground, was guided to a safe landing by a controller with a full, not limited, knowledge of English.

The controller for the 1995 AA crash in Colombia would like to have asked the pilot about being off course, but couldn't. Jack C. Richards, author of THE CONTEXT OF LANGUAGE TEACHING, suggests that special terminology is best learned in the context of the general language in which it is used. Emphasis and intonation play an important part in communication, and full capability in English is necessary to understand subtle differences. An example of this is, "The flight attendant called the passengers' names." A roll call or an insult? In print the apostrophe clarifies, but in spoken form it is the intonation which reveals the meaning.
"Knowledge of specialized terms - such as ATC terminology - is easier to acquire when aspects of the language have been mastered first, such as principles of word formation and sentence structure. Teaching and testing knowledge of ATC terminology with lists of terms turns controllers into parrots, who are handicapped in unusual or stressful ATC situations, rather than skilled users of English who can apply the language in a wide range of contexts," said Shannon Uplinger of Uplinger Translation Services.
The barriers to learning English by pilots from non-English speaking backgrounds are enormous. Here are a few of them:

1. The 44 sounds of English cannot be registered phonetically with its 26 letters. Hence the terrible spelling problem wherein there are more than 250 ways to spell the 44 sounds. This feature makes reading instructions and writing reports extremely difficult.
2. Uncertainty about which syllable should receive stress. Non-native speakers are most noticable by their faulty syllable stress. REFuse and refUSE and re-FUSE mean different things.
3. Uncertainty about how to form plurals. If MAN becomes MEN , why doesn't PAN become PEN?
4. About 300 of the English verbs are irregular.
5. Vowels are of major importance because it is they which give clarity to words. English divides the range of vowels into 12 parts, which requires years of practice to master.
6. The multiple meanings of English words make our puns possible, but baffle learners from other countries. Overall, a dictionary boasts that it lists 500,000 definitions for the 100,000 words it contains - so 5 meanings per word! For the simple words of frequent usage such as RUN or GET there can be 30 meanings.
In a study of 6,527 reports by pilots and controllers to the Aviation Safety Reporting System, there were 529 reported incidents classified by Grayson and Billings as representing ambiguous phraseology.
7. English has about 5000 idioms. These are phrases in common use with meanings not deducible from the meanings of the individual words. English speakers can easily deal with these culture-based items, but those of other native languages can't. Native-English pilots could easily lapse into such jargon in an emergency, leaving non-native speakers to puzzle over such phrases as "I'm out of time" - sounds like somebody who came from outer space. Or, "dead reckoning" - a counting of those who died? Misnomers like these abound in the Pilot/ATC glossary of the Aeronautical Information Manual of the FAA.
Captain John Cox of US Airways said, "Ours is a lexicon of abbreviations, acronyms and jargon, and just consider how many different versions of English we have. Often our language can be confusing - we have problems with oxymorons, slang, homonyms (to, too, two) and so forth."


Considering all these flaws in the English language, it is unfair to place such a learning burden onto everybody else. Apart from unfairness, they WON'T REALLY LEARN ENGLISH because it is so difficult for non-native speakers. A search needs to be mounted for a language with a minimum of deficiencies, and specifically a language as many of the above 7 ideal characteristics as possible. Then an orderly transition from English to the superior language should occur.
Until then we must try to make English less prone to causing problems. A joint NTSB/FAA $500,000 study with that aim will begin on 1 June 1998. In the words of Shannon Uplinger, "Even the best managed English training will not eliminate inherent ambiguities in language, and such training will not compensate for poor discipline, fatigue and other problems in the workplace. But training will improve the ability of air traffic controllers to perform their jobs and greatly reduce the risk that controllers and pilots will communicate with, but not understand, one another."