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English Language Proficiency Training and Assessment

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Category: Air Ground Communication Air Ground Communication
Content source: SKYbrary About SKYbrary


English is the international language of civil aviation. With the rapid expansion of air travel during the second half of the 20th century came safety concerns with respect to the ability of pilots and air traffic controllers to communicate. At the Chicago Convention in 1951, International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) recommended that English be universally used for "international aeronautical radiotelephony communications".

That recommendation was adopted but, because many pilots and controllers lacked proficiency in English, accidents continued to result from miscommunication. Notable amongst these was the Tenerife accident of 1978 that killed 583 persons. ICAO has formally acknowledged that communications, or the lack thereof, has been shown by many accident investigations to play a significant role. In 2003, the organization published amendments to the annexes of its Chicago Convention requiring aviation professionals involved in international operations to demonstrate a specified level of English language proficiency.


According to the ICAO Annex I amendment, applicable from 5 March 2008, all aeroplane, helicopter, airship and powered lift aircraft pilots, all flight navigators who use radiotelephony equipment in aircraft and all air traffic controllers, shall attain a minimum level of proficiency in their command of the languages that they use for radio communication. A proficiency scale of 1 to 6 is specified, with Level 6 being the standard of an expert speaker of the language. ICAO Annex 1 specifies the minimum standard for the holder of a licence to be Level 4.

The ICAO Annex I Language Proficiency Ratings are presented in a dedicated SKYbrary article: English Language Proficiency Requirements

English Language Proficiency Training

In many States language proficiency training programmes are essential in ensuring that personnel achieve and maintain ICAO Operational Level 4. States should ensure, through oversight of training providers, that training is appropriate, effective and efficient. Language training programmes can be developed and delivered by using available resources of a State, air operator or air navigation service provider (ANSP), or procured from private organisations.

Language training is not a mandatory requirement in the ICAO language proficiency SARPs. However, training may be necessary for radiotelephony users who must demonstrate initial or recurrent compliance with ICAO language proficiency requirements. Concerned staff in need of this training would include:

  • speakers at levels below Operational Level 4 for whom the language is a foreign language (these users will be trained intensively with the aim to improve or raise their basic proficiency level);
  • speakers at Operational Level 4 or above for whom the language is a foreign language (these users will be trained extensively with the aim to maintain the acquired proficiency level); and
  • speakers for whom the language is a second language or native language (these users will be trained with the aim to correct or attenuate unintelligible features of their speech).

Language training initiatives by aircraft operators or ANSPs may include any or several of the following actions:

  • hiring a language instructor to provide in-house training;
  • developing training materials for use in in-house training;
  • purchasing training materials for use in in-house training;
  • purchasing a training package that includes instructors and their training materials for in-house training;
  • provide training to concerned staff at schools/colleges within the country or abroad.

Additional information on English Language Proficiency Training is included in Chapter 7 of ICAO Doc 9835 and ICAO Circular 323 Guidelines for Aviation English Training Programmes.

Operational Language Assessment

Operational language assessment is a specific term used in ICAO Doc 9835. It is the assessment of language proficiency using a procedure developed for a different purpose (for example during a flight check or ATC exam). Such assessments however must be carried out in accordance with recognised principles of language testing best practice.

It is essential that the persons responsible for language proficiency assessment (‘assessors’) are suitably trained and qualified. They should be either aviation specialists (for example current or former flight crew members or air traffic controllers), or language specialists with additional aviation related training. An alternative approach would be to form an assessment team consisting of an operational expert and a language expert.

The assessors should be trained on the specific requirements of the assessment. The assessors should not test applicants to whom they have given language training.

Additional information on Operational Language Assessment is included in Chapter 6 of ICAO Doc 9835 and ICAO Circular 323 Guidelines for Aviation English Training Programmes.

Information about generic international language testing standards can be found on the websites of a number of testing associations such as:

It is important to note that existing academic or general-purpose language tests are not appropriate for the specialized domain of aviation language testing.

Related Articles

Further Reading


For more information on the ICAO Language Proficiency Requirements consult the ICAO FSIX website: Implementation of Language Proficiency Requirements.