Part 2. From Scratch – How to Boost English Skills to Hit ICAO Level 4

Luckily, ICAO has defined the requirements for candidates at each level. Thus you can clearly picture the final result you should achieve. And the scary global goal of ‘mastering English’ boils down to clear, understandable and absolutely achievable tasks. All we need then is to go through these requirements and identify the interim stages on our way towards this goal.

Let’s assume level 4 is our final destination. The ICAO language proficiency rating scale is no top secret of course. You can find it in Doc 9835 (which I will refer to every now and then), or any Aviation English related text book or website.

It’s 6 x 6: six levels and six descriptors. The latter means a parameter that can get a more or less unbiased assessment (the examiner can measure and grade it). They are three skills: pronunciation, structures (grammar) and vocabulary. And three competences: fluency, comprehension and interactions. You can see there is no reading or writing, everything is designed to target speaking only. In this blog I will go through requirements for each of the descriptors in detail and will provide you with recommendations and techniques to boost these skills.

When I say ‘boost’, it’s not even a metaphor. No more living in a fantasy world! Because what you do here is not ‘studying’ a language (that’s something professional linguists do at universities). What you will be asked to do is to work out particular ‘muscles’.

And I’m going to compare all this with sports once again, because much will depend on your initial ‘physical’ condition, i.e. your basic level of English. I’m often asked a question: Is it possible to start learning Aviation English from scratch? or How do I get ready for the test if my level of English is below zero? For a teacher it sounds like “Can I get qualified for Olympics right away without all that P.E. stuff?” or “Can I skip initial training and get to the B737 FFS right away?”. Well, hypothetically yes, but strange as it may seem, we don’t see much of this happening in real life.

Let’s define Aviation English. It’s a certain amount of job-specific vocabulary and speech patterns required for professional communication – to be more specific, for efficient communication in non-routine situations that may arise during flight or ground operations. That is – Aviation English is tightly related to certain communication scenarios. So by the time you start simulating, or role-playing these scenarios, you should be able to understand (by ear) and speak fairly well.

Is there some specific aviation grammar? In a broad sense yes, but in technical aviation texts only, and we will intentionally exclude this aspect for now. Aviation English implies common ‘everyday’ English grammar. Any aviation English textbook you can find (I’ll review them later on in this blog) start from Level 3 which equals approximately to A2/В1 (advanced Pre-Intermediate).

Besides, Doc 9835 lists plain English domains you should be good at. Here they are:

  • Transport, travel, vehicles
  • Countries and nationalities
  • Geography, topographical features
  • Weather, climate, natural disasters
  • Animals, birds
  • Problems, errors, accidents, malfunctions
  • Behavior, activities
  • Rules, infringement, protocol
  • Health, medicine
  • Language, spoken communications
  • Technology
  • Cargo, packaging, materials
  • Numbers
  • Abbreviations, acronyms
  • Time, duration, schedules
  • Space, movement, position, distance, dimension
  • Modality (obligation, probability, possibility)
  • Causes, conditions

If you choose to attend some ‘aviation English courses from zero to hero’, you’d probably be offered a company textbook but I can assure you that it will be 90% plain English with glimpses of aviation English. I’m not criticizing this approach at all. But if you don’t have this opportunity, use every single chance to study plain English – it won’t do you harm and deliver benefits instead.

CONCLUSION: there is much more sense in approaching aviation English when your speaking skills (pronunciation, use of structures, vocabulary, as well as listening comprehension) are developed enough to allow you to focus on using them and further boosting them in aviation context. Here is a sports analogy again: there is no point in drilling spins and spirals for your ice skating program if you cannot make even a few meters on skates.

Roughly, you are ready for aviation English if you:

  • have mastered (understand and use) basic grammar structures,
  • can read and write,
  • can talk on general topics (albeit not very fluently),
  • can keep a conversation (dialog) going,
  • can retell a text (a video) using your own words,
  • can understand adapted speech by ear.

Home Assignment: do self-assessment of your skills (probably take online tests) and find out how ready you are for Aviation English.

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