English has long been the common language of aviation. Pilots and air traffic controllers of varying nationalities have been required to communicate using english. Previously it was up to each country to create their own standard of aviation english. However, these standards often vary and as a result miscommunication in the english language has contributed to many aviation accidents. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) created an international standard for language proficiency requirements including a rating scale to measure the level of english proficiency. Of this scale, ICAO level of 4 or higher was officially recognized as being english proficient in aviation.
ICAO set an initial deadline for 2008 for pilots and air traffic controllers to achieve the minimum english proficiency of ICAO level 4. Many countries were not able to meet the deadline so an extension was given until 2011.
The purpose of an international standard of english is to enhance global aviation safety
These english standards are generally accepted by ICAO member countries around the world. However, each country may set their own english standards beyond what was set by ICAO.
Who should take the ICAO english test
Anyone can take the ICAO english test but pilots and air traffic controllers involved in international flight operations must achieve at east level 4 of english proficiency. Even pilots who fly between two non english speaking countries must first pass the ICAO english test.
The ICAO english test measures the ability to speak and understand english in an aviation environment (reading english is not required). This includes how well one can efficiently communicate routine and non routine situations both face to face and over the radio. In particular the test measures the following:
- Comprehension – to be able to understand english through various accents and dialects.
- Communication – to communicate information clearly and effectively particularly during emergency situations.
- Radio communications – communication over the radio can be very different than speaking in person. Proper radio communication skills require the use of standard phraseology. It also requires the ability to understand distorted english created by radio interference.
ICAO rating scale
During the test the examiner evaluates the applicant based on the following areas:
- Pronunciation – to speak english with a dialect or accent that is easy for the listener to understand.
- Structure – grammatical structures and sentence patterns.
- Vocabulary – the speak accurately and efficiently using the correct words.
- Fluency – the continuous flow and rhythm of speech.
- Comprehension – to understand and make sense of what is heard.
- Interactions – how well one responds in a conversation. This may include checking, clarifying or confirming information if necessary.
Each category is graded on a scale between 1-6 (1 is the lowest, high is the proficient). The lowest score determines the final ICAO english rating. For example, an applicant may be scored 4 for every category except comprehension where the score was 3. As a result, the applicant will receive a final rating of 3.The international standard to be english proficient is level 4 or higher.
To achieve ICAO level 4 you must score at least 4 in EVERY category
Those who have ICAO english level 4 must retake the exam every three years while those with ICAO english level have up to 5 years to be reassessed. Achieving ICAO english level 6 is considered an expert level and therefore does not require a reassessment.
What to expect on the ICAO english test
I wrote more about this on a separate post. The way the ICAO english test is conducted varies with each country’s controlling aviation authority. A test used in one country may be completely different than a test given in another. Although the tests may vary, the standards that are measured are nearly identical in order to comply with english standards according to ICAO.
The test is normally conducted on a one by one basis between the applicant and examiner. The test is usually broken down into the following sections:
- Questions – the examiner may ask questions about the applicant’s career including work related topics. These questions may include:
- Why did you decide to become a pilot?
- What is your favorite type of airplane to fly?
- Describe your first solo flight
- Listen/respond – this is a role playing scenario where the applicant listens to an audio recording. He or she must describe what the audio clip is about and provide proper responses to the scenario.
- Photo descriptions – Multiple aviation related photos will be presented for the applicant to describe. These photos may depict a routine situation or an emergency situation.
As stated before, the standards for aviation english proficiency are nearly identical around the world yet the tests may vary. The purpose of this guide is to help present a basic idea of the ICAO english standards. Have you taken the ICAO english test? What was your experience?