What Did He Say ?

What Did He Say ?

Brian DAY
ICAO JOURNAL Issue 3/2002

Safe Voice Radio Communications

     As States have different circumstances and needs, the ICAO study group preferred that States have the option of using a prepared test or developing their own. To facilitate the development of language proficiency testing systems, guidance material will be developed by ICAO. Other aspects to be covered by the planned guidance material include the optimal use of the language proficiency rating scale and the development of efficient and effective aviation language training programmes. Guidance will stress such important adjunctive aspects as adherence to ICAO phraseology and disciplined radiotelephony techniques, and education in basic linguistic principles, including cross-cultural communication.
The efforts of the study group are just a beginning. The improvement of radiotelephony communications to a higher level of safety is no small matter, and requires widespread cooperation and continuing, concerted effort, particularly from practicing controllers and flight crew. In particular, it is vital that both native and non-native speakers conform more closely to existing ICAO provisions, especially to the ICAO standardized phraseology so carefully and painstakingly developed over the last 50 years. The communication of air traffic clearances and operational information is critical and requires both accuracy of content and careful, precise delivery. Language, however, is not ideally suited to transmission of exact information because it is fundamentally symbolic — that is, its words and phrases are representative of the objects and concepts described. This characteristic of language becomes particularly problematic when communication involves non-native speakers. Understanding this principle, and why, therefore, conformity with standardized phraseology is so important, is essential.
A semantic barrier exists in all language exchanges that can seriously compromise the communication process. Not all listeners take the same meaning from the use of a word, phrase or expression because people filter words through different belief systems, knowledge, cultural acquaintances and life experiences. Word meanings, therefore, are subjective. It is helpful, in coming to terms with the inexactitude of language, to reflect on some outcomes of words being no more than representations of the things they describe. Not being the things themselves, words may mean — and frequently do mean — different things to the speaker and the listener. Presumably, no pilot would misunderstand a tower directive to “clear the runway”. If, however, this transmission were heard by a snow plough operator monitoring the frequency, an altogether different activity to that expected might occur (ICAO standardized phraseology is “vacate the runway”).
     Communication is most understood to be a means of reference to an object, but communication also conveys a strong sense of relationship. Studies have shown communication to be very sensitive to social rank (and the perception of rank to be much influenced by communication).  Communication that is sensitive in this regard facilitates smooth interaction between crews and between controllers. Communication that is not so sensitive may be less effective.
The manner in which the aircraft commander exerts authority on the flight deck will greatly influence the flow and coherency of flight deck communication. If the commander is overbearing or dictatorial or, alternatively, allows the command function to be blurred, inferential elements of communication may be inappropriate and overall communication impaired. Care needs to be taken in establishing, then observing, what is known as the “trans-cockpit authority gradient” while ensuring that the operational integrity of cockpit dialogue is in no way compromised. Similarly, air traffic control (ATC) centres have their own staff authority profiles, and communication between controllers within the centres is affected by it. While crews and controllers need to be mindful of the authority gradients within their respective workplaces and the reciprocal impact of internal communication and rank, still greater difficulties may arise in radiotelephony conducted between them. This is because the authority gradient between controllers and pilots is neither as clearly defined nor as constant in all situations as within either the cockpit or the control room.
It is well known that teamwork among operational personnel depends on positive relationships. More particularly in this context, building effective teams requires an appreciation of how timing, phrasing, intonation and non-verbal aspects of communication influence group dynamics. It is scarcely surprising that when the job becomes stressful and, say, fatigue intrudes or some concerns arise about unserviceable equipment or the effect of worsening weather, radiotelephony communication may not always reflect intent. When communication is degraded, overall efficiency declines.
Message content is not the only means of conveying sense in communication. Because language is a semiotic system (i.e. a set of representative symbols) it is able to convey various meanings at different levels and times. Consider, for example, how interpersonal exchanges can be influenced by mood. The speech delivery of an individual riding high on confidence can be smooth and articulate. By way of contrast, strongly negative attitudes and emotions can result in ineffective communication.
     Radio message exchange is hampered by being devoid of many communication prompts. In face-to-face communication, body language speaks volumes. According to studies, body language conveys about 55 percent of message significance, words themselves only 7 percent. Tone of voice accounts for the other 38 percent. Radio communication, of course, is devoid of body language and electronically modulated voices rob speech of expression.
Consider how an established context can lend interpretation to messages. Predisposition, expectation and anticipation can add to, take away from, and distort the intention of the speaker. Many pilots will have had the conditioning experience of being repeatedly cleared to a certain flight level at a descent point along a certain route, only, once again, to “hear” an anticipated clearance when, in reality, the controller has assigned a different route or level. Similarly, many air traffic controllers will have experienced “hearing” the readback of an expected flight level only to realize on tape playback that in fact the pilot read back a different level altogether. Such idiosyncracies of communication cause daily misunderstandings in casual conversations and business transactions. The results are variously amusing, embarrassing and, sometimes, costly. In the context of aviation radiotelephony, however, they are a threat to safety. In urgent circumstances, or when the communicants are suffering from fatigue or other impairments, the results can be deadly.  Flight crews and controllers alike need to be meticulous in formulating messages and, no less, in “reading-back” and “hearing-back”.
There is another linguistic phenomenon that needs to be understood. This has to do with the difficulty implicit in communication in a non-native language, a phenomenon known as “code switching.” This resembles the well-known Freudian slip, an uncontrolled moment of verbal expression never consciously intended. When under stress and communicating in a non-native language, speakers tend to revert to their native language. It takes a high level of proficiency or strong self-discipline to continue speech in a non-native language when under stress, but even then something of a reversion to native language may occur in grammatical construction. The outcome of such “code switching”, which may be difficult to recognize, can be confusion and contradiction. Worse, the statement may make perfect sense to the listener but may not reflect the meaning intended.
Enunciating the words of a second language and putting them in proper grammatical context is a challenge in everyday conversation. It is much more difficult for foreign flight crews to conduct English communication when under pressure, especially in an emergency. This difficulty can lead to miscommunication and compromise safety. In cross-cultural communication, even if conducted in a single language, there is a critical need to guard against confusion by being scrupulous in observing standard phraseology and proper radiotelephony techniques.
     That said, studies of pilot and controller communications reveal an astonishingly low rate of error. Analysis of voice tapes reveals that less than 1 percent of communications are compromised by inaccuracy. This low error rate is a tribute to today’s pilots and controllers, all the more so when congestion on the frequency puts orderly radio management practices under severe pressure. No doubt this remarkable efficiency is attributable to high levels of knowledge, skill and care. Still, the degree of conformity with standard phraseology can stand improvement – and should be improved. Sometimes, especially among local operators, there is a level of familiarity that presumes idiomatic comprehension. While such exchanges may heighten camaraderie between the participants, non-standardized and careless communication inevitably denigrates situational awareness among other users on the frequency.  In an increasingly global aviation environment, these “feel good” indulgences must be curtailed.
The problem of careless communication can be addressed at little expense in funds and time. The optimum strategy is not to prescribe regulations or threaten operational personnel with disciplinary action; rather, it is to appeal to the innate responsibility of every controller and pilot. This is probably best done by impressing on all the simple truth that language is an imperfect medium which lends itself to sensible misinterpretation (i.e. the wrong meaning is easily conveyed while the transmission retains perfectly good sense). It is for this reason that air-ground communications require the utmost care and discipline.
In communicating this message to both non-native and native English speakers, the cooperation of airlines and State authorities is needed. With an understanding of basic linguistic principles, radiotelephony users can be motivated to adhere more closely to standard phraseology and, when this is not possible, to take special care with enunciation, intonation, vocabulary and message content. Thus, colloquialisms will be curtailed and the efforts being made to establish mandatory levels of language proficiency will be matched by a heightened mindfulness in communicating.  This, overall, will not take up more frequency time; it will save it.  There will be fewer instances of controllers and pilots seeking message confirmations, and, more to the point, there will be fewer incidents and accidents if they do not.