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ATC spoken language questions

Filbert13

New member
Hello, I wanted to ask a few questions about spoken languages and and communication with ATC.

Is there a standard Language for ATC such as English? If not, how do you communicate with a ATC tower when entering a country which you do not understand the language, are there standard terms accord languages.

Finally are they are significant differences between ATCs of different countries such as terms or format of communication. If so could you provide a couple examples.
 

Cobalt_Pilot

New member
If they are an airport/country that is part of ICAO (international civil aviation authority), I believe English is the required language. Though, you’ll probably have German or French being spoken in some of the smaller airports around Germany, France etc. If you do fly international for a profession, it would never hurt to learn some of the language enough so here are no misunderstandings.
 

RobertGary1

Active member
ICAO specifies specific terminology. Although it sounds like ATC and pilots are just talking we're actually usually just saying the same few things all the time. The phrasing of those things are documented. Whenever there is an accident the investigation is usually very critical of ATC if they use non-standard terms, especially with foreign pilots.

When flying in a non-English speaking country ATC speaks in which ever language the pilot calls up in. So when I'm in Mexico if I make my call up in Spanish all my communication will be in Spanish. But the controller is required to "speak" English as well. But remember he's "Speaking" ICAO phrases so you may not be able to have a discussion of philosophy with him.

It is a bit disconcerting as a pilot though because we do lose a lot of situational awareness because we can't understand what ATC is telling other pilots. If you fly into the same countries a lot its not bad to have an elementary understanding of that language just so you can sort of understand what other pilots are being told around you.

-Robert
 
ICAO official languages are:

English
Spanish
Chinese
French
Arabic
Russian

However English knowledge is required throughout all the world‘s airspace. For example I have crossed Haitian airspace many times, while French is spoken there (and sometimes I greet controllers in French) all communications are done in English and have never listened anybody speaking French in that airspace).

German is a non ICAO language. Having lived there and listened to some ATC , everybody uses English, except for local airstrips and airclubs where German may be used but only in the CTAF.

I’m Mexican and we are specially used to be switching languages when entering US airspace. It also works the opposite way since quite a lot of English speaking traffic crosses our airspace and it is not uncommon to listen to American,Australian, British, German, Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Middle Eastern accents in our frequencies, besides the usual Spanish regional accents.

I have landed too in PVG (Shanghai Pudong) while listening to ATC giving vectors to a lot of foreign carriers while at the same time giving instructions in Chinese to the locals. It was quite a blast!
 

affinity4aviation

Active member
ICAO specifies specific terminology. Although it sounds like ATC and pilots are just talking we're actually usually just saying the same few things all the time. The phrasing of those things are documented. Whenever there is an accident the investigation is usually very critical of ATC if they use non-standard terms, especially with foreign pilots.

When flying in a non-English speaking country ATC speaks in which ever language the pilot calls up in. So when I'm in Mexico if I make my call up in Spanish all my communication will be in Spanish. But the controller is required to "speak" English as well. But remember he's "Speaking" ICAO phrases so you may not be able to have a discussion of philosophy with him.

It is a bit disconcerting as a pilot though because we do lose a lot of situational awareness because we can't understand what ATC is telling other pilots. If you fly into the same countries a lot its not bad to have an elementary understanding of that language just so you can sort of understand what other pilots are being told around you.

-Robert
Interesting comment re situational awareness, a theme repeated here. I'm surprised there isn't basic required language training for American commercial pilots. Aviation English is required, yet it might behoove American pilots who fly int'l, to have rudimentary language skills for situational awareness + for basic conversation, from comments here.
 
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321Captain

Well-known member
For international airlines, the language is English. I have heard the local language being used between local ATC and local traffic, but regardless of the country, I have always heard English spoken to airliners. In Narita, Japan for instance, I will hear ANA or JAL get cleared for the approach, or cleared to land in English, and hear the response from those Japanese pilots in English. Two seconds later, I will hear the same controller give instructions to a local civil aviation airplane in Japanese. The same thing when landing in Paris or Frankfurt. It would be nice to have the added situational awareness that would come from understanding those transmissions, but a lot of the time they aren’t really all that important for you. They could be instructions to a tug driver moving between hangars, or an airplane not anywhere in conflict with you. It’s a big world, and there are a lot of languages. I’m just happy that Chinese or Russian aren’t the international languages of aviation, and I appreciate that the natural speakers of those languages learned to speak English. If that didn’t happen, I would be driving a bus in Peoria or Sheboygan.
 

affinity4aviation

Active member
Capt. Petter of Mentour + Capt. Joe both speak exceptional English, altho their first languages were Swedish + German respectively. I'm curious what languages Kelsey has picked up. It's amazing that pilots, esp. certain foreign ones who may not speak English much except when flying, understand the ATC when they speak quickly when it's busy, (ORD).
I noticed how fast Kelsey spoke to the tower, when he was teaching Stella; second nature, but to a non-pilot it's impressive.
 
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affinity4aviation

Active member
If they are an airport/country that is part of ICAO (international civil aviation authority), I believe English is the required language. Though, you’ll probably have German or French being spoken in some of the smaller airports around Germany, France etc. If you do fly international for a profession, it would never hurt to learn some of the language enough so here are no misunderstandings.
Berlitz School of Language has great language CD's. I've always wondered if many commercial pilots use them to learn a little of a language(s) if they fly a lot internationally.
 
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321Captain

Well-known member
Kelsey may speak another language, I have no idea. I tried to learn to speak French after traveling there on a bunch of trips, and I went full out. I paid for Rosetta Stone, and completed the whole thing. I bought a subscription to Babel to go along with it because sometimes you need to understand why you are saying something rather than just looking at pictures and trying to figure it out for yourself. I got to the point where I could full on read a book that was written in French, but I could not understand someone speaking to me unless they slowed wayyyyyyyyy down. I guess that to be completely fluent, you need to live with people that are only speaking the language that you are trying to learn. It kind of becomes a necessity rather than a luxury. You also need to get past the translating step. You can’t hear it, translate it into English, and then think of your reply, translate it and speak in French or whatever language you are learning. To be fluent, you need to hear it in the language being spoken to you, and understand in from what they are saying to you in that language. Am I right? I know that some of you on this forum speak and write in English as a second language. By the way, I wanted to learn French, not for tourism and street signs, but because I met and dated a French girl on some of my layovers 😬
 

MsHighAltitude

Administrator
Staff member
Oh là là what people do for love haha. Kelsey did an IG story in Spanish once so I guess he speaks Spanish? I've heard you are considered pretty fluent if you dream in that language.

To be fluent, you need to hear it in the language being spoken to you, and understand in from what they are saying to you in that language. Am I right?
100% correct.
 

321Captain

Well-known member
Capt. Petter of Mentour Pilot + Capt. Joe both speak exceptional English, altho their first languages were Swedish + German respectively. I'm curious what languages Kelsey has picked up on a bit from flying, or if he knows a second language. It's amazing that pilots, esp. certain foreign ones who may not speak English much except when flying, understand the ATC when they speak extremely quickly when it's busy, (ORD), + the both of you are multi-tasking.
I noticed how fast Kelsey spoke to the tower, when he was teaching Stella to fly. You must get used to it quickly + then it seems normal!
ATC is it’s own language. For the most part, we are all fluent in it. The main thing is that it is situational. If you just jump into a conversation between ATC and someone else, it can be super confusing if you don’t know what the context is. When everyone is listening, on the same page, like we are all being vectored onto an ILS, and aware of the traffic constraints, it’s not too hard to keep up. We have TCAS, so we can pretty much see who is in front of us, and by looking at the altitude difference between your airplane and the guy in front of you, you know how far you are behind him. 300 feet per mile with a 3 degree glideslope. If you are 900 feet above him, he is 3 miles in front of you. ATC will let you know if he is a heavy, and they will slow you up if they need additional separation. It all works pretty well if everyone does what they are being told what to do. I’ve read a lot of the comments on Kelsey’s Sunday videos, and the ones about ATC from non pilots usually talk about how the comms from ATC are super fast and difficult to understand. I think most of the pilots on here who have listened to those same comms understood exactly what was being said.
 

MsHighAltitude

Administrator
Staff member
After a while you more or less know what ATC is going to say, like clearing you for an approach or handing you to the next frequency, so it gets easier.
 

Zeede

Administrator
Staff member
ATC is it’s own language. ... I think most of the pilots on here who have listened to those same comms understood exactly what was being said.
I totally agree.

After a while you more or less know what ATC is going to say, like clearing you for an approach or handing you to the next frequency, so it gets easier.
Heh, this brings me to my pet peeve which is non-native English speakers who should not have gotten the "Speaks English" requirement checked off. As the parents of immigrants I *REALLY* get pissed when there are pilots on SoCal Approach who speak barely comprehensible English. There was one Japanese helicopter student at KREI that was completely incomprehensible.

With so many family members who do not speak English as a native I know that it is extremely easy to "parrot" ATC calls and make it seem like you know what you're being told to do, when in fact, you probably only understand half of what was said to you. It's SO UNSAFE.
 

MsHighAltitude

Administrator
Staff member
A lot of them are not immigrants but foreign students who came to SoCal for training. Some can barely hold a simple conversation in English and just want to get through as fast as they can so like @Zeede said, they "parrot" off their instructors and ATC. The others know English is not their forte but they try really hard, albeit they tend to take up a lot of air time because they don't speak as fast. The former, well, I guess turns into the likes of KAL085 SUPER and CAO1056 HEAVY. The latter group I have a lot of respect for. Imagine having to communicate in the air in any of the other five ICAO languages as a non-native speaker. Heck, I can't even do it in Chinese as a native speaker.
 

Sonerai

Active member
What do you call a person who speaks 3 languages? Trilingual. What do you call a person who speaks 2 languages? Bilingual. What do you call a person who speaks one language? An American
 

affinity4aviation

Active member
321Captain: Good for you for your practical language work + what superb incentive! Lucky her! Your astute comment re dropping the translating is exactly what I felt, + being immersed in the language works wonders.
Learned 4 languages that way to 'survive' in school. My Norwegian dads employer sent our family to Berlitz for Danish for 3 mo. prior to moving to DK. They mostly speak Danish; it teaches you to stop translating ea. word + listen. Was thrown into Danish + Swedish schools, sink or swim. Not thinking about tenses + easing off translating helps. Did you find that the key to making it easier is, to first learn how to pronounce ea. letter in their alphabet? I learned French living immersed; much easier than taking classes. U learn quicky when you have no choice! A beautiful place to use your French is Leysin, Switz., 1+1/2 hr. via land from GVA; a language learning hub.
 
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affinity4aviation

Active member
ATC is it’s own language. For the most part, we are all fluent in it. The main thing is that it is situational. If you just jump into a conversation between ATC and someone else, it can be super confusing if you don’t know what the context is. When everyone is listening, on the same page, like we are all being vectored onto an ILS, and aware of the traffic constraints, it’s not too hard to keep up. We have TCAS, so we can pretty much see who is in front of us, and by looking at the altitude difference between your airplane and the guy in front of you, you know how far you are behind him. 300 feet per mile with a 3 degree glideslope. If you are 900 feet above him, he is 3 miles in front of you. ATC will let you know if he is a heavy, and they will slow you up if they need additional separation. It all works pretty well if everyone does what they are being told what to do. I’ve read a lot of the comments on Kelsey’s Sunday videos, and the ones about ATC from non pilots usually talk about how the comms from ATC are super fast and difficult to understand. I think most of the pilots on here who have listened to those same comms understood exactly what was being said.
I'm not a pilot + talking via radio sounds different. Your routine anticipates what many transmissions will be regarding. Some foreign pilots are difficult to comprehend + need repetition. It was concerning to hear that it's caused crashes. English proficiency exam has things that aren't covered? Proficiency is ambiguous. ATC's aren't translators. Why would any airline schedule pilots internationally if they lack the basic command of aviation English? Perhaps some lack proper emergency training + they get overwhelmed + can't say what they need in English, like the Columbian pilots who ran out of fuel.
 
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affinity4aviation

Active member
What do you call a person who speaks 3 languages? Trilingual. What do you call a person who speaks 2 languages? Bilingual. What do you call a person who speaks one language? An American
Exactly! In Denmark at age 12 the kids at my school spoke: Danish, English, German + French.
 
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