ICAO English Proficiency

As global airspace becomes more crowded, precise understanding and communication between pilots and air traffic controllers vital. In 2001 The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) wrote a list of standard phrases that should be used when talking over the airways and in 2008 mandated a required level of English for all flight crew and air traffic controllers.

ICAO’s Language Proficiency Rating Scale sets out the language required for each of the six levels:

  • Level 1 – Pre-Elementary
  • Level 2 – Elementary
  • Level 3 – Pre-Operational
  • Level 4 – Operational (minimum for PPL, CPL or ATPL – retest in 3 years)
  • Level 5 – Extended (retest in 6 years)
  • Level 6 – Expert (no further retest required)

 

Even native speakers must be assessed.

Poor English causes accidents

The 1996 Charkhi Dadri mid-air collision killed 349 people, and was blamed on poor English comprehension.

ICAO Level 3: Pre-Operational

Pronunciation: Pronunciation, stress, rhythm, and intonation are influenced by the first language or regional variation and frequently interfere with ease of understanding.

Structure: Basic grammatical structures and sentence patterns associated with predictable situations are not always well controlled.  Errors frequently interfere with meaning.

Vocabulary: Vocabulary range and accuracy are often sufficient to communicate on common, concrete, or work-related topics, but range is limited and the word choice often inappropriate.  Is often unable to paraphrase successfully when lacking vocabulary.

Fluency: Produces stretches of language, but phrasing and pausing are often inappropriate.  Hesitations or slowness in language processing may prevent effective communication.  Fillers are sometimes distracting.

Comprehension: Comprehension is often accurate on common, concrete, and work-related topics when the accent or variety used is sufficiently intelligible for an international community of users.  May fail to understand a linguistic or situational complication or an unexpected turn of events.

Interactions: Responses are sometimes immediate, appropriate, and informative.  Can initiate and maintain exchanges with reasonable ease on familiar topics and in predictable situations.  Generally inadequate when dealing with an unexpected turn of events.

ICAO Level 4: Operational

Required minimum for licensing purposes

Retested every 3 years

Pronunciation: Pronunciation, stress, rhythm, and intonation are influenced by the first language or regional variation but only sometimes interfere with ease of understanding.

Structure: Basic grammatical structures and sentence patterns are used creatively and are usually well controlled.  Errors may occur, particularly in unusual or unexpected circumstances, but rarely interfere with meaning.

Vocabulary: Vocabulary range and accuracy are usually sufficient to communicate effectively on common, concrete, and work-related topics.  Can often paraphrase successfully when lacking vocabulary in unusual or unexpected circumstances.

Fluency: Produces stretches of language at an appropriate tempo.  There may be occasional loss of fluency on transition from rehearsed or formulaic speech to spontaneous interaction, but this does not prevent effective communication.  Can make limited use of discourse markers or connectors.  Fillers are not distracting.

Comprehension: Comprehension is mostly accurate on common, concrete, and work-related topics when the accent or variety used is sufficiently intelligible for an international community of users.  When the speaker is confronted with a linguistic or situational complication or an unexpected turn of events, comprehension may be slower or require clarification strategies.

Interactions: Responses are usually immediate, appropriate, and informative.  Initiates and maintains exchanges even when dealing with an unexpected turn of events.  Deals adequately with apparent misunderstandings by checking, confirming, or clarifying.

ICAO Level 5: Extended

Retested every 6 years

Pronunciation: Pronunciation, stress, rhythm, and intonation, though influenced by the first language or regional variation, rarely interfere with ease of understanding

Structure: Basic grammatical structures and sentence patterns are consistently well controlled.  Complex structures are attempted but with errors which sometimes interfere with meaning.

Vocabulary: Vocabulary range and accuracy are sufficient to communicate effectively on common, concrete, and work-related topics.  Paraphrases consistently and successfully.  Vocabulary is sometimes idiomatic.

Fluency: Able to speak at length with relative ease on familiar topics but may not vary speech flow as a stylistic device.  Can make use of appropriate discourse markers or connectors.

Comprehension: Comprehension is accurate on common, concrete, and work-related topics and mostly accurate when the speaker is confronted with a linguistic or situational complication or an unexpected turn of events.  Can comprehend a range of speech varieties (dialect and/or accent) or registers.

Interactions: Responses are immediate, appropriate, and informative.  Manages the speaker/listener relationship effectively.

ICAO Level 6: Expert

No retest required

Pronunciation: Pronunciation, stress, rhythm, and intonation, though possibly influenced by the first language or regional variation, almost never interfere with ease of understanding.

Structure: Both basic and complex grammatical structures and sentence patterns are consistently well controlled.

Vocabulary: Vocabulary range and accuracy are sufficient to communicate effectively on a wide variety of familiar and unfamiliar topics.  Vocabulary is idiomatic, nuanced, and sensitive to register.

Fluency: Able to speak at length with a natural, effortless flow.  Varies speech flow for stylistic effect, e.g. to emphasize a point.  Uses appropriate discourse markers and connectors spontaneously.

Comprehension: Comprehension is consistently accurate in nearly all contexts and includes comprehension of linguistic and cultural subtleties.

Interactions: Interacts with ease in nearly all situations.  Is sensitive to verbal and non-verbal cues and responds to them appropriately.

Retesting

Level 4 is the minimum for a license holder. You must be re-assessed in three years’ time if you have Level 4 or six years’ time if you have Level 5. If you are assessed at Level 6 you do not need to be reassessed in the future.