With the introduction of the ICAO language proficiency requirements, it seems that the onus for safeguarding successful communication seems to be on the non-native speaker. In many cases, they are tested and taught how to approximate to inner-circle native speaker norms. This is particularly evident when, very frustratingly and indeed somewhat worryingly, language institutions boast of their repertoire of ‘native English-speaking teachers’ giving Aviation English courses.

The vast majority of aeronautical radiotelephonic interactions, for which I do not have definitive figures, are between speakers of whom English is not their first language, in other words, a lingua-franca. I won’t go into too much detail into what that it but this is a very complex area. Suffice it to say, however, these interactions are qualitatively different from the interactions which take place between native speakers.

When NNS engage with NNS in English, either in an aeronautical or non-aeronautical context, they come to the speech event with their own language ability, their own cultural expectations, their own first language interference and a host of other unique dimensions. These interactions are “deterritorialised speech events” (Seidlehofer, 2011) not tied to any one specific culture and so are very “hybrid in nature” (Jenkins, 2001). Native speakers take so much for granted: connected speech, language structures and even lexis (and a lot lot more). This puts us at a disadvantage as these features of native English speech are particularly problematic to non-native speakers of lower levels of proficiency.

NS are in the minority and so, it can be argued that it is as incumbent on the NS as it is the NNS to meet the NS part-way in safeguarding successful communication. It would appear, from the evidence and the literature, that there is a need to native speaking pilots and air traffic controllers to undergo training in order to learn how to accommodate their non-native English-speaking interlocutors in order to safeguard communication and mitigate against possible accidents.

being a native speaker puts us at a distinct disadvantage

I know this certainty is not new but I am conducting PhD research in pursuit of this endeavour in order to put this through the rigour of an academic framework and produce a tangible gain of a 1-day course in metalinguistic awareness and communication accommodation strategies. The first part of the data collection process has begun. Please feel free to send me a personal message if you are interested in discussing this very interesting area, I would love to hear your views.

If you are a pilot, air traffic controller or ground crew member who uses English to speak over the radio then please take a moment to take my survey: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/KLZ3B2T

Many thanks to Pieke Satijn for prompting me to write this.


Jenkins, J., 2001. The Phonology of English as an International Language. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Seidlhofer, B., 2011. Understanding English as a Lingua Franca. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.