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CNN story on Chinese pilots and their English skills

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CNN story on Chinese pilots and their English skills

Old 6th Jul 2007, 20:53
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CNN story on Chinese pilots and their English skills

A few hours ago I watched CNN out of boredom. They ran a story about Chinese pilots and their sub-performance regarding the English language.

They aired an example from JFK where the pilots of an Air China flight completely failed to understand what ATC told them.
The clip ends with the controller saying ďNobody seems to speak English here todayĒ.

Later they interviewed a Chinese pilot who just passed the ďnewĒ English exam. They had subtitles for that one.

They presented some statistics that there are some 8000 Chinese pilots of whom approximately 600 had passed the English test. No doubt some Chinese pilots fly solely domestic flights but anyway.

Iím sure that a lot of discussions can be made about what level of English that is actually required to operate internationally and if passing these tests will guarantee an appropriate knowledge. Iíll let someone else start those threads.

My question is this;
Isnít it a requirement, and has been for many years, to take an ICAO test to get your RT license in English?
I know I had to.

Here is the link to the CNN story

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Old 6th Jul 2007, 22:30
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My feeling on this has always been that it'd end up as a good idea, sidetracked by big money.

English proficiency is an issue that affects not just the mainland Chinese carriers but many others from non-English speaking parts of the world. Imposing a minimum standard of English is without doubt a great idea with the best of intentions, but when large numbers of guys are seen to fail the standard with the expectant impact on the airline's ability to mount flight operations and consequent hit on their bottom line, you can bet that there's gonna be lots of fiddling of the test criteria/results. Especially with a major pilot shortage looming. I don't want to sound the pessimist, but that's the way i see this going.

Who knows, in 30 years if aviation ends up revolving around China or if by then they'd be producing lots of their own airplanes the way Airbus cut in on Boeing/MD in the 70s...... we might all have to take Chinese proficiency tests!!!

Only time will tell. Until then, i say CPDLC might be the way to go - eliminates awkward accents, strange local lingo........
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Old 6th Jul 2007, 22:43
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Didn't hear the bloke speak so I can't comment on him specifically, but US television seem to subtitle a lot of english speakers that I can understand perfectly.

When I go to the states (I have a reasonably clear, non-regional english accent) I quite often have to repeat myself.

I have heard that when 'The Office' is broadcast in the US that the Gareth character is subtitled due to his Bristol accent (Don't know if it is true).

Regarding the original point though, I have heard some very loang, drawn out conversations to pass a simple instruction from ATC - and I am not always confident at the end that both parties have agreed on what is going to happen.
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Old 6th Jul 2007, 23:15
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Would be nice if some American pilots flying in Europe spoke English ... or even listened out .... the air defence Jocks are so pissed off with being stood down

No slur on Americans ... it's a fact. No doubt Brits abroad do the same .... don't they ???
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Old 6th Jul 2007, 23:37
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The clip.

Typical JFK ground controllers.

There should be a billboard beside the taxiways :"Relax. They treat everybody that way." Display it in all the major languages.

If a pilot's english is marginal it's insane to keep saying, "Have you been cleared to the ramp" in a monotone. Why not, "Confirm ramp tower will clear you" or something, with at least a little upward pitch at the end.....
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Old 6th Jul 2007, 23:46
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Speak to Air China and China Eastern and countless other non-native English speakers pretty much every day I'm at work.

Speak slowly, speak clearly, keep it simple and there are no problems. Can JFK not manage that? Obviously not
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Old 7th Jul 2007, 00:11
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Chinese Pilots English

There IS a requirement to pass an English compentcy test to get a Chinese ATPL. I know because I had to do it even though I am British. The exam was produced by an Australian company and the instructions they receive during the exam have an Oz accent which is not a good start. As with all operations in a foreign language if the clearances and patter are standard then everything works out. Once you depart from that then the problems start.
English is a compulsary subject at primary school level and the standard depends on the profiency of the teacher. There are a large number of foriegn native English speakers employed by colleges whose sole job is to correct these faults and the standard of those students who put the effort in is very good.
Most of their overseas flights are to East Asian countries where there are local or western controllers who can understand Chinglish. In the Hong Kong area Chinese pilots are no better or worse than Phillipinos/Japanese/Indonesian/Korean/Indian/Portugese and the dozens of South Americans.
There is a possible scenario where the pilots in question could have got there licences before the exam was in existence. The they would be checked at company level and presumably like anywhere else a 747 crew into JFK would be fairly senior and nobody in the company is going to argue with them.
I do not have any recent experiance operating in the States but when I did I remember that a clearance would be delivered at Mach 2 in one breath.
Chinese aviation gets knocked at every oppotunity but believe me over the last decade it has improved beyond recognition. There is a staggering amount of traffic in China. Most cities have a modern airfield and terminal and in some cases they are building a second terminal building before the paint is dry on the first one. Shenzhen/Boan, the one that I am most familiar with has two massive terminal buildings and are now going to put in a second parallel runway. This is from nothing fifteen years ago.
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Old 7th Jul 2007, 01:14
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Interestingly in the CNN story, they subtitled "RKO" instead of ICAO.

An example of how much we rely on context.

These journo's not knowing enough about aviation just listened to their tapes a few times and stuck something in that sounded right with no idea what it meant.

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Old 7th Jul 2007, 05:05
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I saw the CNN segment and for sure it seems on the face of it that the Chinese pilot could not understand the instruction.
I notice - flying in China regularly that the pilots never speak to the passengers. I assumed that the Chinese procedure was 'Pilots fly - cabin crew deal with passengers'. The cabin crew often make announcements perfectly clearly in (Mandarin) Chinese / English and sometimes in Cantonese as well.
One would think that if a cabin crew can be trained to understand & speak English then a pilot can be trained to speak & understand English.
But - I have worked in the past with a lot of non-native English speakers (in business) - they often complained that native English speakers used far too many slang terms or colloquialisms - or could even comunicate in a meetng with a slight visual gesture or a verbal inflection that would render the real meaning of a discussion or action point beyond the understanding of the non native English speakers.
If we are going to have more and more none native English speaking pilots - the lessons on communication have to be learnt by both sides.

There is no point at all raising your voice and getting frustrated if someone doesn't understand what you say - but you may have to refine how you chose to say it.
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Old 7th Jul 2007, 05:36
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At the risk of repeatimg myself , a copy of a recent thread and my 2 cents worth at the time - same story I reckon ?
English / Sminglish


Go easy guys , some of the ATC in the States is ridiculous , no idea of being proactive and slowing a little for foreigners and/or those unfamiliar with certain airports infrastructure / taxiways etc. Besides , how come Americans are the arbiters of how English should ,or should not , be spoken , ( 'Gee, you have such a cute accent' - mind you , I love to hear that from American ladies !!! )
I recall being at the infamous Chicago O'Hare , some years ago now while flying the classic 74 for a certain Big Airline , all 3 crew ( including F/E ) struggled to copy taxi-clearance ( having been geed -up by my FO saying 'ready guys ? ) asked it to be repeated , only to receive yet another garbled machine-gun delivery , asked this time for 'slowly' , only to be met with ' gee you Brits sure slow things up ' !!
Less than a month later one of our 74s had to abandon take-off at the same airfield near V1 with all the expected tire / gear overheat problems associated with a RTO at MTOW , when a local 73 landed on a cross runway and was so busy trying to copy / acknowledge its taxi clearance while still engaged in the stopping scenario that they made a runway incursion - the dreaded LHSO ( 'Cleared to land and hold short operation ).
The subsequent enquiry was not pretty reading , but 'what the heck , noone got killed ! '
It is a problem with non-English speaking crews speaking English only when required to do so by ATC , and spending the rest of the flight speaking their native language to each other / cabin crew / passengers .
When suddenly confronted with a pressure-situation they can falter. Barking at them , faster and faster, and losing your cool at the same time is not helping.
CRM must be applied by ATC all over the world .After all , us natural English-speaking aviators can thank our lucky stars that the chosen language of aviation is our mother-tongue.
Imagine what it must be like for a pilot whose second ( or even 3rd ) language is English trying to make sense on a scratchy HF when even us lucky ones are struggling and asking for relays etc?
I suspect some of the protesters on this thread have never tried flying into places like Jakarta , where the controllers are also struggling with a foreign language ie English .
Perhaps the ATC unit concerned should be asked :- ' Do you think you could have handled this any better ? '
Patience is a virtue and certain controllers need to learn it - in the Western world especially , SET AN EXAMPLE.

Take care up there
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Old 7th Jul 2007, 07:48
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Here in the States, many of our operations are as if we are the (only) Aviation Center of the Universe.

Many here are probably of the opinion, well, why should we care?
ATC's job, from my experience, has always been to expedite traffic flow, but safely. If one's pride is bruised, then too bad.

Many Ppruners seem to forget, or never grasped the fundamental reality that in general, Productivity (with Results) is the American way, and that being overly methodical or academic is often viewed as a potential stumbling block.

Frontiers were settled only a few generations ago. Alaska is the last frontier (here).
Various regions of the US have slightly different cultures. Many controllers have the local accent (none on the West Coast) and attitude. To help understand the differences of ATC around New York, although this comparison is a wild exaggeration, watch part of Crocodile Dundee 2. It was on tonight. We went yesterday through La Guardia (LGA). Landed on rwy 22, took off on 13 with the 'Maspeth Climb' . On the East Coast you must be not only flexible, but 'fluid', as an FE once said.

Last edited by Ignition Override; 7th Jul 2007 at 08:00.
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Old 7th Jul 2007, 08:04
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Thumbs down

That controller is a disgrace who should be hauled in front of his superiors to explain his actions that day. If he had spoken to the Air China pilot SLOWLY and in calm voice i am sure he would have not had the problems he ended up with. As pilots speaking to foreign ATC we often speak SLOWLY to make sure we are understood so why can't Kennedy ground do the same?
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Old 7th Jul 2007, 08:31
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Chinese pilts and the English language

Some years agao, I was doing some training at a major UK training base and a Chinese crew were undergoing simulator training. Present on the flt deck was a "lady" Chinese interpreter who was theoretically only there to assist if the discussion became too technical. The crew were instructed to do an EFATO (Eng failure after take off) but continually ignored the brief. This became very exasperating for the sim crew and they looked at the "Olga Kreb" type interpreter for assistance.
She gabbled away for several minutes in high speed Chinese at the Chinese crew and then clouted the Captain around the head with the Flight Manual. She then turned to the sim crew and said "He understand now"
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Old 7th Jul 2007, 09:27
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I have to agree with emratty's comment and this one
they often complained that native English speakers used far too many slang terms or colloquialisms
The controllers at JFK are good, but their use of non standard English really sets them apart (and below, in professional terms), from the vast majority of truly excellent ATCOs at the busy UK airports, whose use of standard English and 'keeping it slow' make them a pleasure to deal with.

The only reason English is used as the international language of Aviation is that our grandfathers and fathers won WW2 and imposed it on the world in (I think it was) the Treaty of Paris, that set up ICAO.

As the influence of China grows in the world, watch the pressure grow on the 'old' world (us) to fit in with them. I suspect the problem might be mimimised, or at least lessened, in the not so distant future by greater use of datalink, even for taxying situations like in the the CNN article, which could have been short-circuited after the first to and fro is the ATCO had just reverted to standard phraseology.

In the shorter term, the US controllers need to take a serious look at themselves and maybe (MAYBE!!!!) drop the 'Noo Yawk' "yoo lookin' at me?" attitude about ten notches down the scale when dealing with foreign pilots who speak 'Aviation English' and who recognise precise, learned-by-rote phrases rather than slang and local Noo Yawk argot.
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Old 7th Jul 2007, 09:54
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I have to agree that the controller could have helped those guys out, ground control show very little patience and can be deliberately rude at times even to native English speakers,anyway can't fight the JFK system but I do feel the controller would benefit from a course in anger management!
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Old 7th Jul 2007, 09:54
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While I agree with the requirement for English proficiency for all "international" pilots, I also believe that there should be testing for all English speakers to confirm their understanding of standard phraseology. Sadly, if this were enacted, I suspect many North American controllers and pilots would struggle to pass the test, with the US controllers being the worst performers by far.
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Old 7th Jul 2007, 10:04
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JFK ground control tape for your listening enjoyment. Youse guys have a problem with dis? You talkin' to me?
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Old 7th Jul 2007, 10:08
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Sure, the controller could have spoken slower and maybe he wouldnít have had to get upset either. However at the same time you all know the frustration you yourselves feel when you desperately want to get your own transmission through but some stumbling guy like this one is taking up all the space and time.

Iím sure that the controller feels this too. Heís got plenty more movements to track than just you and me so I can fully understand his feelings when something like this happens.

Furthermore I think you Britons for some reason get more upset by an American that doesnít speak British than a Spanish or French that doesnít speak English.

You might miss one or two messages in the US but Iím convinced that more confusion and misunderstandings are created within French or Spanish airspace when most of the time they donít speak English at all.
The US controllers are speaking in the clearest and most direct way they know how, it might not be ďRKOĒ language but that infraction of standards is one of the smaller ones when comparing with other parts of the world.

What I react to though is this poor guy who canít form anything resembling a complete sentence and heís supposedly just passed the exam.
When you combine this with the Chinese way of never wanting to be wrong, I.e. never challenging a question, youíve got a nasty recipe.

Donít bash the controller for this incident. It was caused quite simply because the Chinese pilots English was inadequate. In fact you might say that he doesnít speak the language at all, he has a phrasebook where some of the pages are more worn than others.
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Old 7th Jul 2007, 10:21
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She gabbled away for several minutes in high speed Chinese at the Chinese crew and then clouted the Captain around the head with the Flight Manual. She then turned to the sim crew and said "He understand now"
I didn't know my wife worked in a simulator.....
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Old 7th Jul 2007, 16:33
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If you listen carefully,the Air China pilots had twice mention wrong airline names.Once he said Xiamen 981 and another time said Goangdong 981.These are local airlines.My guess is both of these pilots join Air China not too long ago.
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