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Primary domain


Secondary domain



Although English may the international language of aviation, even when pilots and controllers both speak English fluently, there are pitfalls in the nature of language and the ways that language is heard. For instance, if a listener can see a speaker as they talk, they might hear something completely different than if they just heard the speaker’s voice, due to the thalamus integrating more sensory data at once. New modalities of communication beyond voice-com, including CPDLC, could further affect linguistic processing, especially among bilingual speakers.

Neurolinguistics could prove important in analyzing the effects of language processing on aviation. For instance, a study of accents showed that listeners processed more heavily accented English words differently, with higher phonological mapping negativity – a negative deflection in Event-Related Potential triggered at about 250-325 ms after firing – corresponding to greater accent. This suggests greater processing difficulty for these words.

The relevance of neurolinguistics could extend beyond miscommunication. Bilingual individuals have demonstrated, in some studies, a greater proficiency in filtering out irrelevant stimuli when competing an experimental task. However, the magnitude of said advantage, and the areas of the brain to which it relates, are still under question, although more studies are emerging supporting its existence.
Accident investigators may not have the expertise of the training to recognize the role of language-related factors in aviation accidents. Aviators often use shorthand or code in operations, which those without aviation experience may have difficulty interpreting correctly. This could lead to legal and investigative complications in the event of accidents.
As markets such as China and the Middle East become more developed, a heterogeneity of operational languages could arise, with these markets conducting operations in local languages rather than English. This divergence could create complications in standardizing operations across multiple agencies.

Potential hazard

  1. Subversion of messages that seem clear to the sender due to subtle miscues
  2. Linguistic misunderstandings
  3. Maintenance and inspection personnel whose native language is not English suggests that language barriers may be causing performance errors
  4. Tendency of non-English speaking pilots to not ask for confirmation of clearances they have not fully understood. Inhibitions not seen in native speakers.
  5. Factors related to assumptions, errors and dropped responsibilities due to lack of language proficiency have contributed to major accidents.
  6. Critical material may not be communicated effectively in training sessions requiring the services of interpreters. Interpreters must have fluency in aerospace terminology.
  7. Ineffective communication can compromise aviation safety in three basic ways:
  8. Wrong information may be used.
  9. Situation awareness may be lost.
  10. Participants may fail to build a shared model of the present situation at a team level. Lack of linguistic standardization as international markets, i.e. China and the Middle East, develop; “Galapagos Problem”.

Corroborating sources and comments

Various constituencies have been pushing for “simplified English”, eventually AECMA and now ASD have embraced it, see

Language Gap: Most accident investigators lack the tools and training to analyze language-related factors in aviation accidents, asw_dec11-jan12_p22-27.pdf (At the time of the paper [2002], AMTs had to pass exams in English, and maintenance paperwork through the FAA was conducted in English. Could emerging world markets change this?) (Braille readers showed activity in the visual centers of their brain, despite braille being read by touch; this suggests that our brain doesn’t just operate in terms of sensory processing.) (Participants in this study were shown English-speaking words with various degrees of an accent, ranging from “native English” to “full Chinese”. Differences emerged in the Phonological Mapping Negativity [PMN] in listeners, with the magnitude of difference varying depending on how much self-reported experience listeners had with Chinese accents.) (The bilingual brain shows greater connectivity in the inferior temporal sulcus during a Simon task, while the monolingual brain connected more visual, motor, executive function, and interference control areas to the same task; this suggests that bilingual brains operate more efficiently in reducing visuospatial interference. Bilingual brains have also proven better at filtering out irrelevant stimuli in some experimental conditions, but not others; the evidence is inconsistent.) (BBC Capital article approaching language barriers from a less neuroscientific lens. Essentially, native English speakers may assume that second-language speakers are picking up all the nuances in their speech, when in reality, that’s not often the case. Lack of elaboration leads to miscommunication.)

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