I had a serious "oh firetruck!" moment today as I picked up my mail. One envelope was from Transport Canada. At first I thought it going to be a past due notice for the bill from my medical renewal, but I actually paid that thing for once, and already received the receipt. I could see very distinctive blue paper showing through the window of the envelope. There's only one thing that colour and that's a new pilot licence. Transport sends new licences all the time: every time I change my address, qualify on a new airplane, renew my qualifications on an old one, or renew a rating. So this isn't normally a reason for concern. But I wasn't expecting a new licence. The last time I received an unsolicited licence replacement, the new licence had sharply curtailed privileges. I tore open the envelope.
All my ratings were there, and no unexpected restrictions. But at the top of the page was a new qualification: LANGUAGE PROFICIENCY - ENGLISH. This is part of the new ICAO drive for minimum language standards for pilots. I suppose all Canadian licenced pilots have been grandfathered as competent in the language they chose for communication with Transport Canada. I certainly didn't take a test, and voluble as I am, I can't imagine the TC bureaucracy working such that someone said, "Oh her she speaks English fluently. I wish she'd shut up."
The test itself is not very difficult. I know someone who took a course to qualify as a tester. The test itself is done by telephone. You are asked to respond to basic questions and make requests given certain information. It is designed so that there is enough variation in very similar tests, that it would not help someone to have his higher-skilled friend take the test and tell him what to say, because if the cheater could understand the question well enough to know how to correctly vary the memorized answer, he would speak English well enough to pass without cheating.
There are six levels of language proficiency. Level 6 is Expert, and a pilot with this proficiency is considered to maintain it throughout her life and does not have to retest. Lower levels of proficiency represent a language learned less thoroughly, and therefore subject to being forgotten. Pilots reaching lower levels of proficiency need to retest periodically to prove they still remember. Pilots and air traffic controllers have to reach proficiency level 4 to qualify for international routes. The way it will work is that anyone who scores below the required proficiency will have an endorsement on his or her licence, so that a licence with nothing on it is good. Because Canada allows pilots to be licenced with proficiency in French only and not English (for people who never venture into unilingual anglophone airspace), my licence specifies which language I use. It looks like some other countries, such as the former Soviet Union, also allow pilots to have multiple proficiencies. The example on the site has flights from Russia to Byelorus (English not required) and from Russia to Finland (English required). Man there are a lot of countries there that didn't used to be!
Judging from the implementation plan in this ICAO document, Canada is quick off the mark. Implementation is scheduled from 05 March 2008 to 05 March 2011, and I've already got mine. I can't find a simple document that lays out the whole rating system. I looked on Transport Canada and the ICAO website.