I was very interested to learn from comments on my last ATC-related post that "How do you hear?" is the official US wording to elicit what ICAO language describes as a radio check. The US controllers clearly understood both my "request radio check" version of the call and the ICAO scale of strengths and readabilities, so this makes me curious. I have some questions specifically for any US air traffic controllers (or ATC of any country that has local differences, but the US seems to have the greatest deviation). When you initially learned radiotelephony, did you learn both US standard language and ICAO standard language as separate vocabularies? Do you have to demonstrate competence in both separately? I'm assuming your regular instructions are what I have observed: that you understand and accept both vocabularies, but give instructions in American. Will you switch to giving instructions in ICAO language if there is a difficulty in understanding or at pilot request?
As a pilot, I learned primarily the local suite of phraseology, and some of it was footnoted with "this is how it works in Canada, but it's not international." For example in Canada I never give the first letter of my callsign, because everyone knows it's C. Pilots don't receive a lot of formal R/T training in Canada. The only exam we take is a horribly outdated one that ensures we know we can be fined for swearing on the radio, and that hydrogen gas is evolved from lead-acid radio batteries. So many of what I think are standard phraseologies may be Canadian-ICAO differences. I know that American pilots do not carry a separate radio operator's licence, so presumably they have no formal test on the subject. (Someone correct me if I'm wrong).
If I were designing the system, I would declare that that pilots could use ICAO language or local differences within their own country and but be required to always use ICAO in foreign countries. By that logic, controllers would be able to use ICAO or local differences with locally registered aircraft, but stick to ICAO standard communication only with foreign-registered aircraft. That would match exactly the rules for using local languages other than English. So why isn't that the rule? I suspect it's that in English-speaking countries people quickly forget that radio language isn't the same as English.
Radio language isn't even the same all over one country. Was it Florida where I was working that the controllers kept saying "one two, twelve thousand" to reiterate that they were talking about 12,000' and not 1000' or 2000'? Turns out the Dallas and Houston controllers I worked with say "one two thousand" without any clarification, just like Canadian controllers. It must have been a regional thing.
Regardless of what language they speak, the controllers here are really good. They juggle all the incoming aircraft into a conga line for the runways at DFW and IAH, while keeping track of the planes going to little airports in between. They don't forget about me and rarely lose track of what I have requested even after several handoffs. And they watch out for the pilots who need more help. The controller was so gracious as he asks a pilot to confirm his destination and recommends a heading change that I don't know if the pilot even realized that the controller suspected he was lost. This particular pilot kept drifting back to the incorrect course, but the controller never lost patience. "What is your means of navigation?" he asked. I didn't hear the pilot answer the question, only the controller's half of the conversation was audible. I suppose the pilot was operating with a map and a directional gyro that needed to be reset to the compass at regular intervals. It was a windy night so either wind or gyro drift or a combination may have led to his difficulties, but eventually the controller gave him "no compass vectors," asking him to put the airplane into a gentle right turn and hold the bank angle until the controller told him to roll out. I admire the versatility of the controller handholding in one call and then in the next telling United to cross AZEDD at 300 knots, in a big game of three-dimensional tetris.