Friday, March 07, 2008

Pardon My French

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.


jk said...

Sacre Bleu!

This is recent news here in the US, too. But, instead of receiving a shiny new certificate in the mail unsolicited, we have to specifically order one, and pay the handsome tariff of $2 for the replacement.

So far I've only flown internationally in Mexico. I bet I'll cross the border north sometime this year... makes me wonder if the Canadian customs inspectors will be looking for this certificated qualification (assuming I forget to obtain a new certificate) as we converse in English.

Splendor said...

I wonder if pilots registered in the Montreal region (such as myself) will get this automatically or whether we'll have to prove our ability to speak correct english... I wonder if my soon-to-arrive UK licence will have any mention of English language proficiency.


nec Timide said...


According to COPA (AOPA may have similar information) Mexico will be looking for language proficiency, but TC and the FAA have agreed to quietly look the other way for each other's pilots (but not on paper so YMMV). $2 seems like cheap piece of mind, but as far as cross boarder gotchas go I think this will be far down the list on either side of the 49th parallel.

Unless you hold a Commercial (or higher), or ATC ticket you won't get a new one unless you call your local TC office and ask for one (its free), or when we all get the new passport form-factor issue.

Stephen said...

That's the first time I see ICAO regulations being implemented in America and Europe at the same time. I'm from Germany and I received my letter of notification last week.
We don't get a new certificate, just a letter saying that you initially will be given Level 4 English language proficiency. Which is only the case if you already possess a radio license that allows you to speak both German or English.
You are required to do the language proficiency test in the next 3 years to prove your skills. I wonder how difficult it will be to get the "worry-free" Level 6?

Lord Hutton said...

eg snakke ikke Norsk

Anonymous said...

I leave in french-speaking part of Switzerland, so I speak french natively.

I've been "given" an ICAO Level 4 in English (which I'll have to renew each two years unless I pass a Level 6 exam), but nothing in French !

So I'll have to pass a Level 6 in French to get rid of this problem... or stop radio-ing in my native language.

Pas de commentaire.

Anonymous said...

I didn't understand the hoopla around the need for English proficiency until a recent news report (probably a little more sensational than need be--imagine that.) They had a recording from a LaGuardia ground controller repeatedly trying to ask a foreign pilot something simple such as "what's your gate?" In each of the four tries to ask the question, the foreign pilot mistook the question for a taxi clearance. Luckily the foreign aircraft was of course on the ground, but wow! :-|

Aviatrix said...

Oh it's huge. Look at the linked presentation on the ICAO site for a list of accidents attributed or partly attributed to language difficulties.

Unknown said...

I'm suspicious of the "telephone interview" technique and forsee problems.

The UK has a large Asian community which has virtually cornered the private-hire car (sort of taxi! ) market.

Not only were multiple driving -licence tests sat by the same candidate,but also the same (roadworthy) vehicle was presented for multiple tests with different license -plates.

Now, Driver's ID has a photo and the vehicle's colour, make and model are on the displayed plates,as well as the "chassis" number being logged.

this test will only work if the candidate is in the prescence of a vouchsafed which case the examiner may as well do face-to face interviews.
A similar test is now being introduced to slow the tidal wave of immigrants to UK ,who soak up enormous resources in literature and translators.Now, they'll have a working knowledge of the international language.

Aviatrix said...

Yes, the examinee is contacted at a place where there is a legally responsible witness, usually an instructor or administrator at the examinee's flying school. The interviews are not done face-to-face to avoid body language, so even if the examiner were on site, it would be conducted by phone.

Oh sure, there will be corruption and bribes and cheating, but every few years there's a new chance of the person being caught.

Anonymous said...

Yes, that quite caught us by surprise. We had about a week's notice to apply before what our company told us was a March 01 deadline for the license. Of course, the FAA takes 2-4 weeks to deliver a replacement license. Since I fly to Canada nearly every week I had visions of Transport Canada ramp-checks dancing in my head.

"Ma'am, your license does not specify that you are proficient in English."
"I'm sorry, sir, I'm afraid that there is currently no way to prove that I can speak English."

Of course, shortly later we learned that TC and the FAA were going to be somewhat understanding on this issue for a while.

Anonymous said...

Enough mistakes are made between people, one speaking "Fliers' English" and the other "Tired ATC".

The big questions are how well China and Russia (and soon its reconstituted set of subject/client states) will comply as it is a matter of security and national pride for them not to use English and will grow more so as time goes on. Amazing how well the African, Arab and Japanese nations have complied.

James said...

I received my new licence in the mail today. Unfortunately my IFR is still expired and it didn't magically renew itself!

I wrote a blog post on this topic a couple of days ago. There was a post from AvCanada from a Transport Guy outlining the different levels of proficiency for Canada as well as a recording of the audio conversation between a New York Controller and an Air China pilot.

Buzzoff said...

The deadline for US pilots is now March 5, 2009.

Anonymous said...

Levels of proficiency? Oh, Mommy...

LEVEL 1: "Hello. I am job. How are you? Over".

sydost said...

Anon 12:30 said: "The big questions are how well China and Russia (and soon its reconstituted set of subject/client states) will comply as it is a matter of security..."

When I asked the same question from a local examiner (finnish) he said that the russian system actually is one of the best there is. I have understood that the russians take the language proficiency check very seriously. That means there will probably be a lot of older pilots taking english lessons or retiring. Also I know one russian ATCO who was sent to London for a six week english training. I believe and hope that they are seriously trying improve their english skills. Lately at work I have noticed that communication with russian aircrafts has become remarkably easier than it was before.

Aviatrix wrote: "The example on the site has flights from Russia to Byelorus (English not required) and from Russia to Finland (English required)."

I was wondering did you mean the third example on this PDF to be from Russia to Finland? If you meant that one I'd like to point out that the line ends in Sweden instead of Finland. I hope that you meant some other picture ;).

Aviatrix said...

Ahh, yes, I must have meant some other picture, or um, maybe they moved the line when I wasn't looking? I really do know the difference between Sweden and Finland. The languages are wholly different; the people look different; and the line in that picture does indeed end in Sweden. My bad. Good thing I have you to catch me.