ICAO Language Proficiency Explained


Have you ever had a situation where "say again" didn't seem to make the instructions you received from ATC any clearer? When things were too complicated to get sorted out by standard phraseology? That is what language proficiency is all about: making sure that pilots can use good English whenever required. The International Civil Aviation Organisation ICAO has therefore introduced a language proficiency test which aims to keep standards high and pilots proficient in everyday use of English. All in the interest of safety! 

As the ICAO state on their webpage, it is meant to "[...] ensure that air traffic personnel and pilots are proficient in conducting and comprehending radiotelephony communications [...]".

Proficiency clearly goes beyond standard phraseology like "ready for departure". Pilots flying internationally should show an operational level of English and feel comfortable speaking with relative ease.

In accordance with international air law it is a legal requirement to have your English proficiency level registered in your licence when venturing abroad. The minimum required level is 4.

The Rating Objective

In order to standardise the language rating procedures, an ICAO Rating Scale and so-called Holistic Descriptors have been developed.

The objective of the language test itself is not to test technical knowledge but to ensure that air personnel have the language capabilities to interact safely in their working environment. In other words, you don't need to be an expert, but you should have the skills to negotiate yourself out of a tricky situation, avoiding misunderstandings.

The language test concentrates on the following aspects:

  1. Gathering samples of speech of pilots and air traffic controllers that can be rated
  2. Rate and assign a level according to the ICAO Rating Scale and Holistic Descriptors

Read in the next section, what these are all about.