Update on English Language Proficiency

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Update on English Language Proficiency

52ND ANNUAL CONFERENCE, Bali, Indonesia, 24-28 April 2013

WP No. L009

Update on English Language Proficiency

Presented by Guadalupe Cortés


This paper will provide information about the ICAO ́s Aviation English Language Test E Service and the ICAO Test Service Steering Committee, where IFATCA is represented, as well as information about an ICAO English Language Proficiency Requirements Implementation Task Force, and the last ICAO English Language Requirements Technical Seminar.


IFATCA has continued to monitor the implementation by States of the ICAO requirement for Level 4 English Language Proficiency. At the end of December 2011, more than 75 States were non compliant with ELP requirements, according to data reported by States and published on the ICAO web page. Regrettably, only 81 out of 190 States have achieved compliance by January 3 2013. This figure proves that regarding Aviation English language proficiency, there is still a very long way to go.

The ICAO “deadline” for States to meet the Level 4 requirement was 5th March 2011. During 2011, ICAO Assembly 37 passed an amended resolution on the matter that, in essence, deleted the deadline. Rather than simply extend the “deadline” again, the Assembly 37 resolution now calls for States who are not yet compliant to continue to provide ICAO with regularly updated implementation plans, including progress achieved in meeting their timelines for full compliance.

In accordance with the Convention on International Civil Aviation and Annex 1 to the Convention, States are ultimately responsible for the endorsement of licenses or personnel records based on aviation language test results. Recognizing that the aviation language testing industry is unregulated, the function of the ICAO Aviation English Language Test Service is to assist the member States of ICAO in implementing best practices in aviation language testing. The goal is to promote the intelligibility of aviation English worldwide and thereby enhance the safety of international civil aviation.

In 2012, the Professional and Legal Committee of IFATCA (PLC), presented a paper on the implementation and effectiveness of testing procedures for air traffic controllers, and on the possibility that English Language Proficiency (ELP) testing may be used as a tool to take action against air traffic controllers.

Due to the possible impacts on Controllers’ careers, language proficiency testing is very important. Commercial interest and other economic issues are quite often contributing factors to the misuse of ELP for a variety of reasons and interests. State aviation authorities, air navigation service providers, airlines and training establishments may have a completely different agenda when it comes to ELP requirements. For that reason, IFATCA should continue to monitor, and report on, the progress of State’s compliance. IFATCA should also get feedback from Member Associations in States that have not yet achieved compliance, on the attitudes and actions taken by these States and ANSPs, particularly on any actions taken against ATCOs who have not achieved, or been given opportunity to achieve, Level 4 proficiency.

ICAO Aviation English Language Test Service (AELTS)

On a related topic, IFATCA is serving on an ICAO working group, to develop ICAO accreditation standards for organizations providing English Language Proficiency testing.

The purpose of the process is to confirm that a test follows the principles and practices of good testing instruments, and that it focuses directly on confirming how well a candidate meets the ICAO LPR. A test submitted for conformance must therefore clearly demonstrate how this purpose is achieved: it must demonstrate being a quality measurement instrument that accurately confirms the ability of aviation professionals to communicate effectively using R/T.

ICAO’s Aviation English Language Test Service (AELTS) was formally launched in October 2011 and ICAO has since evaluated – and endorsed – a number of tests. The experience gained since starting the service confirms the need to regularly review and improve the test endorsement process to ensure it applies criteria that reflect ICAO’s Language Proficiency Requirements (LPRs), that the process is comprehensive and well documented, that it reflects best practices for language testing and that the test e service is well organized, easy to use and useful to Test Service Providers (TSPs), States and other stakeholders.

The conformance process is open to all Test Service Providers, but is not compulsory. TSPs can decide themselves whether or not to submit a test for conformance. ICAO will not directly approach or otherwise require TSP to submit a test for conformance. However, by listing conformed tests on the website, ICAO will in effect encourage the use of these tests.

To be conformed, tests must clearly focus on confirming the ability of aviation professionals to communicate in English, in non-routine situations. The test documentation submitted to evaluate the test must confirm with evidence that the test design and use follow accepted practices of effective language testing and meet the ICAO LPRs.

At present, ICAO is working in offering a pre-assessment to the test service. This pre-assessment will be useful to make test owners know where they stand and to make a decision if they want to submit for evaluation or not, before they actually pay the evaluation fee. The results of the pre- assessment are not used within the evaluation process. Test owners can change their answers as much as they want. This intends to encourage test-owners to be honest, and it is also meant to be an incentive to work.

A new web is also to be launched in the following months.

ICAO Test Service Steering Committee

The Steering Committee is a forum based on open collaboration to achieve the common goal of continually improving language test service at ICAO. Because the Steering Committee will always have an international membership and to better manager time and expenses, much work will be done online using Information and Communication Technologies (ICT). This includes attending virtual meetings, sharing documents, participating in forum discussions and using other ICT tools ICAO may develop. Online communication therefore represents the principal mode of interaction between ICAO and the members of its Steering Committee, and with other stakeholders. It is envisaged that quarterly on-line meetings will be held by the Steering Committee, as well as meetings on an as needed basis.

The Steering Committee is composed of highly qualified experts serving voluntarily. Members may represent associations or non-profit organizations as relevant. At least two State representatives will also be part of the Steering Committee. The Committte is leaded by Dr. Nicole Barrette-Sabourin, from ICAO, an international experts on linguistics, IFALPA and IFATCA are also represented.

Steering Committee members must declare any conflict of interest that could prevent them from representing ICAO fairly, and must agree to participate in all activities for a period of two years. As it is stated in the Terms of Reference for the ICAO Test Service Steering Committee, members of the Committee are volunteers who agree to provide their time and services at no charge to ICAO, and agree to represent ICAO and the interests of the AELT Service informally during their term.

ICAO English Language Proficiency Requirements Implementation Task Force

IFATCA attended the Twenty First meeting of the EANPG Programme Coordinating Group (COG) on Training (COG/TNG) in the ICAO European and North Atlantic Office in Paris, from 12 to 13 March 2013.

The COG Training Task Force has been developing their work for the last fifteen years. The group is now covering different matters regarding English Language proficiency for aviation. It has been agreed by the COG that on-going and future issues related to LPRI should be addressed through a new COG Language Proficiency Requirements Implementation Task Force (COG LPRI TF). The COG LPRI TF would have a wider focus and composition in order to address all issues in regard to language proficiency in aviation in the entire ICAO EUR Region, including safety related ones.

This meeting was attended by a variety of experts from ICAO, ANSPs, linguists, IATA, Eurocontrol IANS, and IFATCA.

During the meeting, the ICAO Language Proficiency Requirements Implementation and Maintenance Recommended check list has been reviewed, and as a result of that, a new Attachment B LPRI checklist, has been published at the official ICAO webpage so to inform States about what items should be checking out regarding ELP.

Also, It was decided the final Agenda for the next ICAO Regional Seminar on ELP, to be held in May 1-3 in Baku, Azerbaijan, and where IFATCA will be making a presentation by IFATCA`s English Language Subject Matter Expert. The Workshop is entitled Language Proficiency as a Base for Safe Communication in a Cross Cultural Environment and it will will cover cross-cultural issues and training matters related to aviation and safety. The Agenda includes an update on ELP by ICAO, presentations from IFALPA, IFATCA and IATA, some airlines, safety experts and there will be some space for States presentations as an update of the problems they are dealing with, regarding ELP requirements implementation. It will provide the opportunity to States to exchange information and experience on the issues related to communications in a cross-cultural environment and highlight the importance of this for the safety of flights.

The English Language Proficiency Requirements Task Force is working to develop a White Paper on ELP to raise the most controversial topics, with the aim of providing answers and guidance to the aviation community, including assistance to States.

The importance of this ICAO Task Force lies in the fact that, the work initiated regionally in Europe is the main approach to the subject from a global perspective, and it is accepted and expected from other regions, when specifically addressing ELP. So, in practice, it is a regional group, working globally.

ICAO Language Proficiency Requirements Technical Seminar

The LPR Technical Seminar was held in Montréal, at ICAO Headquarters from 25 to 27 March 2013. It was attended by 142 participants from 37 Member States, 7 international organizations and 37 industry.

This seminar follows two symposia that ICAO conducted in 2004 and 2007. These two previous events were conducted before the applicability date of the language proficiency requirements of 5 March 2008 to assist States and the industry in putting in place all necessary measures to comply with the language provisions by the applicability date. In the last five years, licensing authorities, airlines and air navigation service providers, as well as language testing and training providers have done much work to pursue the implementation of the safety-critical language provisions as mandated by Assembly Resolution A32-16 in 1998 and embodied in Annexes 1, 6, 10 and 11 as well as Doc 4444 – PANS-ATM Progress on the implementation of the language provisions has been considered by the 36th and 37th sessions of the Assembly (A36-10 and A37-13 refer) and will once again be discussed at the upcoming 38th session of the ICAO General Assembly.

Stakeholders had the opportunity to learn about web-based tools that ICAO has introduced to implement best practices in aviation language training and testing and to provide feedback on how the implementation of the language provisions can be progressed.

Ms. Nancy J. Graham, Director. Air Navigation Bureau, ICAO, opened the seminar. In her remarks she stated the objective of the seminar, which was to remind participants of the ICAO Language Proficiency Requirements (LPRs) and to tell them about the tools that ICAO had developed with its partners (International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations (IFALPA) International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers’ Associations (IFATCA) International Language Testing Association (ILTA) and International Civil Aviation English Association (ICAEA)) to continue to support the implementation of the provisions. She requested that participants provide ICAO with feedback on how these tools were helping or not and what ICAO could do, within its limited resources, to further assist. She also indicated that she hoped the aviation language training and testing industry would continue to progress towards self-regulation and the adoption of best practices. She concluded by indicating that a report on the status of implementation by States on LPRs would be provided to the 38th Session of the ICAO Assembly and that the Global Aviation Safety Report, which would be issued prior to the Assembly, would include data on this issue based on the information provided on the FSIX website (http://legacy.icao.int/fsix/lp.cfm) and through iStars.

Below is a list of points that were particularly highlighted during the presentations:

  • The relationship between training and testing was highlighted. How can we ensure that the washback effect from testing to training is positive? How do we change mindsets from “training to pass a test” to “training to achieve proficiency”?
  • The ICAO Aviation English Language Testing Service (AELTS) is not only useful for commercially-owned-and-operated tests, but also for State-owned- and-operated tests.
  • The issue of language erosion for those speakers at ICAO Levels 4 and 5 was raised, and The Agency for Air Navigation Safety in Africa and Madagascar (ASECNA) described their plan to put in place measures in the workplace to support the maintenance of language proficiency.
  • A presentation from the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) described how considerations is being given to providing a 9-year validity period to Level 6 speakers.
  • A safety case for the introduction of language proficiency requirements for maintenance personnel was made by Malaysia. This would involve reading and writing for the specific context of maintenance.
  • A description was provided of the test the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation (EUROCONTROL) is developing for Level 6. The approach taken is that a Level 6 speaker is someone who masters the language (Level 5), and, the communicative process.
  • The aviation language training and testing community was reminded that their role was critical to safety, and in committing to implement the ICAO Manual on the Implementation of ICAO Language Proficiency Requirements (Doc 9835) and best practices, they were a key link in the safety chain.
  • The ICAO AELTS was considered helpful by the community; however, it was recognized that ICAO needed to improve its communication processes. Improvements and enhancements made to the service were presented by ICAO, and the testing community welcomed these changes and looks forward to the new AELTS website.
  • Test service providers felt that, while the assessment was challenging and difficult, they had benefited from it. It helped them document their processes in a comprehensive way and pinpointed some elements that needed to be improved. Test service providers indicated they would pursue full conformance with ICAO Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs) and ICAO Doc 9835.


ICAO’s Aviation English Language Test Service ensures that ELP aviation tests meet the criteria reflected by ICAO ́s Language Proficiency Requirements (LPR). The Test Service is not compulsory. ICAO does not conform general English tests, but ELP tests for aviation.

The ICAO Test Service Steering Committee is composed of qualified international experts and leaded by ICAO, and it has been created with the purpose of improving the test conformance service provided by ICAO. IFATCA is represented at this forum.

IFATCA has been invited to participate as full member at the ICAO COG English Language Requirements Implementation Task Force, organized by the European and North Atlantic Office. This group will provide guidance on LPRI to the aviation community, including assistance to States.

IFATCA was represented at the Language Proficiency Requirements Technical Seminar, held at ICAO Headquarters, at Montreal, March 25-27 2013. This event, brought together all stakeholders from the aviation industry including, civil aviation administrations, international organizations, aviation language training centres, aviation language test providers, airlines and air navigation service providers.


It is recommended that:

This paper is accepted as information.

Last Update: September 30, 2020  

May 3, 2020   299   Jean-Francois Lepage    2013    

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