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Culture Indicators in Global Aeronautical Communication

Culture Indicators in Global Aeronautical Communication
Indicadores de Cultura na Comunicação Aeronáutica Global
Anna P. BOROWSKA (The University of Warsaw)
Aviation English has been used globally and now is regarded as lingua franca of aviation
communication. Communication in any foreign language entails cultural connotations. Moreover,
reactions caused by perceived potential misconceptions of one’s cultural or ethnic identity are context-
dependent. Aeronautical communication in global context by definition does not belong to any specific
culture, so it should be devoid of any cultural elements being effective at the same time. Participants of
different cultural groups take part in this type of communication on a regular basis. On the one hand,
they are equipped with the tool such as standard phraseology binding in so called routine situations in
order to avoid communication breakdown as this specific code seems to go beyond the borders of
culture. There is no time for an analysis of who is who, but only for the completion of the mechanical
operational tasks. On the other hand, according to the conducted research, it has been observed that the
operational interlocutors cannot efficiently escape from their own cultural backgrounds when
communicating in both routine and non-routine situations. Therefore, still some differences in cultural
perception of conversation partners do exist and influence the aeronautical communication. The article
describes the current situation and presents common culture indicators in a selected context. The
research shows that without any doubt, and in order to be effective communicators, the airline pilots and
air traffic controllers should adopt positive orientation towards their interlocutor’s culture.
Keywords: Aeronautical Communication, culture indicators, Aviation English, native speakers.
O Inglês para Aviação tem sido globalmente utilizado e atualmente é considerado lingua franca da
comunicação no âmbito da aviação. A comunicação em qualquer língua estrangeira implica conotações
culturais. Além disso, reações causadas por potenciais percepções equivocadas sobre a identidade
étnica ou cultural de um indivíduo são dependentes do contexto. Por definição, a comunicação
aeronáutica em contexto global não pertence a nenhuma cultura específica e, por isso, deveria ser
desprovida de quaisquer elementos culturais que atuem nessa comunicação. Os participantes de
diferentes grupos culturais regularmente participam desse tipo de comunicação. Por um lado, eles
possuem uma ferramenta como a fraseologia padrão para as chamadas situações de rotina, para evitar
problemas de comunicação, dado que se trata de um código específico que parece ir além das
fronteiras culturais. Não tempo para uma análise de quem é quem, mas apenas para completar as
tarefas operacionais mecânicas. Por outro lado, conforme a pesquisa conduzida, foi observado que os
interlocutores operacionais não podem escapar, de forma efetiva, de seus próprios arcabouços
The University of Warsaw, Warsaw, Poland. ;
Volume 41 | Número 3 | Ano 2020 | ISSN: 2318-7115 DOI: 10.23925/2318-7115.2020v41i3a3
v.41 n.3 - 2020
culturais ao se comunicarem em ambas as situações de rotina e de não-rotina. Logo, algumas
diferenças de percepção cultural de parceiros de conversação ainda existem, de fato, e influenciam a
comunicação aeronáutica. O artigo descreve o cenário atual e apresenta os indicadores de cultura
comuns em um contexto selecionado. A pesquisa mostra que, sem dúvida, e para serem comunicadores
eficazes, os pilotos de companhias aéreas e os controladores de tráfego aéreo deveriam adotar uma
orientação positiva em relação à cultura de seu interlocutor.
Palavras-Chave: Comunicação aeronáutica, indicadores de cultura, inglês para aviação, falantes
1. Introduction
Global aviation communication is an example of intercultural professional interaction.
Representatives of various cultural backgrounds are brought together to perform their work under strict
aviation regulations that they all are supposed to follow. Pilots and air traffic controllers communicate
with each other in a manner different to the natural one, namely without the support of their facial
expressions, gestures or general non-verbal behaviour. All they have at their disposal is primarily their
voice, hearing and supporting text system called Controller-pilot data link communications (CPDLC),
accompanied by their abilities to form utterances in both coded and non-coded ‘languages’. We all
know, however, the entire aeronautical communication process is not as simple as it seems.
Firstly, its international standardised medium of expression is the aviation language which is
known as Aviation English, or more precisely Aeronautical English. The fact that the International Civil
Aviation Organization (ICAO) instated English as the language of aviation in 1951 influenced all types
of aviation communication and resulted in an aviation lingua franca that today is spoken by all
nationalities across the world. Nevertheless, it does not belong to any particular one. Moreover, native
speakers of English cannot claim its ownership, either, because the language for aviation purposes is not
the same as natural English. Therefore, in the aeronautical context, the ICAO emphasises that native
speech should not be privileged in a global context (ICAO Doc. 9835, 2010, 4.8.) and “…the burden of
improving radiotelephony communications should be shared by native and non-native speakers” as
“…native speakers of English, in particular, have an ethical obligation to increase their linguistic
awareness and to take special care in the delivery of messages” (ibid, The aviation
communication around the world takes place among speakers of different first languages. This fact also
influences the use of English. To this end, native speakers should be aware that meaning in human
interaction is not simply transferred, but has to be negotiated by the interlocutors (ALLWRIGHT, 1999,
p. 230). Such speech variety must be learned even by native speakers of English (ESTIVAL; FARRIS, DOI: 10.23925/2318-7115.2020v41i3a3
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2016, p. 19). This data points to the fact that Aviation English is, first of all, a global language as its
users are mainly non-native speakers, and native speakers form the minority.
Secondly, considering the type of communication
between pilots and air traffic controllers that is
conducted in Aeronautical English, we must admit that it is two-fold in its nature. During routine,
predictable flight operations, pilots and controllers adhere to standardised phraseology based on English
which the ICAO defines as “the formulaic code made up of specific words that in the context of aviation
operations have a precise and singular operational significance” (ICAO, 2010, Being a tool
itself, the phraseology cannot support expressing opinions or emotions, though it resembles a language.
Accordingly, there is no place in Aviation English communication for common ‘nativeness’ being a key
model of language in use (BOROWSKA, 2016, p. 65). The same rule applies to speaking Plain
Aeronautical English reserved for non-routine situations. However, the latter is used more naturally, so
there may be more space for expressing one’s culture in a particular situation.
Lastly, taking into consideration all the above-mentioned factors, the example of aviation
communication discussed is aimed to be devoid of cultural connotations. It is prescribed for all the
nationalities in the world and does not favour any particular speakers, including native speakers of
English. The result should be obvious, namely: all the participants of various culture groups can
communicate easily, especially in routine situations, because the specific coded nature of aviation
communication goes beyond the borders of any culture as there is no time for analysis of who is who,
but only for the automatic completion of the operational tasks. However, the transmission and
interpretation of messages are performed by people, not machines, and these people are equipped with a
given culture that they bring with themselves to the aeronautical discourse. Therefore, some questions
arise about how the operational personnel cope with so many culture groups around on the regular basis
and if it is possible to trace any examples of cultural indicators present in aeronautical communication.
In other words, we are to note the impact of culture on aeronautical communication. In order to observe
such factors we need to analyse these aeronautical interactions that are intercultural and assess the level
of culture impact on message transmitting and interpreting.
2. A metacultural group identity in an aeronautical context
Trosborg (2010, p. 2), after Varner and Beamer (2005, p. 40), claims that “language is culture –
culture is language. Culture and language are intertwined and shape each other. The two are inseparable
[…] each time we send messages, we also make cultural choices”. Thus culture signifies how an
See BOROWSKA (2017a) for the detailed description of aeronautical communication DOI: 10.23925/2318-7115.2020v41i3a3
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individual thinks, acts and feels, as a member of a group and in relation to other members of that same
group (TROSBORG, 2010, p. 2). Moreover, culture explains the pattern of assumptions and behaviour
formulated by human systems in response to their environment, however, within any community
individual differences will always exist (HARRIS; MORAN, 1987). According to Wierzbicka (2010, p.
3), living ‘in’ different languages means living in different cultural worlds, with different norms and
expectations. Differences may be pointed only by those who entered at least two such worlds. For
example, those who work in two or more cultural worlds:
[I]n different societies there are different culture-specific speech practices and
interactional norms, and that the different ways of speaking prevailing in different
societies are linked with, and make sense in terms of, different local cultural values, or
at least, different cultural priorities as far as values are concerned (WIERZBICKA 2010,
p. 47).
Aeronautical communication in English has brought together users of different cultures, languages and
professional expectations. However, it should not be dominated by any specific culture because it is
standardised globally and does not favour any particular nationality. It is often incorrectly assumed that
general English norms should be accepted as the language in use is English, but it may mean American
English, British English, etc., or simply lingua franca. Beneke (1993, p. 86) emphasises that together
with the growing awareness of the degree of cultural diversity, there is an increasing demand to respect
different cultural norms and values and the need to form productive working relationships. In speaking
Aeronautical English, the non-native operational personnel do not aim at taking over a set of native
speakers of English’ behavioural patterns. Therefore, the establishment of discourse rules and
international rules should be first systematised, then respected, so as the users can consciously handle
I call these emerging norms “metacultural”, because they do not belong to any authentic
“natural” culture but are the result of a more or less controlled and conscious process.
They demand a high degree of flexibility and cooperativeness, and they are not
anybody’s individual culture… (BENEKE, 1993, p. 95)
For a long time it was common to consider any category of people who had a shared culture of
any nature a cultural group (ERIKSEN, 2002; MOERMAN, 1965). Nevertheless, according to
Moerman (1965), people do not always share all their cultural traits. However, they can still form a
working group. Thus we can see this phenomenon more as an aspect of relationship, not a cultural
property of a group (ERIKSEN, 2002, p. 34).
As stated above, the effective routine aviation communication generally takes place over the
borders of any cultural connotations. To do so, it is enough to employ the following transparent rules: DOI: 10.23925/2318-7115.2020v41i3a3
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provide a clear and direct message, pay attention to the conversation, listen effectively to an interlocutor,
do not involve emotions in the conversation, speak with a comprehensible accent, and use a proper
speech rate (BOROWSKA, 2017a). The following examples of aeronautical routine, taken from an
available online tool called, are expressed in standard phraseology (Exchanges 1 and 2)
illustrate successful aeronautical dialogues and can be interpreted as free of any cultural connotations:
Exchange (1)
Pilot: COPY, 9180.
Exchange (2)
Pilot (NNS): FLIGHT LEVEL 80, BOEING 747-400, KOREAN AIR 907.
Controller: KOREAN AIR 907, THANKS AND SPEED NOW 220 [two twenty] KNOTS.
Pilot: SPEED 220, KOREAN AIR 907.
The above intercultural exchanges can be thus considered as a metacultural desirable model of
aeronautical communication. However, after a deep analysis of the audio material, the results may be
less superficial. Namely, in both examples one interlocutor is a native speaker of English (NS) and the
other (NNS) is not and belongs to high-level culture (see below). Both conversational partners are aware
of their cultural diversities because they can hear each other clearly and the traffic control is in the
English speaking country. It cannot be precluded that a potential linguistic behaviour adjustment took
place in this situation. Although nobody expresses his personal opinion or reacts emotionally to what he
hears, both conversational partners adapt their behaviour accordingly, e.g. the native English speaking
air traffic controllers adjust the rate of speaking to slower when addressing a non-native English
speaking pilot, whilst the non-native English pilots not only speak fast enough, but also strictly follow
the standard phraseology that facilitates the understanding of other accents.
Such controlled and conscious process can be classified as an example of metacultural group
identity highly requested in our context. This confirms the fact that in order to produce and interpret
language appropriately we need our communicative as well as intercultural competence. Cultural
differences are communicated in a variety of situations. An important reason for the academic interest in
the indicators of culture is the fact that this issue has become so visible in many aeronautical exchanges
3, Boston, 2017
4, Heathrow, 2017 DOI: 10.23925/2318-7115.2020v41i3a3
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that it has become impossible to ignore. For a typical individual his or her culture can mean both his or
her residence within a territory and his or her sharing of the common culture that have been conceived
as given by birth, that is, the one he or she has acquired through the ethnic identification of their parents
(PARSONS, 1975, p. 53). According to Parsons (ibid), ethnicity is also a primary focus of group
identity, that is: “the organization of plural persons into distinctive groups and, second, of solidarity and
the loyalties of individual members to such groups. It is, however, an extraordinary elusive concept and
very difficult to define in any precise way”. The ethnic and cultural groups remain distinctive under
different social conditions and other forms of identification.
Following the latter definition, we can distinguish ‘identity groups’ which are involved in
aeronautical communication. Thus, every participant of an aeronautical discourse is equipped with his
‘group identity’, e.g. being an American, a Chinese, a Pole, etc., so when he or she enters any
communication process, he or she brings his or her identity to such process as well as some assumptions
with reference to other cultural groups. Therefore, we should not ignore the fact that culture is always
reflected when we refer to human collectivity (HOFSTEDE, 1984, p. 21). It is important to note that
proper behaviour concepts vary enormously across cultures. What is seen as good, acceptable or at least
satisfactory in one culture may be perceived as poor or even bad in another (BENEKE, 1993, p. 14).
Gudykunst (1984) confirms that communicative behaviour takes place at low levels of awareness and it
is the result of subconscious habits that are guided by cultural expectations. All of the above arguments
seem to be confirmed in the aeronautical context (see point 3 below).
On the other hand, Eriksen (2002) claims that culture and social identities in general are relative
and to some extent situational. It would mean that when Aeronautical English users enter the
aeronautical communication dimension, they can adapt to the situation easily as it is their natural
working environment. Therefore, we can refer to a metacultural group identity where the situation is
defined through conversational partners’ work duties.
3. Culture indicators in aeronautical communication
A metacultural group identity cannot be fully achieved without the knowledge of particular
cultures. In order to improve the aeronautical communication, best practices should be specified. This
can be done by observation and analysis of cultural indicators present in intercultural exchanges.
As for the professional linguistic behaviour, we should bear in mind that in the aeronautical
context pilots and controllers must have the ability not only to communicate using coded aeronautical DOI: 10.23925/2318-7115.2020v41i3a3
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phraseology in routine situations and Plain Aeronautical English
, also known as a plain language
(ICAO, 2010), in non-routine situations, but also to achieve mutual understanding through the use of
their general language ability to get their messages heard and understood (MITSUTOMI; O’BRIEN,
2003, p. 124):
Plain language in aeronautical radiotelephony communications means the spontaneous,
creative and non-coded use of a given natural language, although constrained by the
functions and topics (aviation and non-aviation) that are required by aeronautical
radiotelephony communications, as well as by specific safety-critical requirements for
intelligibility, directness, appropriacy, non-ambiguity and concision. (ICAO Doc. 9835,
2010, 3.3.14)
Otherwise, a communication breakdown may take place. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
notes that human error is a contributing factor in 60–80% of all air carrier incidents and accidents, citing
ineffective communication and other communication-related indicators as underlying causes of such
errors (FAA, 2004). Pilots and air traffic controllers are human beings, so are prone to human variations
and lapses. Therefore, effectiveness, not grammatical correctness, seems to be required the most
(BENEKE, 1993).
A pertinent question at this stage is what types of cultural indicators we can trace in aeronautical
communication that offers no external images, but voice and hearing only. One source is, obviously, a
‘language’ of people who use Aeronautical English on a regular basis in the international context in
order to perform their duties.
Firstly, it is a language group which is the bearer of a specific cultural possession of the masses
and makes mutual understanding possible or easier (WEBER, 2010, p. 21). Thus, we should consider
‘language’ as it may be regarded as a marker of identities and the way of constructing boundaries. We
can also observe how language contributes to the social processes involved in formation of cultural
identity (FOUGHT, 2006). Moreover, the culture can be indicated by its linguistic features such as
pronunciation, intonation, accent, grammar and the choice of words that carry the particular message.
For instance, a simplified grammar and wrong collocations are signs of a different language background
than native English.
By systematic features of language such as devoicing of suffixes or the lack of aspiration in
English, we can recognise non-native speakers and sometimes even a particular nationality. For
instance, German speakers of English tend to produce a glottal stop in the initial position of words that
begin with a vowel and the effect this has may be disturbing to speakers from other backgrounds. This
continuous stream of glottal sounds makes the language sound rough, even aggressive (BENEKE, 1993,
See BOROWSKA (2017) for detailed descriptions on both standard phraseology and Plain Aeronautical English DOI: 10.23925/2318-7115.2020v41i3a3
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p. 71). As for French, the majority of them does not pronounce the initial /h/ sound that might be
interpreted as funny for some nationalities. Polish speakers, on the other hand, usually have strong /r/
sound, tend to pronounce the final consonant clusters in all possible contexts (e.g. ing, -mb), and
change the length and quality of vowel sounds. Many other nationalities have significant problems in
pronouncing ‘th’ sounds. Speakers with similar pronunciation problems can be perceived as socially
inferior not only to native speakers of English, but also to those who are better masters of English. Last
but not least is the fact that incorrect pronunciation may cause amusement, objection and even anger
among some culture groups (ibid).
Other verbal aspects of language worth classifying as indicators of culture are speakers’
intonation and accent. According to Beneke (1993, p. 71), intonation seems to be one of the most
difficult features of language to teach and learn:
[C]ertain intonation patterns are simply not acceptable to the foreign learner… They are
not accepted by the learners as a model for their own speech, because they feel they
threaten their identity. They make them sound foolish, as if they were ‘aping’ or
‘mimicking’ the foreign model. In the case of English, it has become clear that most
learners learn the language mainly for practical reasons, not so much as a means to
integrate themselves into British or American culture. They have, on the other words, an
instrumental rather than an integrative motivation. (BENEKE, 1993, p. 71)
However, in the aeronautical context these are intonation and speech rate that are “the most significant
factors as they initially may influence the meaning and distort a desired concept in the hearer’s mind”
(BOROWSKA, 2017a, p. 139). Trippe and Baese-Berk (2019) emphasise the fact that native English
speakers’ prosody (intonation and rhythm) in Aviation English has been a source of miscommunication.
In a FAA report on international pilot flight language experiences pronunciation, accent and speech rate
are cited as the primary sources of misunderstanding between native English speaking pilots and
controllers (PRINZO, et al., 2010c apud TRIPPE and BAESE-BERK, 2019). In their examination of
pitch range as a measure of intonation, Aeronautical English pitch range was smaller than that of
Standard English, supporting impressionistic claims from previous studies that Aeronautical English
lacks intonation (ibid). Furthermore, the ICAO regulations directly indicate the goal of reduced
intonation by suggesting that, in order to facilitate cross-cultural Aeronautical English communication,
native English speaker pilots and controllers should “focus on keeping their intonation neutral and calm”
(ICAO, 2010). It is thus crucial for this type of research to rely on the sound recording instead of a
written text.
Nevertheless, these are not only the linguistic features of aeronautical communication that carry
the message (NABABAN, 1993, p. 56). We can successfully distinguish nonverbal aspects of
aeronautical communication. They are more subconscious than the linguistic ones (ibid, p. 55). DOI: 10.23925/2318-7115.2020v41i3a3
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Aeronautical conversation partners handle interpersonal interaction without any visual clues, but only
voice and hearing at their disposal. However, it happens that the interlocutor’s attitude changes during
an interaction and instead of being polite or neutral, for some reasons they become distrustful, impolite,
ironic or even hostile towards the conversational partner of different culture.
It seems like the increase of volume and the complexity of aviation operations worldwide entails
the volume and complexity of aeronautical communications. There are occasions when airline crews and
air traffic controllers fail to manage situations adequately by deviating from the prescribed standards,
being at the same time not aware of the errors they make. This can be caused by the above mentioned
factors. Automatically, the possibility of misunderstandings increases (BOROWSKA, 2017a). Although
pilots and controllers definitely share many common features of work equipment operations, the
differences in their national cultures may influence their effective work
. The research points to people
with their ‘inborn’ ethnic identities, who can easily and on purpose violate both a routine as well as a
non-routine dialogue by revealing their ‘inner self’. In such circumstances there are certain tendencies.
When the interaction begins, the first general information the interlocutors would gather about one
another, based solely on audial characteristics, is their very general ethnic membership classified as, for
example, a native or non-native speaker of English, or the representative of high- or low-level cultures.
Gudykunst (1998, p. 180) explains low- and high-context communication as follows:
High-context communication can be characterized as being indirect, ambiguous, and
understated with speakers being reserved and sensitive to listeners. Low-context
communication, in contrast, can be characterized as being direct, explicit, open, precise,
and being consistent with one’s feelings…To illustrate, people in the individualistic
culture of the United States use low-context communication in the vast majority of their
relationships (HALL, 1976)…People in Asian, African, and Latin collectivistic cultures,
in contrast, tend to use high-context messages when they communicate most of the time.
The voice itself becomes also an important channel of nonverbal behaviour and conveys many different
messages as it contains numerous characteristics that go well beyond the speech in communicating
messages, such as the tone of voice, intonation, pitch, speech rate, use of silence and volume
(MATSUMOTO; HWANG, 2012, p. 140).
Additionally, Yinger (1994, p. 2) claims that cultural groups range, in various usages, from small,
relatively isolated to large categories of people defined as alike on the basis of one or two shared
characteristics. Furthermore, such groups are hidden in global communication, but they are more visible
in situations of a smaller range, such as working in similar or same regions, or with particular
See more in OMOLE, WALKER, NETTO (2014) Extracting Cultural Factors from Helicopter Accident Reports Using
Content Analysis DOI: 10.23925/2318-7115.2020v41i3a3
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nationalities, e.g. an Australian controller may often work with Japanese pilots, and a particular Thai
pilot may often fly to New York, so may communicate mainly with American English controllers.
The following example of 1987 refers to the situation when Japanese pilots were approaching San
Francisco for the first time, and confirms the fact that after so many years, in 2020, we still face the
same cultural problems. There are still cases when ‘pure’ language training does not suffice anymore
and there is a need for intercultural training in order to reduce the occurrence of similar situations:
The pilots were sometimes not quite certain as to the exact meaning of the ATC (Air
Traffic Control) instructions. When they were asked, however, whether they had
understood the instructions, they would always say, Yes. It was found that many of the
American controllers did not stick closely enough to standard phraseology, but tended
to use idiomatic American English. The Japanese pilots, on the other hand, neither
complained nor did they ask back. Rather, they would give the impression that they had
perfectly understood the message. The reasons for this behaviour, it was found out, were
to a large extent cultural ones. For once, complaining about deviations from standard
phraseology would have meant that they, as “guests”, would have to be so impertinent
and impolite to criticize the “host” (US-American) nationals for “incorrect” language.
(BENEKE, 1993, p. 13)
Though the above situation took place years ago, Asian high culture still faces American low culture on
a regular basis and American controllers tend to use colloquial expressions. As it is still ‘the type’ of
English used, a number of native speakers may think non-native English groups that follow their own
culturally expected norms of interaction behave inappropriately because they should adapt to the
English speaking environment that seems to be perceived as a dominant culture (BOROWSKA, 2017b).
In aeronautical communication there are groups of speakers who share fundamental cultural
values and make up a field of communication and interaction, have a membership which identifies itself,
and is identified by others, as constituting a category distinguishable from other categories (BARTH,
1969). Eriksen (2002, p. 23) classifies cultural groups as those that may have ‘friendly’, ‘hostile’ and yet
‘joking’ relationships: “If one knew someone’s ethnic identity, one would know what kind of behaviour
towards them would be appropriate”.
Furthermore, at this point we can refer to cultural stereotypes that can be considered culture
indicators, too. Stereotyping is worth mentioning in our context as it contributes to defining one’s own
group in relation to others. The groups tend to have mutual stereotypes of each other and also of
themselves. Wierzbicka (2010, p. 46) claims that stereotyping is an example of danger facing those
involved in intercultural communication. Some of the most outstanding cultural categories in the context
of aeronautical communication seem to be Americans, Chinese, Spanish and Japanese. Thus, the
following stereotypes exist in the aeronautical reality:
Americans: expressive, chatty, dominating, proud, over self-confident; DOI: 10.23925/2318-7115.2020v41i3a3
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Chinese: poor English speakers, often causing confusion, asking too many questions;
Japanese: reserved, silent, polite;
Spanish: switching to their mother-tongue
Other Europeans show some deviations from expected aeronautical communication, however, they tend
to be more adaptive nowadays (BOROWSKA, 2017a). In order to decode and understand a message, the
receiver should be aware of the cultural code in which the message is encoded as people tend to form
their utterances differently. For example, Chinese leave the most important points at the end, whilst
Europeans do it the other way round (BOROWSKA, 2017a). The voice and verbal style may emphasise
nationality stereotype as it is culture that moderates the use of these vocal characteristics in social
interaction. Therefore, in aeronautical communication, analogically as in a standard one, expressive
cultures use louder voices with higher speech rates, whereas reserved cultures use softer voices with
lower speech rates (MATSUMOTO; HWANG, 2012, p. 140).
Research on cockpit management attitudes also confirmed that an American crew was “more
independent, self-reliant, and had personal responsibility in contributing to becoming an effective crew,
in contrast to Asian crew, who were more likely to support the authority of the superior and satisfied
with acting in a supportive role” (MERRIT; HELMREICH, 1996). It is obvious that a pilot must trust
controller’s commands because the pilot is not, in general, in receipt of enough information regarding
the traffic disposition to question them (McMILLAN, 1998, p.12), but it does not allow an American
controller to manifest his or her dominant attitude towards a non-native speaker of English, as illustrated
by the following examples expressed in Plain Aeronautical English (Exchanges 3 and 4):
Exchange (3)
Pilot (FR): Ground, AirFrans006 Super, gate 8 is available for us.
Controller (US): No, it’s not. They lied to ya. So, just hold there. I’ll call you when it’s available. I don’t need
you to tell me what I can see and you can’t.
Pilot: OK.
The French pilot in Exchange (3) does not react to the controller’s comment, although it is the American
controller who underlines his superiority. The pilot only agrees with the ‘instruction’ and expects further
clearance. It seems that an ‘American controller stereotype’ is well known for the French pilot and
probably with experience he got used to this type of controllers’ behaviour. This example is also a proof
for the fact that Americans may be perceived as dominant not only by high level cultures as Asians are,
but also by Europeans. A conversational silence is valued differently by different cultural groups.
Based on Aviation English communication research conducted by A. Borowska in the years 2011-2016
8, New York, 2016 DOI: 10.23925/2318-7115.2020v41i3a3
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The following example shows another indicator of culture that is controller’s ironic attitude:
Exchange (4)a
Controller (NS): SingCargo 7997 Heavy, runway 22R, taxi… actually, I’ll tell you what: follow an American
aircraft coming from the left side, follow him coming from the left and then it’ll be left on Alpha short of
Whiskey behind him.
Pilot (NNS, Asian): Roger, that’s to follow the American coming from our left to right and then left on Alpha
short of Whiskey.
Controller: That’s correct SingCargo, thank you.
Pilot: Thanks.
Pilot: SingCargo 7997, confirm that’s a right turn here on the Alpha?
Pilot: Ground, SingCargo 7997, could you give me further taxi clearances?
Controller: Sir, Alpha short of taxiway Whiskey, I need you to continue on Alpha.
Pilot: Delta, the first right to me now?
Controller: Just continue the aircraft towards, you wanna go to British Airways 74 of your right side.
Pilot: OK, thanks, ok, Alpha short of Whiskey, thanks.
At the beginning the interaction is proper and polite. The controller instructs the pilot again, as required,
the pilot reads back and after a few seconds the pilot asks for reconfirmation. Although it is
recommended in aeronautical communication to ask and confirm data as many times as it is necessary,
the dialogue below is not the best example of such recommendation. This time controller indirectly
criticises the pilot’s inability to memorise all the instructions he was provided with, but the pilot seems
to be patient enough and seems to accept the controller’s behaviour and at the same time his dominant
American culture:
Exchange (4)b
Pilot: SingCargo 7997, just want to confirm you the point before Hartford, could you give me the name again,
Controller: SingCargo, you gonna kill me, what do you want now?
Pilot: OK, ground, you were checking our routing and just the point before Hartford and Partham, could you give
the point again?
Controller: Now, sir, you’ve been given a change of frequency, you’d be talking to the same guy all night long,
see? And, you’re going back for a million questions, but let’s go over it: MERIT intersection, that’s spelt M-E-R-
I-T … Do you have any further questions about your route, your taxi route … anything else?
Pilot: Not for now, sir, thanks.
Controller: I’m sure in 30 seconds you’ll have another one, but continue to the runway.
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Apparently, the pilot requires not only support from the controller, but also respect even if it means
repeating the same instructions many times. The controller, on the contrary, wants to deal with routine
situations quickly and smoothly and regards the need for repetition as a waste of time. He also seems to
have fun by employing some irony, namely his joking attitude and giving unnecessary comments.
The exchanges (3) and (4) illustrate the fact that still some preconceptions exist beyond the
prescribed rules as there are certain tendencies observed in current aviation communication. One of the
reasons may be the fact that there are native speakers of English (e.g. American controllers) who treat
Aviation English as their own mother tongue, so they are dominant in exchanges with non-native
speakers and tend to impose their own culture, i.e. their own way of thinking and perception of the
world (ERIKSEN, 2002), on all those who enter their territory, and on the communication process itself.
Consequently, as seen above, they are often blamed to impede comprehension of not advanced native
speakers of English and are perceived by some as the ‘worst communicators’ (see BOROWSKA, 2017a;
ESTIVAL, 2018). Eriksen (2002, p.25) explains that stereotypes can justify privileges and differences in
access to a society’s resources. As far as a dominating group is concerned, they are crucial in defining
the boundaries of one’s own group because they inform the individuals of the virtues of their own group
and the vices of the others (ibid).
It happens that during an exchange between two representatives of low level culture, a nationality
of high level culture may serve as the object of amusement and is downgraded to that of a lower rank.
All of this takes place in open frequency, so everyone can hear it. In the following exchange, both
British and American participants make a Japanese (ANA) pilot the victim of a current situation, so they
can enjoy being on the safe side. Although the British pilot shows his acceptance of American dominant
culture by giving ironic comments, he might be simultaneously ironic towards the American culture,
too, and may be avoiding controller’s long comments in this way:
Exchange (5)
Pilot (BrNS): Ground, SpeedbirdXXX.
Controller (AmNS): Yes, sir?
Pilot (BrNS): Just to let you know. The ANA aircraft because of technical issue…err…they’re trying to resolve
that, but looks like they may have to go back on the stand, I’ll keep you advised, but we’re moving as it’s done.
Controller (AmNS): As long as you’re not telling the 300…well 400 odd people behind you that you’re
waiting because of an air traffic problem, sir, that’s fine with me.
Pilot (BrNS): oh, no, no, no. we’re blaming it on the Japanese.
It is possible that the ability to speak perfect English and being able to react verbally in a manner
suitable to the English speaking culture may take on a hierarchical character, where the groups are
11, New York, 2016 DOI: 10.23925/2318-7115.2020v41i3a3
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ranked according to their differential access to such a necessary tool as the English language. We can
easily observe an example of the dominant group that has come to power because of the language in use.
Native speakers of English tend to display their culture by the language they speak also in the
aeronautical settings. However, it usually determines the mode of behaviour towards them. Therefore,
we can call the native speakers of a given variety of English, e.g. American English, British English, a
specific type of a cultural group. Members of such a group are, or consider themselves, or are thought to
be, bound together by common ties of race or nationality or culture. Moreover, these are very often
native speakers of English who lack the competence to interpret host culture perspectives and
communication skills necessary to achieve effective communication outcomes in the aeronautical
context (BOROWSKA, 2017a).
As far as hostile attitude is concerned, based on an analysis of random exchanges, it has been
observed that the vast majority of such conversations are predominantly those where at least one of the
participants is of low level culture. Again, these are usually speakers of English as their mother tongue.
Interestingly, they show hostility more freely towards each other at the same group identity level,
including bad words and occupying frequency time for their own inner purposes. Moreover, it seems
this kind of attitude is somehow considered as manifesting one’s strength by establishing the speaker’s
dominance in the interaction, as in the following exchange between two native speakers:
Exchange (6)
Pilot (NS, American): [callsign]{polite request}, we are VFR under the clouds right now. And if you could give
me a [inaudible] for mile square.
Controller (NS, American) {negative attitude expressed by the tone of voice}: You’re not familiar with this
Pilot (NS): Yes, sir, I am very familiar with this airspace. But just coming through the clouds now, it would be
easier if you sir give me just heading for a moment.
Controller (NS): What kind of nav equipment do you have on board?
Pilot (NS): Slant Uniform, VOR sir.
Controller (NS): [callsign] fly heading 150, Vectors Mile Square Park.
Pilot (NS): OK, we’re currently 150 sir. Thank you sir, just wanted a little help. Thank you.
Controller (NS) {comments}: Well, let me give you some advice. Sometimes we’re not…we’re really busy.
We’ve got one controller working all the airspace and lotta inbounds coming in the last airlines coming into John
Wayne. I probably don’t always have time to hold your hand. Sorry to say that, but that’s the truth.
Pilot (NS): 25 years I’ve been flying this airspace sir, I’ve never had a controller talk to me like that.
Controller (NS): You are welcome to call me on the phone.
Pilot (NS): Love to.
It looks like the controller was frustrated by his workload, but it does not allow him to be rude towards
the pilot who is polite from the beginning and reluctant to say anything impolite until the last moment
when he is provoked to react differently.
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Therefore, we can observe some regular deviations from the generally accepted model of
aeronautical communication mainly because of cultural differences. Manifestations of culture are thus
still present and prescribed linguistic rules of aviation communication are still violated. Therefore, it is
not possible to discuss the potential model of aeronautical communication that is supposed to be without
any cultural connotations. Fortunately, the majority of routine exchanges, mainly outside the USA,
follow the prescribed example and conversational partners know how to cope with them. This means
that the discourse participants may demonstrate a proper attitude towards interlocutors of a different
culture, possess openness and tolerance, and are able to interpret their utterances successfully.
Concluding comments
Aeronautical communication is supposed to go beyond any cultural limitations. The majority of
interlocutors have already learnt how to communicate without referring to their respective cultures. If
any issue of culture appears, an effective communicator should adopt positive orientation towards a
given group to be able to continue the exchange and follow the prescribed rules of aviation
communication. At this point, we can refer to a metacultural group identity. When the interlocutors are
familiar with a given national environment, some of them expect specific behaviour on the part of a
given culture group. When this fact is established, the conversational partners would know roughly how
to behave towards each other, since there seems to be some standardised relationships between such
groups (ERIKSEN, 2001). However, the participants of aeronautical communication are real people
cloaked in their cultural identities, so at times such an image is violated.
It has been suggested that multicultural communication is especially challenging when members
of minority groups are not familiar with the discourse practices of, for example, the American dominant
culture as well as have limited proficiency in the majority language. Therefore, culture indicators can be
classified as verbal and nonverbal. On the one hand, it is a language that reveals its relationship with
group identity because it may reveal a speaker’s culture. On the other hand, communication participants
may misunderstand the message not only when the utterance is unintelligible or ambiguous, but also
when the attitude of an interlocutor is not proper.
Real life brings many unexpected occurrences and only by being aware of such phenomena can
Aviation English users communicate successfully in this high-risk environment and reach their highest
potential. It looks like a general assumption that culture does not matter in aviation communication and
the situation still holds good is thus no longer valid. DOI: 10.23925/2318-7115.2020v41i3a3
v.41 n.3 - 2020
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Dr. habil. Anna Borowska is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Applied Linguistics, University of
Warsaw. She received her Ph.D. in languages for specific purposes in 2008. As a seconded national
expert at the European Commission she was involved in creating database entries on aviation
terminology. She became Associate Professor in 2018. Her scientific achievements are comprised in her
monograph: Avialinguistics: The Study of Language for Aviation Purposes (2017). Currently, she is
head of the Aviation Communication Research Centre. Her research focuses on linguistic problems of
aviation verbal communication.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
This handbook provides a comprehensive overview, as well as breaking new ground, in a versatile and fast growing field. It contains four sections: Contrastive, Cross-cultural and Intercultural Pragmatics, Interlanguage Pragmatics, Teaching and Testing of Second/Foreign Language Pragmatics, and Pragmatics in Corporate Culture Communication, covering a wide range of topics, from speech acts and politeness issues to Lingua Franca and Corporate Crises Communication. The approach is theoretical, methodological as well as applied, with a focus on authentic, interactional data. All articles are written by renowned leading specialists, who provide in-depth, up-to-date overviews, and view new directions and visions for future research.
The book presents the first comprehensive description of avialinguistics. The author analyses this new interdisciplinary branch of applied linguistics that recognises the role of language for aviation purposes. She provides an integrated approach to Aeronautical English and proffers insights into aviation discourse, discussing its current linguistic errors and providing suggestions for aviation English communication improvement. The author tests theoretical considerations against illustrative real-life examples so as to facilitate an interpretation of regular pilot-controller communications. © Peter Lang GmbH. Internationaler Verlag der Wissenschaften. Frankfurt am Main 2017. All rights reserved.
Pilots from the United States, the Philippines, and Taiwan as well as flight attendants from the United States, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Singapore, and Taiwan completed a 20-item attitudinal questionnaire about group processes on the flight deck. A three-dimensional INDSCAL analysis revealed one dimension, used primarily by the eight Asian groups, which reflected high power distance and collectivism. The second dimension, reflecting individualism and moderate power distance, was used by the U.S. flight attendants. The third dimension, individualism and low power distance, was used almost exclusively by the U.S. pilots. The attitudinal similarity among the eight Asian groups was attributed in part to the questionnaire's monocultural bias. A new study is outlined, and training recommendations are offered.
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Negotiation of meaning
  • Allwright References
References ALLWRIGHT, R. L. 1999. Negotiation of meaning. In K. JOHNSON; H. JOHNSON (Eds.), Encyclopedic Dictionary of Applied Linguistics, Malden et al. Blackwell.
English as the medium of intercultural communication: Some teaching suggestions
  • J Beneke
BENEKE, J. 1993. English as the medium of intercultural communication: Some teaching suggestions. In J. BENEKE (Ed.), Communication in Aviation, Dummler Verlag, 2:69-101.