UK language study reveals cheating, bribery

An independent report commissioned by British aviation authorities has confirmed suspicions that many non-English native speakers who need to be proficient at the language to secure their highly paid jobs either cheat in their aviation English exams or effectively bribe the examiner.
The UK CAA commissioned the study in 2013 to investigate communication issues between pilots and air traffic controllers that were registered through the Mandatory Occurrence Report (MOR) system, and propose best practices to reduce miscommunication affected by substandard International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) language proficiency.
The extensive research project which has now been published explored whether poor command of English – the language of global aviation – among some pilots and air traffic controllers, is leading to increased safety risks.
At the time, the CAA suspected that there was growing evidence to suggest that proficiency of aviation English – the industry’s communicative standard that is regulated by the ICAO – is not always at the required level among some pilots employed by airlines flying to Britain as well as some air traffic controllers working internationally.
The research, funded by the UK Department for Transport under the auspices of the UK State Safety Programme, was undertaken by Dr Barbara Clark, a linguist and anthropologist specialising in aviation communication and safety at Queen Mary, University of London.
It found that there were grounds to suspect cheating on aviation English exams as well as grounds to suspect that some non-native English speakers are not being tested, but instead are being granted ICAO Level 4 certificates on ‘sweetheart’ deals, that is, handshakes, via friends, etc.
“This falsification happens due to several factors, including the social and cultural norms of saving ‘face’ and showing respect. Certain cultures place a great deal of importance on maintaining ‘face’, that is, avoiding public embarrassment or humiliation which can mitigate authority, status, or hierarchical position,” said the report author.
“Learning another language can involve such embarrassment and humiliation, e.g. forgetting vocabulary, mispronunciation, or using incorrect verb forms. For some cultures, maintaining ‘face’ is of utmost importance, even greater than aviation safety. Additionally, an attitude widely encountered and accepted – though rarely documented – is that language-related miscommunication is not a significant risk to aviation safety, despite myriad accidents and air disasters contradicting that attitude.”
Dr Clark said she had obtained documentation showing alleged evidence of cheating on an English for aviation exam in one state. She was also told that some candidates have been reported to be able to pass exams after ten days’ study and obtain ICAO Level 4 certificates.
“The teachers of English for aviation with whom the researcher has spoken have said it would be nearly impossible to go from no proficiency in English to ICAO Level 4 in such a short amount of time,” she reported. “This issue is clearly an area of concern and it is not known how widespread the issue may be.”
One of the report recommendations is to investigate the type and extent of inappropriate tuition and granting of proficiency awards with the purpose of driving towards better standards.
The project also explored how existing methods of maintaining clarity could be enhanced to reduce or eliminate language–related problems, which can contribute to accidents or serious incidents.