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3 lessons I learned from teaching air traffic controllers

By Lucy Tilney on Saturday, 01 June, 2019

AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLERS AND ENGLISH VOCABULARY

Recently, I have hosted a series of French air traffic controllers through an agency I work with. The French civil aviation association pays for their air traffic controllers to spend one week every three years on a full immersion English course. English is the official language for aviation and it’s important to keep their English up-to-date and refreshed.

It has led to some interesting issues. Obviously, there is a slightly specialised vocabulary connected to aircraft, meteorology, airports etc. Here is an unusual word, chosen by Guillaume, ‘buffet’. This can be a noun, a verb and an ‘ed/ing’ adjective, such as, ‘a buffeting wind’ or ‘the aircraft was buffeted’. The meanings can be as follow (from Oxford English Dictionary):

buffet /ˈbʌfɪt/

Noun [WITH OBJECT]

1 (especially of wind or waves) strike repeatedly and violently; batter.

‘rough seas buffeted the coast’

No object ‘the wind was buffeting at their bodies’

1.1 Knock (someone) off course.

‘he was buffeted from side to side’

1.2 (of difficulties) afflict (someone) over a long period.

‘they were buffeted by a major recession’

Noun

1 (dated) A blow or punch.

1.1 A shock or misfortune.

‘the daily buffets of urban civilization’

2  Aeronautics 

fifteen degrees of flap induce marked buffet’

another term for buffeting

Finally, above, we see the meaning in aeronautical English!

But this word, with a change in pronunciation, can mean something quite different (from Word Reference);

buffet /ˈbʌfeɪ/, /ˈbʊfeɪ/     Food

  1. a meal laid out so that guests may serve themselves: a buffet of cold cuts, salads, and desserts.
  2. a counter, bar, or table for food or refreshments.a restaurant with such a counter or refreshments.
  3. a restaurant with such a counter or table.

And here, again, it can be an adjective (before a noun):

  1. served from or as a buffet: a buffet supper

So you can see here that what seems like a simple word can actually present quite a complex set of meanings, which can be quite confusing for a non-native speaker or indeed, a native English speaker!

CONFUSING PHRASAL VERBS – AS ALWAYS!

All Latin-based language speakers (French, Italian, Spanish, Catalan etc) find our phrasal verbs very difficult. It’s understandable because with just the change of the final particle (up, on, in, off, through etc) you can change the meaning of a verb completely. Think of ‘get up’, ‘get on’, ‘get in’, ‘get off’, ‘get through’… 

When my students first arrive at my house, I usually suggest a walk to a local destination. I give them a map with my house marked on it and show them where we intend to go. I ask them to direct me to this destination. I find that this is a very good way for the student to start to understand where they are in relation to the rest of the city. If they accompany me, they will not pay attention to the route – that’s normal human psychology. I give them the language they will need: ‘Turn right’, ‘Turn left’ or ‘Straight on’ and indicate the directions with my arms.

While returning home with Guillaume, of my French air traffic controllers, he directed me ‘Turn right’ and ‘Turn left’. When it came to ‘Straight on’, he was surprised. He asked me if ‘Straight away’ meant the same, as in ‘continue in the same direction’. I explained that it was certainly very different and was an instruction of TIME, not of DIRECTION. Not only that, it’s an urgent instruction and implies that you must do this IMMEDIATELY, WITHOUT FURTHER QUESTION. He was very surprised and said that he thought his superiors at work didn’t understand this difference.

 I am not surprised by his confusion, however. If you think about the phrasal verbs, ‘move away’ or ‘get away’, these ARE verbs of movement and direction. So no wonder they find it all so confusing…

ASKING QUESTIONS IN ENGLISH – IT’S SO DIFFICULT!

I spend a LOT OF TIME and effort, correcting my students’ questions. In most other languages, you can ask a question by changing the intonation of a statement. It’s very simple. You change this statement, ‘You like coffee’ into a question by simply changing your intonation to rise at the end of the sentence, ‘You like coffee?’.

However, in English, we have to use an auxiliary (‘do’ or ‘did’), ‘Do you like coffee?’ or invert the subject and verb in questions with ‘be’, ‘Are you hungry?’. The ONLY time we DO NOT do this, is when our question is not really a question but a statement of surprise, ‘You like coffee?! Oh, I thought you hated it.' 

Two of my air traffic controllers have told me that they are encouraged to ask questions in the English way when they speak to pilots on the radio. This is for two reasons; one is that it is quite clear that a question is being asked, right from the beginning of the sentence, because of the auxiliary or the subject/verb inversion. Secondly, it avoids the possibility of the pilot misunderstanding the question as a command. So it is really VERY important. But ALL my air traffic controllers, usually very high-level English speakers, do NOT practise this when they speak English. I was very pleased to learn this, as I often feel rather embarrassed at the amount of time I spend correcting these very good English speakers.