Wednesday, February 20, 2013

English - the Crosswind* Perspective

"Milord, gentlemen, facing you in the witness box is a citizen of substance and stance; a man of unimpeachable honesty." 
Thus begins the defense speech of J. Thaddeus Toad - the notorious hero of Kenneth Grahame's 1908 children's novel about the adventures of an outlandish, talking toad. His charm and proficient use of the English language helps him to escape from prison disguised as a washerwoman. 
English is a requirement for Air Traffic Controllers, pilots and anyone who wishes to join the aviation community. Many of us may have never given much thought about the selection of English as the language of ATC. Also, for some of us, learning English or any other foreign language is a challenge. What can be done to make this experience more enjoyable?

Mandarin Chinese Characters

English is now the second most spoken language in the world. It was number three to Hindi and Mandarin Chinese which, still remains the world's number one dialect. It is with good reason that English is the lingua franca - or globally accepted tongue of ATC. English is the language of globalization -  the language of technology, commerce and international relations between important stakeholders such as the UN groups. Psychologists give additional reasons as to why ATCOs should happily learn to be proficient in english.
No, it is not to prepare for a daring escape like our talking toad but research has shown that we tend to make judgments about the competence and warmth of persons based on the way they speak.** Since in the ATC scenario speech is a primary product of this service industry, pilots and other 'consumers' of our communication will have a more positive cognitive reaction to a controller whose english is well enunciated.
The ATCO who properly uses vocal pitch, pace and power transmits not just commands but altruistic or feel-good elements such as reassurance. Her speech has its own power that impacts upon the wellbeing of the 'consumer' of her communication. Yes, how we say the phraseology is very important. It is worth the effort to  speak english professionally and cordially. In the process of communicating with a pilot  via radio frequency, a genuine smile cannot be seen but it can be heard in the inflection of our voices.  
If english is not your native tongue and you wish to improve your proficiency level, try thinking and reading in english for at least a few minutes every day. It will help to improve your fluency. The following illustration shows what happens when we learn to speak a foreign language but rarely practice thinking in that language. Simply read the colors below, not the words :





How did you do? Did you read the colors or the words? Did you fumble or stumble or pause for a few microseconds between words? Did you find yourself making the conscious effort to read the colors and not the words? You may find that you have to read those colors several times before you can correctly read all 21 of them. Now try to read the colors quickly and observe what happens. 
Your experience is similar to what takes place in our brain when we learn to speak a foreign language but think mostly in our native tongue. To become more fluent in speaking english, we must practice to think regularly in that language. Taking a few minutes every day to read in english will help our thought processes. This will aid us to improve in speaking the foreign tongue and our growing self-confidence will be transmitted subliminally or subconsciously in our diction.
Learning a second, third or an additional language becomes a bigger challenge particularly if we think that we are inadequate. This creates a mental block. It will help if we have a changed viewpoint. Learning to speak a foreign language is like learning to dance, only this time - we dance, but with words.

* - the word crosswind is used in ATC to (1) describe the direction of the wind or (2) describe the position of the aircraft in the traffic circuit. I used the second meaning to imply a different perspective on the requirement of learning English as a foreign language.

** - (Bornstein & D'Agostino, 1992; Lee & Fiske, 2006; Grossman, 2011)
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