Can pilots learn English in 10 days?

In a recent report, Sky News has highlighted a total of 267 aviation incidents that required reporting which were based on pilots’ language problems. 
Although pilots and controllers are required to pass the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) English qualification at level 4, one such incident was a pilot on an approach to Manchester Airport confusing ‘left’ with ‘right’. 

With the ICAO Operational Level 4 test focussing on speaking and listening, it is assessed in a face-to-face situation. This has led to allegations of cheating:

In one country, candidates who started with no English skills received their certificates after 10 days’ tuition – an “impossible” feat, according to one of the report’s contributors.

Seems do-able…

The report has also led to Wales’ Esperanto chairman Bill Chapman making calls for the international language of aviation to be Esperanto, instead of English. 


Automating asylum

In order to process a backlog of thousands of asylum claims, the German government will pilot the use of speech recognition software this week. Originally developed for financial security checks in telephone banking, the software assesses speech patterns to establish claimants’ place of origin. As Deutshe Welle reports, lingustic assessments have been part of the verification process in Germany since 1998 where lingustic data was sent to linguists to analyse. Even then, the system is flawed, with a recent study by the University if Essex’s Prof. Monika Schmid highlighting the inaccuracy if this approach. The study found that German citizens identified recordings of German expats as not being of German origin due to language attrition. Schmid goes on to say:

“We have argued that in order to do so reliably, an analyst must have a solid background in linguistic analysis and be able to take into account a wide range of factors. For example, people will adapt the way they speak to the speech patterns of their interlocutors. 

“I don’t see how automated software can distinguish whether a person uses a certain word or pronounces it in a particular way because this is part of their own repertoire or because they were primed to do so by the interviewer or interpreter.”

The Art of Language

Linguists and language teachers can be an analytical bunch and we often forget the natural beauty of languages. While poetry, prose and storytelling reside on the other side of the often perceived language / literature rift, linguistics can be beautiful too. This week there have been some stunning depictions of language in the media. The first is the work of photographer Jolita Vaikute, who has represented a series of untranslatable words in a series of collages. The example ‘sobremesa’ above represents the Spanish word for a lengthy discussion after an equally lengthy meal. My favourite example in Vaikute’s portfolio is:

Verschlimmbessern (German): To accidentally make something worse in the process of attempting to mend or improve it. Multiple applications around computers, cake baking and relationships.

Meanwhile, the BBC’s In Pictures has just published the 2017 series of Wellcome Images which celebrate pictures from scientific studies. The image below shows the neural pathways created by languages, as represented in a study byStephanie J Forkel, Ahmad Beyh and Alfonso de Lara Rubio at Kings College London.

This is an image showing a 3D-printed reconstruction of the white matter pathway connecting two areas of the human brain – the arcuate fasciculus.

The arcuate fasciculus links grey matter, which contains cells and is responsible for processing information, with white matter which connects areas of grey matter – allowing information to be transferred between distant areas of the brain.

The importance of orthography

As language teachers, we recognise the importance of the written word and the need for accuracy. We write our text messages in full and become mortified when we slip up with our own spelling and punctuation. We dutifully encourage our learners that a spelling mistake is not the end of the world but they must never be repeated, on pain of certain death.
local story reported on the BBC might go a long way to providing a reason for this neurosis, which transcends just getting it right. Today a settlement was reached between Companies House in Cardiff after the omission of the plural ‘s’ in the company name Tyler and Sons led to the wrong company being wound up, the loss of 250 jobs at a company that had been trading since the nineteenth century and an £8.8m court case. 

Proofreading never seemed so attractive. 

Intensity over immaturity

recent study from the University of Zürich suggests that taking English lessons early in life is less effective than intensive studies of the language. 

Incresingly, authorities in Europe are being lobbied by concerned parents to make primary schools monolingual. The findings of this study may support this.However, this is likely to be good news for private English schools, which could pick up lessons dropped by state schools. 

I do solemly swear…

Swearing is a transgression of taboo and is inherently bad, right? Maybe not. At least not always. Today the BBC ran this article on swearing which promotes its very NSFWOAE (not safe for work or anywhere else) Radio 4 broadcast Philosophers Arms on swearing
The article discusses some interesing studies on bad language:

The emotional release from swearing has been measured in a variety of ways. It turns out that swearing helps mitigate pain. It is easier to keep an arm in ice-cold-water for longer if you are simultaneously effing and blinding. And those who speak more than one language, report that swearing in their first language is more satisfying, carrying, as it does, a bigger emotional punch.

Add to this the research that suggests that people who swear a lot tend to be more honest and we have a new perspective on blue language. Maybe it’s just a little bit big and clever, after all?