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Article written by Michael Egerton for Aviation English Asia Ltd

When starting an Aviation English course, a lot of candidates initially find listening comprehension of pilot / controller dialogues difficult. Some students ask what they can do in their own time to prepare. If you want to develop genuine proficiency in comprehension of pilot / controller dialogues, the answer is a little bit more complex than the throwaway advice that is sometimes given by General English teachers.  But before we give you our advice on how to develop your English listening skills in an aviation context, let's look at the reasons why.

Listening comprehension in General English tests

In General English tests like IELTS, TOEIC and TOEFL, listening comprehension is assessed in a relatively simple way, and there is an emphasis on whether a candidate can understand the overall gist of a recording, before assessing whether a candidate can understand smaller details. For this reason candidates are often told to improve their English overall, immerse yourself in an English speaking environment, and do things that native speakers do such as listen to English songs or BBC news reports.  In some tests there is positive marking so if you get a question correct, then your overall score will be higher regardless of whether you understand the situation overall. Perhaps most critically this type of General English test doesn't assess accuracy in matters which are critical to pilots and controllers such as flight levels, speeds and headings.  

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Time-wasting or throwaway advice?

How effective is this type of advice? Well, there is a lot of information in news stories that native speakers will miss, or at least not focus on. And in everyday life native English speakers are not going to correct every mistake or misunderstanding you make in conversation.  But the main difficulty is that just listening to news stories doesn't give learners any feedback on whether their comprehension is accurate or not.  Furthermore, most recordings are not pitched at a particular level, so this type of audio might not be suitable for self study.  Surely learners can look for a transcript and check against that? Possibly, but sometimes the transcript doesn't reveal implied meanings and intentions.

Overall that type of self-study isn't a particularly productive use of time. Self-study definitely has it's place, but we have seen students who have been told to practice listening and like good hardworking students they have followed that advice and listened to youtube videos featuring ATC but not actually made any improvement.

You have probably heard the idiom "practice makes perfect". Well it's not true.  Repeating the same mistake over and over again is the definition of insanity!

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"PERFECT PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT"

Listening comprehension in Aviation English tests

Aviation English is more complex in that the audio used in ICAO assessments generally falls into one of four main categories.

  1. Pilot / controller dialogues - this is an extended communication between a pilot and controller using a mixture of phraseology and plain English.
  2. Instructions from a controller - typically a maximum of three instructions is given in one clearance
  3. Dialogue between flight crew - captain to first officer, or flightcrew to cabincrew
  4. Monologues - typically a summary or a report of an incident

You might find that you have more difficulty with one type of audio than others.  Every learner is different and you would be surprised in the difficulties that even experienced pilots have.

In order to improve your listening comprehension, the first thing you should do is identify your problem and why you have it.  The best way to identify a problem is to call Aviation English Asia Ltd on +852 81799295 and arrange a consultation ($250 HKD).  If you don't know the source of your problem, and you still keep practicing the same way you could waste a lot of time.  

Classifying difficulties with listening comprehension in ICAO English tests

AEA teachers are language experts and can diagnose a problem and identify the source of the problem. Then you can focus on developing the skills you need so you can progress faster.   For example, difficulties with listening comprehension in ICAO English test tend to fall into one of these categories:

  1. Lack of familiarity with radiotelephony / standard phraseology
  2. Lack of aviation-related vocabulary - aileron, backtrack, laminar flow
  3. Lack of proficiency in identifying non-technical vocabulary - which significantly changes the meaning of a sentence
  4. Lack of proficiency in identify the grammatical structure of a sentence - which significantly changes the meaning of a sentence
  5. Lack of proficiency in identifying sounds - leading to confusion of "similar" sounding words

Typically there will be a correlation between core language skills and listening comprehension.  Once we have identified your problem we can identify the best type of self-study for you.

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