What does the language barrier mean to the multi-national cockpit?



The challenges of piloting an aircraft can often load us up enough without overlaying the cognitive effort involved in transmitting and receiving information in a language other than our own. But plenty of pilots out there do just that every day. In aviation, those of us lucky enough to have English as our mother tongue are unlikely ever to fully appreciate the additional task that this implies for the rest.

By recently signing up to fly helicopters with the Spanish Coastguard, I have just given myself the opportunity to find out first hand.

Like any other skill set, communicating is one that can be learned. But, as anyone who has tried it at almost any level can attest, striving for success in communicating in a language other than your own can be in turns the most satisfying and most demoralising of activities. It takes effort and tenacity.

Despite the fact that in the airlines a multilingual crew is probably more the norm than the exception, it is probably true to say that notwithstanding the mix of nationalities in many large helicopter operations, it is nevertheless not the case to the same extent in the rotary wing world.

You might think that when we talk about the impact of language on CRM then we’d be focusing in on the subject of communication. But here’s the thing: I am a strong believer that CRM is communication. And communication is CRM. The art of communication is the thread that runs through each and every other element that makes up our non-technical skills.

As a CRM instructor I had the privilege of spending some time in the classroom with French pilots who were joining a British Search and Rescue operation. We talked about some of the difficulties that language could present, but it wasn’t until I flew with them that it was really brought home to me the incredible amount of extra mental energy that they must be expending carrying out that role in a foreign language.

So now it’s my turn it struck me as an interesting exercise to try to consider some of the different ways that operating across a language divide could impact on the CRM of the whole crew. The fact that I have never paused to give it such in depth thought before is itself worth highlighting: I have worked with speakers of English as a foreign language throughout my career, and I know that I would not be alone now in admitting a failure to pay sufficient attention to my own language usage when working in my mother tongue.

As a non-native speaker, being the odd one out amongst a crew of native speakers raises a number of questions in my mind about how the impact of my language usage and interpretation will impact on the crew dynamic and the Operation in any number of technical and non-technical ways.

How much will I lean on pro-words, and standardised call-outs? Will I rely on them too much, at least in the early days?

How will the limitations of my language skills restrict my propensity to verbalise my thought processes or avoid moments of communication that I might not have shied away from in my own tongue, with less mental effort?

What effect will it have on my cockpit workload? How can I offset the impact that it will have on my capacity to deal with other eventualities in flight?

To what extent will it impact on my situational awareness? Will I miss anything going on around me due to the knock on impact it will have on my capacity in general, or due to the limitations of my language skills themselves? What impact will my deficiencies or the differences in how I communicate in my second language have on the situational awareness of the rest of the crew? Will I be able to explain myself as quickly and effectively, draw pictures with words, and contribute to building crew awareness?

The mental effort required working in a second language is fatiguing. What effect will that have on my performance? To what extent will my colleagues be conscious of the impact of this on me?

What if I suffer a surprise and startle event? Will I be lost for words? Will the particular challenge of emergency or abnormal situations prevent me from finding the language and being able to express myself fluently? Under acute stress will reversion to my native tongue happen automatically, and what impact could that have on the rest of the crew?

Will insecurities -albeit subconscious ones – about how language might hold me back or change the way that others look at me, prevent me from projecting a greater leadership role? Would the corollary of that be that I am asking more of the team around me?

For those of you who will never put yourselves outside of this particular comfort zone, although you are less likely to put these questions to yourself, they are no less relevant to you should you fly alongside a member of your crew that is working with you in a second language. Many of us are guilty of not paying enough attention to this. How often do you actively consider the way you speak? Your choice of words, avoidance of idiom, colloquialism and slang, moderation of local or national cultural or geographical references? Do you consider you own pronunciation, accent, speed or clarity of speech? I expect that in most cases the answer is no. Or not often. Why? Because it is not something we habitually do. It takes mental effort and deliberate thought.

This is a question for the whole crew: How does the fact that I don’t speak your language just like you do change the way we have to work together?




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