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In many non-English speaking countries, communication with ATC may be conducted either in English or the native language. Famous examples are China, Russia, France and possibly Germany.

When a pilot who is a non-speaker of the native language hears such communication, which is he to do? Just sit back with no idea of what is going on?

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    $\begingroup$ Always wondered if forcing all people involved in aviation to learn an artificial lingua franca (e.g. Esperanto) would help to raise situational awareness. $\endgroup$ – orique Nov 18 '15 at 10:24
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    $\begingroup$ Lojban would make a perfect language for that. $\endgroup$ – Antzi Nov 18 '15 at 21:51
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    $\begingroup$ Germany? Did you experience that or is it just an assumption ("possibly") based on German being in the Top 10 of the most-spoken langauges world-wide? $\endgroup$ – hiergiltdiestfu Nov 19 '15 at 8:17
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    $\begingroup$ I heard German was used in Germany in the past. I also read some where it is no longer applicable. Hence "possibly". $\endgroup$ – vasin1987 Nov 19 '15 at 10:28
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    $\begingroup$ @orique, as far as using an artificial lingua franca, there are more Klingon speakers now than Esperanto. lets use that instead. $\endgroup$ – Andy Dingfelder Nov 23 '15 at 1:07
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During the 1990s I flew into countries on every continent except Antarctica. As an American English speaker flying U.S. registered airplanes, I never had a complaint that a controller had trouble understanding me, and I was always addressed in English by the controllers. Sometimes, though, I would have trouble understanding the controller's accent and would have to ask them to repeat their instructions.

As you mentioned, in some countries the controllers will address the pilots of that country in their native language. Personally, I always felt that compromised the smooth functioning of the system to a degree, because it denied a good bit of the overall picture of what was happening to the pilots who didn't speak that language. For example, if two airplanes preceding you are being rerouted for some reason, but you can't understand what they've been given (and which you're probably going to be given), you're not as prepared for the reroute when it comes through to you in English.

Even if controllers spoke to you in English, they would typically pronounce place names and fixes as they are pronounced in the native language. My first flights in France were a real problem in this respect. The French controllers were speaking good and understandable English, but the French pronunciation of the place names did not match our English rendition of the names we were seeing (and had never seen or heard before) on the IFR maps (no glass cockpits back then for us). In a couple of instances, we had to request that they spell the names, which didn't make us popular. On one occasion, when we made such a request, another pilot came on frequency and said, "He means ...." and gave us an English transliteration if you will of what the controller was saying.

Interestingly, the worst time I ever had understanding a clearance was one from a nominally English speaking controller. We were talking to Scottish control, and received a reroute into Amsterdam from a controller with a very pronounced accent (Glaswegian?). All I was able to get was that at the end he was turning us over to Dutch control and the frequency. I went over to the Dutch, and asked for them to restate what our new clearance was, and I apologized, explaining that I had been unable to understand Scottish control. His first words were, "That's okay, we can't understand them either."

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    $\begingroup$ Wow, this gave me a new view on language internationalization. $\endgroup$ – TehShrike Nov 18 '15 at 5:12
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    $\begingroup$ This has been my exact experience in France, and in South America. Fortunately I know basic Spanish, so am able to find their fixes with relative ease, but in France it is downright impossible, AND the French controllers will simply keep repeating it the same way over and over even though they know that it sounds completely different than it looks to an English speaker.... You have to ask them to spell it, which as Terry says, annoys them. $\endgroup$ – Lnafziger Nov 18 '15 at 5:15
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    $\begingroup$ At Schiphol, KLM and Transavia pilots get the Spijkerboor approach assigned and the rest the Sierra Papa Yankee approach. I always like to think that foreign pilots believe that the Dutch get a priority straight-in approach, while they are of course the exact same. $\endgroup$ – Sanchises Nov 18 '15 at 10:43
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    $\begingroup$ At international scientific conferences where English is the lingua franca, I have found something similar. Native speakers of English are often harder to understand because of their larger vocabulary and collection of idioms. This is compounded by their speaking in some regional accent, which can render their talk almost unintelligible. $\endgroup$ – Oliphaunt Nov 18 '15 at 12:42
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    $\begingroup$ Don't worry, we Brits can't understand Glaswegians either.... $\endgroup$ – Jon Story Nov 18 '15 at 13:16
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This is much more common than just the countries you list. In Mexico, for example, ATC communications with Mexican carriers are entirely in Spanish and many of the controllers have thick accents.

Thankfully, ATC phraseology is standardized and limited in vocabulary so it isn't too difficult to get the basic idea of what is going on. If you pick up on the words for "left", "right", "climb", "descend" and the numbers you'll maintain a good idea of what other airplanes around you are doing. The corollary to this is the controllers often get by in English the same way. I once tried to report an un-tethered balloon floating up near our position and going "off-script" made it hard to communicate. In the end an AeroMexico pilot translated what we were saying to the controller in Spanish.

One thing you don't want to do is decide, once you've learned the words for "hello", "good morning", etc, is to use those during your initial callup to foreign ATC. It might sounds nice to say "Buenos dias Monterrey, jetlink treinta treinta-dos nivel do veulo tres siete cero" but it'll backfire on you when the controller responds in Spanish. This is doubly true in Canada where the controllers (particularly over Québec) are quite happy to service you in French.

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    $\begingroup$ Of course, controllers (anywhere) similarly complain about pilots not being able to speak much English when they need to go “off-script” (e.g. to ask for rate of climb or something like that). $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Nov 18 '15 at 14:46
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Basically, yes. This is also common in most of the Spanish speaking countries that I have flown within that are in the Americas, as well as French being predominately used in France.

In each of these places it is very common to hear ATC speaking to many (most) of the pilots in their native tongue, and speak English only when talking to someone that doesn't speak it. (Sometimes with a very strong and hard to decipher accent.)

I prefer being able to hear everything (sometimes you can catch things that you might not otherwise), but that's just the way that it works.

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The ATC will repeat to you whatever he deems necessary for you to know. All transmissions "to all stations" will be also in English. Private pilots may not even posses the aviation English certificate (it is an optional extra course in our country) and they still want to be able to fly.

If you are a pilot of a small airplane yourself, it may even happen to you that the AFIS or RADIO station at the local airport doesn't have the English certificate and will not be allowed to advise you in English.

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  • $\begingroup$ Why is it a community wiki I have no idea. $\endgroup$ – Vladimir F Nov 21 '15 at 17:59
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    $\begingroup$ It looks like you ticked the "community wiki" box when you posted your answer. $\endgroup$ – Léo Lam Nov 22 '15 at 9:47
  • $\begingroup$ Seems to be the case, I was sending the answer from my mobile phone. $\endgroup$ – Vladimir F Nov 22 '15 at 17:48
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In Brazil, ATCos communicate on their native language (Portuguese) or in English. If you do not speak English, it will not be recommended do fly across your boundaries.

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I don't fly but I would guess it would be the same as computer programming. The pilots probably learn a set of commands that ATC will give them, these commands will be a standard set around the world, so it won't necessarily be "English" that is spoken on the radio, more an international code language.

When I did amateur radio we had various Q-codes and number codes like 73's, 88's, QTH, QRZ - all these meant the same no matter which country you were from and that way we could speak to each other regardless of language, and it was it's own language known mainly by the amateur radio community. I would guess that pilots have the same thing - for example in amateur radio the following would mean

1: QTH? 2: QTH Berlin"

1: Where are you? 2: I'm in Berlin

I don't know whether pilots use Q codes but I guess they must have something similar to this

Also there has been other things that have used these radio codes - for example the messenger service ICQ was named because the code for calling for a response on radio is to CQ ("Seek You") someone - "CQ, CQ, this is GW0AAA /MM calling CQ" means that someone with the call sign of G0AAA is in Wales on a boat of some sort and they're calling out to anyone who may be interested in having a chat (also the callsign gives you additional information about the person your speaking to - I assume pilots have similar things a callsign that starts G or M indicates that the persons amateur radio licence is from the UK, the second letter is used to indicate which part of the UK the person is calling from - England doesn't have a secondary letter but Wales has W, Scotland is M, NI is I, IoM (D), Guernsey (U) and Jersey (J) are also included even though technically they're separate from the UK with their own government) and the end bit also tells the person even more information - for example /M = the person is mobile, /T they're in a temporary location, /MM is maritime mobile, etc - but with all that extra information you don't really need to know English to work out roughly where that person is.

And finally with modern translation services and computer systems I would also guess that anything that comes through the radio now on a plane would also probably be sent to a screen on the dashboard, which has the ability to translate - just a guess but can't see why this isn't incorporated into planes (it is on Microsoft Flight Sim and that's supposed to be "As Real As It Gets!" - although I have heard that XPlane is much more real!) - and it wouldn't need to be a very big dictionary of words either for translation because there would only be a select number of phrases you'd need, your not really going to sit there and have a full on conversation with ATC are you - both them and you want to keep communication short and to the point because other people also need to use the radio comms.

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    $\begingroup$ These are just guesses, but the answers from some experienced guys above, who do fly or control (not me), explain it better. Pilots use preset phrases, but it is normal speech, be it English or some other language. There are Q codes in aviation (QNH, QFE, QDM), but their usage is limited, you cannot control airplanes just using them. Finally, radio is just radio, you speak to a microphone and listen to the headphones. There is no magical translation to something on the dashboard. Especially not in small planes. Aviation is NOT just large scheduled passenger jet traffic. Why so many guesses? $\endgroup$ – Vladimir F Nov 22 '15 at 17:55
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    $\begingroup$ I spent 18 years doing software development in Fortran, Cobol, PL-I, C, and a number of machine dependent assembler level languages. Then I switched careers and flew aircraft ranging from light single-engine to 747s. On the basis of that experience, I can assure you that the communication between pilots and controllers is not equivalent to computer programming. Negotiation and nuanced language is often necessary. Sometimes you tailor what request to such things as the tension in the speaker's voice or how fast they're speaking. For these things you need a spoken language, at least for now. $\endgroup$ – Terry Nov 23 '15 at 19:53

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