NO ENTRY: How do Pilots’ English Language Proficiency Gradually Deteriorate During COVID-19
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Gökhan Demirdöken

NO ENTRY: How do Pilots’ English Language Proficiency Gradually Deteriorate During COVID-19

Issue 8 - 2020
NO ENTRY: How do Pilots’ English Language Proficiency Gradually Deteriorate During COVID-19

After having your Sunday breakfast, take a cup of coffee and be seated on your favorite spot at home. Now take a deep breath, close your eyes, and think about what has changed in your life over the year. If you are a doctor or a nurse, you may have longer working hours in these days; if you are a teacher, you are most likely to try to catch up with what the latest instructional technology tools offer for your distance teaching setting. However, if you are a pilot, you may spend the rest of your day making a reservation for Amazon Flex, Uber Eats, Grabhub or seeking a job on the internet because you are simply one of thousands of other commercial pilots that have been laid off since 2020. That’s one of the biggest and most dramatic consequences of Covid-19.

Flying has always been a dream for many people. Once you have your dream job, you never dream of doing any other profession anytime soon. However, the global pandemic has struck aviation industry so hard that it has become quite normal to see former pilots having totally different careers around the world. While some of them are lucky to get the opportunity to run their own business, others simply work at supermarkets, phone companies or land transportation companies. One of such examples is from Turkey where former pilots and flight attendants now make money driving taxi. Australia, as another example, now has a finance company founded by a former Qantas pilot Rick Garner, who is providing financial advice and arranging loans for aviation professionals. Such drastic changes in the lives of aviation professionals have not only affected them but also their families negatively, yet the latest developments with regard to the transportation of vaccines are hopefully expected to bring hope for aviation industry in 2021.


As of February 2021, the sufferings of aviation industry during the pandemic have been already well-documented. US Bureau of Transportation Statistics reported that annual commercial flights have decreased by 48% in 2020 from the 9.46 million flights in 2019. Similarly, Eurocontrol released the latest statistics regarding the air traffic density in Europe in 2020. It was thereby reported that air traffic has significantly decreased by 65.7% from February 2020 to February 2021 compared to February 2019. What’s more the number of airlines ceasing or suspending operations has reached more than forty within the last couple of months. What’s worse than ever, the only relatively bright spot of the aviation stats was the domestic market

in 2020, which recently deteriorated in December 2020. However, there is still hope for the rest of 2021 as more and more people will be vaccinated around the world. Global flight statistic for January 2021 also proves it. Although the number of commercial flights has not increased significantly in January 2021, there is a slow yet relatively promising recovery from December 2020 to present day both in Europe and North-Central America.

Having seen the initial indications of a possible recovery for the aviation industry, it is now high time for airlines to focus on identifying the negative consequences of Covid-19. In order to have a speedy recovery, it is of utmost importance for airlines to listen out the scholars with regard to the ways pilots have been negatively affected by the pandemic. These include issues like stress management, depression, anxiety, cognitive regression which may negatively affect safety in aviation. However, the most important issue for pilots is the language attrition.

What is anguage attrition?

Language attrition can be defined as the decline in any language skill for a reason. Therefore, language attrition in pilots should be investigated within the scope of language skills. To do so, it is crucial to identify the language skills and various reasons for such decline in these skills. While listening and reading are considered as receptive skills, speaking and writing are considered as productive skill. Also, while the former requires the interpretation of a message whether in the form of sound or words, the latter is the end product of a number of complex cognitive processes. Therefore, radio communication in aviation can be argued to include both receptive and productive language skills. On the one hand, pilots are expected to listen to radio messages, interpret it and then take action accordingly. On the other hand, after having constructed any kind of meaning out of the radio message, pilots are expected to respond to air traffic controllers. In this sense, they must complete several cognitive tasks as well as maintaining the control of aircraft and cooperation with other cockpit crew. As a result, they are challenged to deal with a significant amount of cognitive load during standard flight operations. However, they are definitely cognitively overloaded during abnormal flight operations like engine failures, fire in the cabin, cockpit, or cargo compartment, malfunctioning of flight instruments, etc. That’s why, they are trained to handle such issues as smoothly as possible. Yet, there are some instances that they cannot foresee. Language attrition is one of such instances that happens over a certain period of time for some reasons.

What triggered language attrition?

The starting point for the investigation of the loss of listening comprehension and speaking skills of pilots should be the construct of time. That’s to say language attrition does not happen at once rather, it is the consequence of a a chain of events in human life. In this sense, it is quite similar to aviation accidents which mostly take place as a result of several issues leading to the accident.

Therefore, it can be argued that detrimental effects of Covid-19 can be considered as the ‘hitman’ of the chain of events resulting in the loss of certain language skills of pilots. As of January 2020, with the incidence of the first wave of Covid-19, the aviation industry started to face with the inevitable market loss during the rest of 2020. In the following months, with the spread of the virus around the world, airline companies started to announce widescale domestic and international flight cancellations which, in turn, led to less demand on the number of active pilots. This was followed first by salary cuts, and then by temporary lay-offs and finally permanent lay-offs around the world.

At the end of the day, all we had was thousands of grounded aircrafts and unemployed pilots. This was probably the most significant issue that triggered the language attrition for pilots. Over time, those who learned English as a second or foreign language or simply for the purpose of doing his/her profession started to spend little or no time in the cockpit yet a significant amount of time at home. Therefore, contrary to their routine, Turkish pilots, for instance, started to use their mother tongue more than Aviation English, and the gradual decline in their language competency had already started without even noticing it.

Who is responsible for this ‘decline’?

Human beings are, by birth, equipped with certain skills to process information. Among many others, the ability to store information temporarily is probably the most notable skill and it is the core responsibility of our working memory to manage this skill. Therefore, working memory has long been investigated by scholars to draw meaningful conclusions about its relationship with language learning. In this regard, while some scholars distinguished between holding an idea in mind and retrieving it after its disappearance, others focused on more detailed examination of WM such as how it functions and what its limit is. For the professionals in aviation industry, the best interpretation of its effect on pilots can be made as follows: Working memory is, in its simplest form, the cognitive system which can store a small amount of information. That’s why, pilots are able to store only a certain amount of the radiotelephony message while listening to the air traffic controllers. What’s more this cognitive system is known to store that certain amount of information for a certain amount of time, which is roughly 30 second depending on the task human beings deal with. If we think of any radiotelephony message transmitted by air traffic controllers, it is not surprising to find out that it includes a considerable amount of information. Therefore, any pilot whose mother tongue was other than English would have some kind of difficulty in storing and processing radiotelephony messages while doing their profession. However, in cases like Covid-19, they would have little or no opportunity to practice it which, in turn, results in the decline of listening comprehension skill. That is, for sure, not limited to listening comprehension. Being isolated from English language speaking settings can also have detrimental effects on pilots’ speaking skills. All things considered; it is possible to conclude that working memory definitely influences pilots’ ability to process radiotelephony messages. Those with a high working memory capacity can be expected to complete this action easily. On the other hand, having a relatively limited working memory capacity can slow down the same process. Similarly, the latter group of pilots may not be as proficient as the first group in terms of productive language skills like speaking and writing. However, it would be a huge mistake to identify working memory as one and only factor that is related to language attrition. Rather, there are some environmental factors as well.

L2 attrition and its environmental reasons

Human beings go through a number of fixed developmental stages as they get older. As infants of 3-6 months-old, they are preset to listen to other people around them and produce speech sounds mostly in the form of babbling. This initial stage of speaking is then followed by the production of a limited amount of words at around 12-15 months. Later, they normally move on to the more complex speech productions. All of these speech production stages naturally occur as babies are exposed to linguistic input. However, speech production may take place quite late for some children due mostly to isolation from speech communities. Therefore, this process of acquiring the mother tongue is of utmost importance and it needs to be closely monitored. Apart from the acquiring the mother tongue, human beings also learn some additional languages depending on their interests or needs. While a businessperson may desire to learn Chinese for commercial reasons, another person may simply desire to learn English out of interest. In the case of learning Aviation English, it is mostly out of global language proficiency regulations. Once you finally made up your mind to be a pilot, you have two options as a non-native speaker of English: either to attend a language course or move to a different place where English language is the medium of communication. In the first case, you are more likely to expose yourself to the target language in the classroom and thus, learning may take longer compared to the second case which puts the target language in the center of your life and thus, you are exposed to that language more often and effortlessly. After having attained a certain degree of proficiency in the target language, you are expected to perform the duties of your profession easily. The reason for that is because you will keep using the language actively as part of your profession. However, once you are deprived of such opportunity to use and practice the language, the so-called language attrition starts playing an irreversible role in your life. That’s pretty much what thousands of pilots have started to encounter with temporary or permanent layoffs since 2020.

With regards to language attrition, we should hereby distinguish different types of it due to environmental factors. The most common classification is made by Theo Van Els, a Dutch academic. He first identifies the loss of mother tongue in an environment where it is the medium of communication and dialect loss is a very common example of it. Second, he mentions losing the mother tongue in an environment where it is not the medium of communication and this is often exemplified with immigrants losing their mother tongue after permanently leaving their country of origin. Third, Van Els addresses the loss of a second or foreign language in your native speaking environment, which can simply be exemplified with the loss of any foreign language you learned at school. Finally, we learn about a less common phenomenon of losing the second or foreign language in an environment where learners use that language and it is because of aging most of the time. Although it is not exactly to our best knowledge how human beings store and make use of different languages, something is for sure that we are likely to lose them unless we are exposed to that language. Within the scope of Van Els’s framework, it is now possible to identify the environmental factors influencing pilots’ loss of English language. As the number of non-native English-speaking pilots has outnumbered the native English-speaking pilots, the aviation industry can be argued to include mostly learners of Aviation English in an instructional setting. Therefore, the third category in Van Els’s framework appears to be the concern of aviation industry. That’s to say, the aviation industry will be severely challenged by pilots who have already started to be affected by the issue of language attrition due to little or no exposure to English language during the lockdown and temporary lay-off. Having established what might trigger language attrition, we should now explain the theories of language attrition so that a more meaningful conclusion can be drawn for the aviation industry.

Hypotheses of language attrition

Have you ever had difficulty in recalling the callsign in any of your flight operations? The answer is probably yes because it is quite natural to experience similar issues of forgetting what we know by heart. There exist several reasons for why you might have forgotten the callsign or any other piece of information, even your wife’s name in the worst-case scenario. In an attempt to make this issue of forgetting more clear for human beings, German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus conducted a study and concluded that the amount of learned knowledge is closely related to the amount of time invested. In other words, as the time passes by more and more, we need more repetitions and more frequent use of that piece of information. This was called decay theory of forgetting. If we do not use the knowledge over the course of time, it will surely decay. Another attempt investigating this issue resulted in the theory of interference. Being one of the most important theories of forgetting, it refers to the conflict between our previous knowledge and current knowledge, and the recently learned information may block the previously learned information. Last but not least, the retrieval-failure hypothesis to forgetting means human beings store different pieces of information on different levels in the brain. Therefore, our access to different levels can be restricted over time.

Throughout our lives, we suffer from different types of these forgetting hypotheses, and these all happen all of a sudden and unconsciously. In a similar vein, we may also experience a further stage of forgetting which may cause language attrition. As for the

latter, several theories have been developed. While the regression hypothesis, the earliest one, proposes that language acquisition and learning happen in stages, hence language attrition is a natural mirror image of acquisition and language attrition happens in different stages such as top to bottom. Another approach to language attrition, last-learned-first-forgotten hypothesis, suggests that some things, which are learned last, are the first to be forgotten on condition that learners are not exposed to the target language anymore. A similar approach, Best-learned-last-forgotten hypothesis, states that the intensity and quality of knowledge matter and it is difficult to forget something if it is better learned. Finally, linguistic-feature hypothesis suggests that the language being learned is more likely to be forgotten if it bears little or no similarities with the mother tongue and that less functional or less frequent components of the target language are forgotten easily. In this sense, we can conclude that, one way or another, language attrition is encountered in any stage of our life. Therefore, our focus should be on developing a better understanding of the process of language attrition so that necessary steps can be taken before it is too late for the aviation industry.

Process of L2 attrition

The real question is ‘How do we lose the ability to speak a language?’ The most reasonable answer for this question dates back to 1980s. The American psychologist Howard Gardner explained the way people tend to suffer from language attrition. He proposed in 1982 that language attrition includes three consecutive stages in time. The first stage starts with language learning process, which lasts for varying amounts of time for each learner. In the case of Aviation English, while a pilot may attain Level 4 (Operational) proficiency in English in a year, another pilot may easily develop the same level of proficiency in less than three months depending on their background knowledge, aptitude to learn a foreign language, age, or other individual and environmental factors. In Gardner’s framework, stage 2 occurs when language learning is terminated. This may result from achieving a certain level of proficiency or from involuntarily terminating the learning process for different reasons. This stage is also called incubation period, which includes no type of language use or training. The final stage includes the assessment of the degree of language loss. As there is no certain amount of time between stage 2 and 3, the extent to which a person suffers from language attrition may definitely be expected to vary. While it can be observed at an alarming rate in less than a year for some pilots after the first wave of layoffs, the same observation can only be made after a longer period of time for different pilots. Therefore, pilots should definitely be enrolled in refreshing trainings with a direct focus on English language proficiency before they are called back for duty.

Can pilots really relearn?

As famous NFL player Jerry Smith puts it, “Safety isn’t expensive, it’s priceless.” Language attrition, in this sense, is now the biggest threat for safety. Taking this into account, the aviation industry should search for ways to overcome it before it is too late. Luckily, the science comes into play at this point as Bert Weltens reported that there was an increase in reading and listening comprehension. Although his report brings hope for the aviation industry, it should be noted right here that his finding was limited to receptive language skill. Therefore, we are still far from drawing any conclusion about the possibility of relearning productive skills, which are as crucial in aviation as receptive skills. In order to foster the relearning process, the motivational factors should be investigated carefully. It is usually the case that people tend to attain the desired outcomes of a project faster so long as they are motivated internally and/or externally. That’s to say pilots’ motivational needs should be addressed for a speedy recovery in aviation industry. It should be taken into account that no matter how smooth the whole flight can be, the pilot will always be appreciated by the smoothness of her landing, and thus we will have just one try to set the things right in the near future 


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