The candidates frequently ask me to explain the criteria for ICAO 4 (operational level) in non-linguistic terms. Well, it’s a real challenge for a linguist but here is what I tell the candidates.
The following criteria are assessed by the raters: pronunciation, structure, vocabulary, fluency, comprehension, interaction.
Pronunciation: as long as you don’t make mistakes which result in the misinterpretation of the message you are on the safe side. Actually, I have already found out on numerous occasions that the candidates who mispronounce the sounds in terms of voiced/voiceles consonants or are unable to produce English ‚th’ sounds correctly but replace them with ‚d’ and ‚t’ are not penalized for that. Addressing the frequent question: ‚Do I have to sound like a native speaker?’ I say straightforward: ‚No you don’t’. At level 4, a native speaker will quite easily recognize that you use English as a foreign language. And it has no negative influence whatsoever on assessing your level of English as fully operational. As a matter of fact I have tested a couple of pilots who spoke with a very distinct East-European accent: very strong consonants, lack of differentiation between long and short vowels, pronouncing each word in the sentence distinctively with clear pauses between all the words, etc. And they passed with flying colors as the aforementioned mistakes had no influence upon the effectiveness and efficiency of communication.
Fluency: give prompt answers, speak, enjoy the communication. That’s my advice. You don’t have to present fluency of the conversation required to have a chat with the Queen on the latests Royal Ascot. Just make sure you don’t use too many ‚eeehhhhs’, ‚mmmmmmms’, etc. Also, kill silence. In longer utterances: speak as if you were telling a short story, in the shorter ones: address the question directly. One of the typical phenomena I observe among the specialists of different market segments: doctors, lawyers, pilots when they take foreign language examinations is that they try to sound as experts and specialists. That’s perfectly understandable but remember that this is not the examination of your operational knowledge. We don’t assess your subject content competence. I wouldn’t dare. Again: efficiency and effectiveness of communication: keep it clear, easy to understand. Say a few sentences on each questions. Don’t worry: we will ask you additional questions;) on the basis of what you say.
Comprehension: a very difficult component which will be addressed in the separate article soon to come. Repeating the message, asking questions to find out more about the situation, giving advice according to the problem quoted. And there are no shortcuts here. In ‚repeat the message’ stage you have to give all the elements of the message which are relevant: ‚I am not sure if the main landing gear is retracted. I need to make a low pass to make sure. I need the technicians to verify visually the status and position of the main landing gear’. I have highlighted the parts of the message which need to be repeated but there is no need to repeat the message in exactly the same words. Many candidates desperately try to remember the message in actual words and they fail to produce relevant information items. Comprehension stage is demanding, that’s true: when the candidates fail, most often they fail at ‚comprehension’ criterion.
Vocabulary: it’s usually easy for the pilots and controllers. Most manuals and checklists are delivered in the English language, international aviation websites publish materials in English, professional courses are run in English, etc. So the candidates usually present more than appropriate level of vocabulary competence. If you are able to incorporate aviation language in the context of regular communication, you are on the safe side. Just don’t concentrate on basing your utterance on specialized aviation glossary only. Remember: efficiency and effectiveness of communication is the dominating indicator of your competence here.
Structure: quite similar to pronunciation. Don’t make mistakes which obstruct communication, in other words: don’t make errors. It’s perfectly enough if you stick to the basic present, past, future tenses. You are not expected to build a mixed conditional sentence in passive voice delivered in reported speech;). Be careful about singular/plural forms (many irregular nouns in English), time references, numerals, etc.
Interaction: most candidates score high here but before the exam they worry. Don’t:). People with passion enjoy communication in the context which makes them enthusiastic. So I usually have to monitor the time not to exceed the specified time limit (30-35 minutes) of the examination. Altogether you will be asked ca. 20 questions from the examination sheet followed by 15-25 invented by the examiner according to what you say, so interaction is easy as long as you are not afraid to speak. Well, yes: you have to interact, answer questions, repeat messages, give advice, compare and contrast situations, etc.
And don’t worry. You will pass. You have already acquired enormous skills required to become a pilot or you are in process of learning this supreme competence. ICAO 4 will not stop you. It is another step in pursuing you professional ambition or private passion.
Should you have and questions, don’t hesitate to ask in the comments below or feel free to contact me at: email@example.com.