Precise and clear aviation communication is crucial to ensure a safe passenger journey. According to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), air traffic controllers and pilots must achieve at least ICAO Operational Level 4 language proficiency to earn a licence. ICAO Expert Level 6 is the highest language proficiency level, and the certificate can remain valid for a lifetime. Some ICAO Member States and regional aviation institutions require a recurrent assessment for Level 6.

This article explores ICAO’s recommendation for the unlimited validity of the Level 6 certificate and some concerns that may lead Member States to implement recurrent assessment for the ICAO Expert Level 6 language proficiency. We will also explore some options that can help States ensure reliable testing.

It is no doubt that insufficient English language proficiency can lead to incidents, near misses and high-profile accidents that have fatal implications. In 2004, ICAO issued the first edition of the Manual on the Implementation of ICAO Language Proficiency Requirements (ICAO Doc 9835) to support States’ efforts to comply with the strengthened provisions for language proficiency. In this document, ICAO provides an overview of six language proficiency levels, including testing criteria for aviation language testing.

What is ICAO Expert Level 6 English Language Proficiency and unlimited validity?

The ICAO Expert Level 6 exceeds the demands of aeronautical radiotelephony communications and accounts for most first-language speakers with native or native-like proficiency as well as second- or foreign-language speakers with a high level of proficiency. At this level, a candidate must be able to use both basic and complex grammatical structures, and sentences and his/her pronunciation shall never interfere with ease of understanding. Dr Jeremy Mell, the lead author of ICAO Doc 9835, says that while proficiency in a fully acquired language may reduce over time without use, it is reasonable to assume that even in its reduced state, the level of proficiency will still be above that of ICAO Pre-operational Level 3. It is for this reason that ICAO removes the requirement for recurrent testing for those who achieved Expert Level 6.

Concern over unlimited validity

In 2015, the ICAO Asia and Pacific Office (APAC), European and North Atlantic Office (EUR/NAT) and Middle East Regional Office (MID) jointly organised the Interregional English Language Proficiency Workshop to assist States with the implementation of the ICAO English language proficiency requirements. The outcomes of the workshops suggested a limited period of validity for Level 6. This was due to concerns over evidence that highlighted gaps in ensuring reliable testing for Level 6, while the certificate was still issued with unlimited validity in these cases.

How to ensure validity and reliability of English Language Proficiency testing

The ICAO Manual on the Implementation of ICAO Language Proficiency provides Member States with the requirements to ensure validity and reliability of testing. One of the requirements is to provide documented evidence that all the criteria for language proficiency testing are met. At the same time, the test developer should provide a rationale for the test construct to ensure that it meets the ICAO language proficiency requirements. Some States use approved English Language Proficiency testing organisations that assess language proficiency by means of a formal assessment test.

Assessment trends

Today, National Aviation Authorities and regional organisations practise different validity terms for the ICAO Expert Level 6. The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) requires the air traffic controllers to validate their language proficiency for the Expert Level 6 within nine years from the assessment date. The validity of Level 6 for pilots is unlimited. The United Kingdom Civil Aviation Authority (UK CAA) does not require periodic re-evaluation for Level 6.

English Language Proficiency examiner training courses | Ab initio and recurring

To help States implement reliable English language proficiency assessment that reinforces testing integrity and embraces passenger safety, we have developed the ICAO LPR: English Language Proficiency Examiner Training (ab initio) course to provide aviation professionals with the necessary foundations in the principles and practices of Aviation English language proficiency examining and help delegates gain an initial certification of training in ICAO LPR assessment.

To complement the ab initio training, our ICAO LPR: English Language Proficiency Examiner Training (recurring) revisits the theoretical knowledge and professional competencies required by the participants in their role as ICAO LPR Examiners.

To apply, please visit our website or email our training team

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