International English and the Art of Not Crashing Planes


I was talking to a friend of mine who teaches english to air traffic control tower operators. These are the guys who keep the tons of metal whizzing round the sky from a. hitting each other or b. hitting anything else.

He explained how there is a huge variation in the quality of english which control tower operators use. There have been tragically many, otherwise avoidable accidents, which were caused by misunderstandings between pilots and people on the ground. The most infamous of these is the 1977 accident in Tenerife, where 100s died, as a result of controllers misunderstanding the phrase ‘we’re now at take off’. The controllers gave them clearance to take off, then reversed their decision but – even though it was only seconds later – it was too late to stop the plane colliding with another.

Controllers are now taught, specifically,  international english – a form of english which provides immediate and fast understanding. The key is avoiding the use of localisms, metaphors and other sources of ambiguity. (I’m guilty of this a lot – I use the expression ‘straight off the bat’ far too often in meetings).

This is the same sort of english we should use on a website targetted at the international audience – enabling fast understanding and almost subconscious response from the user. The quality of the prose or the beauty of the language are completely secondary to the primary purpose of perfect understanding.

Obviously there is a difference in the level of seriousness here. If a air traffic controller screws up then bad things start to happen very quickly. If our website is less than perfect then, although it’s still serious, I suspect that lives will probably not be lost. International English is what many of our students speak and understand. We need to write in their language, so that our primary tool for recruitment – content on a website – is the most effective it can be.

IBM has a good overview about International English.

5 thoughts on “International English and the Art of Not Crashing Planes

  1. It is not all about how to use the language, of course it is really important, but I would also like a consistency in the use of words.

    Right now I am “moving” a website to OOIS and all the time I am wondering which word to use. Are the couses called “avancerade kurser” or “kurser på avancerad nivå” or “fördjupningskurser”? “Studieplan” or “studiegång”? And this is in my native language swedish!

    I found a LU dictionary at http://www.wordforword.se/, but it was created before Bologna. Does something like this exist at LU?

    I think it is important to use the same vocabulary over the entire website. In that way the users might not be too confused.

  2. Thanks for your comment!

    Absolutely – consistency is a key element of making our websites usable. Not only is it important when you are navigating a site but it also has implications for being found, for example, by Google.

    For example, we tend to use both the words admission and application. Application, if you look at google trends, appears to be more commonly used.

    The key question to ask yourself is ‘am I using the language of the user’ – which will mean more to them? Avancerade Kurser or Kurser på Avancerad Nivå?

    In the international context, ‘free mover’ is another good example. We use this a lot, but I’m extremely doubtful if many students use this expression to describe themselves.

    Regardling Swedish terminology, you’ll need to speak to the Swedish Editor – I’ll send you their contact details. As far as I’m aware, there is a terminology dictionary being prepared by SOL for our use – this should have the ‘approved’ terminology. I’ll send the SOL contact as well.

  3. I think if LU use “the language of the user” and I use “the language of LU”, then we can achieve consistency on the entire website.

    Why not put the list with teminology (both english and swedish) easy findable on the web?

    PS. I have not got any contact details. DS.

  4. Interesting stuff. I have to agree with you about ’straight off the bat’ – though an Englishman I would not know what the expression means without hearing it in context.

    What does international English say about spelling rules? English or english? Targeted or targetted? :-)

    Great to see someone blogging about these issues – there’s a huge terminology gap in the Swedish university context.

  5. Thanks Paul – and yes, ‘well caught’ (enough with the cricket expressions!) – too many ‘t’s in targeted.

    Getting the terminology right is key to the whole business of students understanding our websites. For example, I hear the term ‘freemover’ used a lot, but I doubt that the students use it much themselves.

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