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.