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Guidance for the Investigation of Language

as a Human Factor in Aviation Accidents

The International Society of Air Safety Investigators suggest that accident investigation “findings” be defined as “all significant conditions and events, causal and non-causal, found in the investigation.” Relatedly, “Cause” has been defined as a “deficiency the correction, elimination or avoidance of which would likely have prevented or mitigated the mishap, damage, or significant injuries. A cause is an act, an omission, a condition or a circumstance [that] either starts or sustains the mishap sequence,” (Wood and Swegginnis, 2006, p. 8).


Operational and safety experts universally acknowledge the role that communication has in maintaining safe operations. Yet, the complexity of communication--involving first language use, English as a second language use, standard ICAO phraseology, or other CAA phraseology, and sometimes slang or incorrect, or sloppy phraseology, and including cultural awareness issues, power distance, or group verses individual orientations--means that investigating Language as a Human Factor can be difficult. 


The influence of language or culture on aviation communications can be subtle but still have powerful effects. Relatively few publications clarify the role of language or culture in aviation. Without adequate awareness of and understanding of language as a human factor, accident investigators, and the industry, in general, too often miss particularly more subtle aspects of language use in aviation safety. For example, in many anonymous incident reporting systems, the variety of language factors are lumped together under “communication,” or “language barrier.” Yet, communication problems can range from technical issues, such as radio failure, to grammar problems, or somewhat commonly, to language apprehension inhibiting communications.  


In addition, without a standardized taxonomy of language factors, it is difficult for researchers to investigate how frequently language issues occur as a factor contributing to incidents. This prevents the industry from having a clear picture of the impact of language on aviation. The Taxonomy provided on this website is a beginning tool that helps accident investigators more systematically consider and categorize communications issues. 


The Guidance Manual for the Investigation of Language as a Human Factor offers a set of protocols to help ensure that communications, language, and culture are considered as fundamental aspects of human factors investigations and are investigated with the same degree of care and thoroughness as are all other human factors, so that more subtle language factors are not overlooked.


Communications, language use, language proficiency, and cultural issues--the subject matter is simply so varied and complex that it is arguably an area of human factors that merits specialist investigation and treatment.  


As the foundation of communications, the role of language needs to be better understood within the human factors community.


Support for Accident Investigators

  1. As a first step, a Taxonomy of language factors in aviation communications will assist the industry in better identifying language factors in accidents and incidents. 

  2. Next, awareness about language as a human factor should be increased. It is important that human factors specialists and accident investigators have an adequate awareness and understanding of how language factors contribute to safety. More work needs to be done, The information presented on the website is just a beginning, to be reviewed, revised, elaborated, and expanded. 

  3. Another important tool for accident investigators is a standard Protocol for investigating language in aviation accidents and incidents. 

  4. The LHUFT Center can provide short Language Familiarity for Accident Investigators. Contact us for information.



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