Tag Archives: listening

Nose gear pizzazz

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Guys! You didn’t have to go through this just to get me to write again! I’m kidding, of course, what I mean is that this event has been relevant enough to make me find some time to post on the blog. Yay!

I’m referring to the precautionary landing made by a TAM A330 last September 26 at JFK International Airport, in New York City. As they were approaching, pilots received indication that their nose wheel steering might not be fully functional, so they decided to go around and run some checks, after which they attempted a second approach. This time, the tower informed them that their nose wheel seemed to be cocked at a 90º angle. Even so, they decided to land, which they did without any problem, as the nose wheel just realigned by itself.

I received the audio recording of the exchange between pilots and ATC almost immediately after the fact, and since then I’ve been asked by various students to confirm that the pilots in question “speak bad English”. I wouldn’t say that.

After all, they were able to make themselves understood by several American controllers, and managed to sort out the problem relatively smoothly. Some mistakes were made, but none of them really affected the communication. Obviously, the Brazilian pilots have a… guess what? A Brazilian accent! (No?! Really?!) That’s not an issue according to the ICAO guidelines, although I have to confess that this is what surprised me the most, being that Brazilian English proficiency examiners tend to be quite prejudiced against their own accent, sometimes issuing candidates a 3 in Pronunciation, when in fact what they have is a regional accent, being totally intelligible nonetheless.

Having said that, we can certainly use this event to help us develop our own linguistic skills, why not? So, I do have a few pointers for students:

1. If you listen to the recording, you will notice that at some points the pilots hesitate and include meaningless pauses in between words. As seen on the ICAO Language Proficiency Rating Scale, in Fluency, pauses and hesitation may hinder effective communication. My suggestion is: as much as possible, think first and then speak. Take a few seconds to prepare yourself before starting your exchange, to avoid these unnecessary pauses, as they might make your message less clear to the interlocutor.

2. Work on your communicative strategies. You will also notice that the Brazilian pilots kept using the terms “maintain the runway” to mean that they would probably have to stay on the runway after landing, that they wouldn’t be able to clear it by themselves without assistance. At one point, a controller urges them to confirm this information, and he clearly says “understand you’re gonna stay on the runway, is that correct?”. Even after this intervention, all the other pilots keep using “maintain the runway“. My tip is: adopt words used by your interlocutor, because they are part of their repertoire, thus have a better chance of being understood.

That’s it, basically, although I’ve been giving my students more specific pointers as we listen to the recording together in class. It’s a very rich material, there’s a lot of useful vocabulary, besides being a wonderful listening comprehension piece.

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Now, just to illustrate it, here are more resources on the topic, so you can polish your reading and listening skills:

A news video on the subject

The audio recording

The incident as reported by The Aviation Herald

A video on investigations on Airbus landing gear

The report and video of the 2005 similar incident with JetBlue A320

Did you have any trouble understanding any of the texts/ videos? Book some classes!

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Pro-nun-ci-a-tion

I can’t talk enough about the importance of pronunciation when you are speaking English, or any foreign language, for that matter. Would you like to know why?

Because a non-native speaker of any language depends much more upon a clear pronunciation of the individual sounds*  and on the syllable stress** than native speakers. That is because native speakers’ brains are so used to listening to that particular language that they are able to “fill in the blanks” and understand practically everything they hear, as long as the intonation*** and rhythm**** are right.

It’s quite easy to see this feature in action when you are talking to someone in your own mother tongue. Let’s say you’re at a bar, having a beer with your pals; that’s a pretty noisy environment, but you’re still able to maintain a conversation with them, even if you can’t make out every single word they say, right? That’s because your brain is being kind enough to process the clues of intonation and rhythm, and putting together fragments of words so that you can make some sense out of what you hear. You don’t need your friends to articulate every single sound perfectly, even because after a few beers, that isn’t even possible…

Now, you certainly don’t have that much time to be immersed in an English-speaking environment to allow you brain to achieve that same level of proficiency in puzzle solving. So when you are talking to another English speaker, whether native or not, you pay close attention to the articulation of each sound, and to where the stressed syllable is, and if you hear a sound that doesn’t match the version of a word you have heard and learnt before, you feel like you don’t know that particular word, or you might even get completely lost.

Well, let’s say you’re speaking to another non-native speaker of English, maybe face to face, or over the radio, why not? That person is going through the same process you went through, and may not even have the same linguistic level that you have, so what will come out of that mix? Slower communication, for sure, and possibly a miscommunication. We don’t want that to happen, do we?

So you have to be the agent of change here, and make and effort to pronounce words correctly, to articulate each sound clearly and to imitate the rhythm and intonation of the listening materials available on the market. Because if everyone does their job, we can mitigate the risks of communication breakdowns, which are potentially dangerous in any environment, let alone aviation.

Oh, and before I forget, you can keep your Brazilian accent, all right? Some people are more “musical” and are able to mimic accents easily and naturally and we often feel jealous of that ability. But what we’re trying to achieve is intelligible and clear pronunciation, not a perfect American or British accent. Unless you are born again in the US or in the UK, your mother tongue will always be Portuguese and you shouldn’t be ashamed of that!

Here are some links that will help you improve your pronunciation:

How do you pronounce that word?

Pronunciation practice

*phonemes
** some call it word stress, it’s the position of the “strong” syllable in a word
*** the rising and falling sounds in a sentence, e.g. rising intonation at thye end of yes/no questions
**** also called sentence stress, it refers to the “strong” words in a sentence, that usually carry its meaning

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Confusing words: listen x hear

Listen! Did you hear that noise?

I guess this sentence illustrates quite well the different meanings of these two verbs, so frequently mixed up by English learners.

To listen is to make an effort to hear something, like when we keep quiet for a moment to pay attention to a noise and figure out exactly what it is, or when we select our favorite song on our iPod and enjoy its harmony and lyrics.

That’s why we say we listen to music or listen to the radio, because we’re actively trying to catch the sounds that are being generated by the device. That’s also why you teacher tells you “Now we’re going to to a listening exercise…” – that’s because she wants you to pay attention to what she is going to play…

Moreover, it’s always polite to listen to other people’s opinions and points of view when you are atteding a business meeting, for example.

To hear, on the other hand, is often an involuntary action that happens when sound waves reach our inner ear and do their magic in our eardrums (did you know this word, by the way?). Ex: “Can you hear me? The connection is a little shaky!”

It can also have a similar meaning to the verb to listen, but it’s not used so frequently. Ex: “Hear you mother and take a sweater! It’s cold outside!”

Another meaning of hear is to express that somebody else has told you something, like some juicy gossip, or even some good news. Ex: “I hearshe’s having triplets! I don’t envy her a bit…”

And when your mother/wife/husband/teacher asks you to do something umpleasant, like taking out the garbage or doing your homework, you can always say:

Sorry! I can’t hear you!

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A Rescue Mission Gone Wrong

This video was sent to me by a former student, M.V. (thanks, by the way!).

It is a great material to practice listening comprehension because it’s a piece of news, beautifully told by CBS news correspondent Bruce Dunning. Of course, it’s also a historical document of the horrors of war.

The aircraft had been sent to Da Nang short before the end of the Vietnam War in order to evacuate women and children. Instead, it landed in Saigon full of soldiers who defected the South Vietnamese regime, and had crammed inside the plane, leaving behind the people to whom the rescue mission was intended.

As you watch the video on a new window, try to answer these questions:

1) When did this happen? (day + month)
2) How did the people run after the plane as it landed in Da Nang?
3) What did the pilots report via radio when the people started boarding the plane?
5) What did the angry men left behind do?
6) What part of the aircraft was damaged by a grenade?
7) How high was the plane when seven men fell off?
8) How many passangers were there on board? Of these, how many were women and children?
9) Why did the plane have to fly at low altitude?
10) Summarize the total damage the aircraft suffered.
11) How long does this trip usually take? How long did it take on that day?
12) Where did the soldiers come out of when the plane finally landed?

Here’s the video.

Did you have trouble understanding the video or answering the questions? Why not take some classes?

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Mixed signals

Here is an extremely interesting documentary video showing that every accident – whether it involves a plane, a car, a train, a bicycle or a walking human being – is the result of a series of (apparently unconnected) factors which coincide to cause an uncontrollable situation.

What we must have in mind is that every accident is avoidable. Every link of the chain must be checked to make sure that it can withstand the force it is intended to. In other words, everyone involved in any given process must do their job responsibly, no matter how menial and unimportant it may seem. After all, sometimes a tiny insect can destroy a huge airplane…

Watch the whole video (5 parts altogether) to practice your listening skills.

Then, practice vocabulary, grammar and fluency, explaining these acronyms and abbreviations which appear on the video.

TOGA   /   ADI   /   NTSB   /   CVR   /   FAA   /   FDR   /   CRM   /   ATC

Problems with vocabulary? Let me know how I can help!

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If she can do it, so can you!

Here’s some encouragement to you, pilots, who are aprehensive towards your ANAC English test. If this girl has been able to fly a plane, with a little effort, you too will be able to pass the test.

Just think outside the shoe!

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Se ela consegue, você também consegue!

Eis um incentivo para vocês, pilotos, que estão apreensivos em relação à prova da ANAC. Se essa garota consegue pilotar um avião, com um pouquinho de esforço, você com certeza conseguirá passar na prova!

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English training x just training


When learning a new language, right in the beginning of the process we have to learn vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation. It’s also important to learn something about the culture of the native speakers of the language, so we can better understand the way they express their ideas, and therefore be able to speak this new language well. But there’s more to learning a language than just learning and practicing its structure and vocabulary.

Sometimes what we need is just training, not language training. We need to train those skills we naturally have when using our mother tongue, but that need to be developed when applied to a second or third language. And this is necessary especially in those moments when we feel like we should be able to communicate better than we actually do. For example, when you know –  and your teacher tells you – you have a good range of vocabulary, but the words seem to disappear whenever you need them. Or when you can understand most of a movie you watch at home, but find it hard to grasp a listening exercise in class. In these moments, what seems to be missing is just training, more than English training, to boost your confidence and prove to yourself that you are able to use all the language you’ve already learnt to your own advantage.

Let me suggest some training activities to help you enhance your communication skills:

1) Background listening
This activitity aims at improving your listening skills in general, without aiming at any particular vocabulary or topic. Leave the TV on on an English speaking channel, such as CNN or BBC, or even the Discovery Channel or a movie, and go do something else. Stay close enough to the TV set that you can hear it as background ‘noise’. If something you hear happens to catch your attention, by all means, move closer and listen more intently. Don’t try to learn anything, just try to make it part of your routine to listen to English being spoken. This way you’re telling your brain that it’s just as natural for you to hear someone speak English as your own language, and maybe those listening exercises won’t seem so daunting after a while.

2) Paraphrasing
This activity may seem too hard in the beginning, but stick to it, the results are worth it. Its goal is to show your brain there’s always a way out, that means, there’s always another way to say the same thing, or to express the same idea. Get a short, simple text and tell someone (or the mirror!) the exact same information that is in it, but try to make an effort not to use the same words. For example, the sentence “Airlines normally ask you to be at the airport no less than two hours before departure time”  may become “Air transport companies usually require that you arrive at the airport at least two hours before take-off “. It’s not so important to find the ‘perfect’ words, or to learn a lot of new vocabulary, for that matter. Just keep doing it, and hopefully you won’t blank so often when faced with a real challenge, like a test or an interview, because your brain will feel more comfortable looking for alternative words or alternative ways to express the same idea.

3) Self-recording
Sometimes we feel funny when we hear our own voice speaking a foreign language. We may feel silly or shy, and end up not communicating as well as we need professionally or even when we travel. This activity’s objective is to desensitize you and make you feel more at ease with the idea of speaking English, and therefore improve your fluency and assertiveness. Record yourself reading a short text in English. Don’t worry about pronouncing the words correctly, focus more on using your intonation and your voice to convey the general idea of the text. You could also just record your feelings, or your plans for the day. Don’t listen to the recording immediately, save it for a few days later. It will definitely sound strange in the beginning, but after some time you will get used to hearing yourself in English – you may even find that you don’t sound bad at all!

Well, I hope these tips will help you feel more confident in your ability to communicate in English.

If you have any other suggestions, let me know!

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