Lost in Translation: Culture, Language and Flight Safety

Today I read an article from the Wall Street Journal and it really struck a chord; something powerful which could really be used to our advantage in modern aviation. During my time spent working in different countries, I have been astounded by the varied manner in which normal professional business is conducted: even in multinational corporations where a ‘norm’ is more defined.

We have an industry of immense capability when it comes to data gathering, analysis and change management. We monitor everything. Technical professionals on the ground know when a modern airliner is a ‘bit sick’ long before the pilots do. Aviation is one of those areas in life where any possible prospect for advance is savagely pursued – not just because of the competitive nature of our industry, but because safety is in ALL our interests. Old or young, almost all of us owe our continued existence on this planet to a safely-executed commercial flight at some stage in our past; the safety of that particular flight was the layer of Swiss Cheese (see James Reason) successfully acting as a barrier between our risky willingness to hurl ourselves in to the air at high speed and the promise of a rather untimely demise as a result.

But how was the operation of that flight affected by the nationality of the crew and/or airline? How did the culture associated with that operation affect our successful continuance? In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell speaks about the turnaround in Korean Air and how culture was a key factor in the process for change. He also speaks about the mathematical abilities of the Chinese, and how that could be attributed to the way they are required by the rules of their language to describe items in a certain way.

This brings me back to the Wall Street Journal article at http://online.wsj.com:

“In one study, Spanish and Japanese speakers couldn’t remember the agents of accidental events as adeptly as English speakers could. Why? In Spanish and Japanese, the agent of causality is dropped: “The vase broke itself,” rather than “John broke the vase.” “

So what’s my point, I hear you ask?

Aviation relies on a Just Culture: no blame, simply prevention. How is this demonstrated in cultures where the language refers to events in a blameless manner, as reported in the link above, versus cultures where the language is more blame-oriented or individual-specific?

What about this:

“Simply showing that speakers of different languages think differently doesn’t tell us whether it’s language that shapes thought or the other way around. To demonstrate the causal role of language, what’s needed are studies that directly manipulate language and look for effects in cognition.


“One of the key advances in recent years has been the demonstration of precisely this causal link. It turns out that if you change how people talk, that changes how they think. If people learn another language, they inadvertently also learn a new way of looking at the world. When bilingual people switch from one language to another, they start thinking differently, too. And if you take away people’s ability to use language in what should be a simple nonlinguistic task, their performance can change dramatically, sometimes making them look no smarter than rats or infants. (For example, in recent studies, MIT students were shown dots on a screen and asked to say how many there were. If they were allowed to count normally, they did great. If they simultaneously did a nonlinguistic task—like banging out rhythms—they still did great. But if they did a verbal task when shown the dots—like repeating the words spoken in a news report—their counting fell apart. In other words, they needed their language skills to count.)”

Multi-tasking involving linguistic processing is difficult. During my basic pilot training I was taught the concept of “divided concentration” – isolating individual tasks, prioritising and then rapidly switching between them in order to achieve them all… just not at the exact same time. Example: monitoring airspeed, rate of change of altitude, nose attitude and heading, all at “the same time” when in reality it was achieved through a series of small checks one after the other. *When looking for a house number do you turn the radio down? If so, is because there is speech involved? Would the distraction be as great if solely instrumental – e.g. classical – music was playing? How does that apply to the use of hands-free equipment in a car and what about those people who suggest that listening to music is the same as having a conversation?


“Language is a uniquely human gift. When we study language, we are uncovering in part what makes us human, getting a peek at the very nature of human nature. As we uncover how languages and their speakers differ from one another, we discover that human natures too can differ dramatically, depending on the languages we speak.”

…is it therefore ever more important that aviation uses a common language (currently English) and extrapolates that use all the way to the safety management system rather than just the actual flying operation? Does our mother-tongue and main language culture determine how prone we are to certain behaviours, be it in the flight deck, in the airline management or even the regulatory body?

Of course the water is muddy on how to approach this. Changing the culture within Korean Air was a massive task in itself. But spreading cultural change across many nations many be impossible to achieve, as shown with the difficulties encountered in the implementation of the Single European Sky project.

But one thing is clear: a better understanding of how our minds work culturally will lead to better training, better development and implementation of Safety Management Systems, and a wider acceptance that there is real power to be gained through identifying the different traits of different cultures, without being labelled discriminatory or racist in the process. By jumping to conclusions and unnecessarily stereotyping we can really harm our society; but by understanding the innate differences in our culture-born abilities, we can adapt our management systems to make for a safer, stronger commercial aviation culture that acknowledges the one common need across all backgrounds: safety in air travel.


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