Airline talk

The trouble with linguists is that they get nerdy about the most apparently mundane texts. Academic articles have been churned out analysing  the features of blues lyrics, obituaries, press briefings, and service encounters. This is not as pointless as it sounds. Linguistic choices can tell us about cultural values, how language is used to persuade, conceal and much more. This can also help us understand what to teach and assess. In an increasingly mobile world , for example, what do train ticket inspectors need to be able to do in a language and how do we assess that? I recently described my German level as ‘German for mothers-in-law’ and having had two of those,  I regard myself as a bit of an expert.  I’ll leave you to flesh out what that might be these days, but for my generation it involved a lot of Eintopf recipes , diplomatic talk and childrearing  vocabulary.


One particular fascination of mine is the English used  in the aviation industry. There is pilot talk, which has clear implications for safety and has in recent years become a focus of interest for both teachers and assessors. Then we have English for cabin crews who need it for much more than serving drinks. Nowadays their linguistic repertoire needs to include polite handling of uncooperative passengers and warring spouses, as well as a bit of hard sell of scratch cards and the like. Once I was taken aback to see a steward giving a pre-touchdown speech inviting passengers to consider her fair city (Las Vegas) for relocation as teachers and doctors were needed.

My favourite airline language is that of safety instructions.  I once read a Time article which said that people have a better chance of surviving a disaster if they have mapped emergency procedures on their brain before the event. Ever since, I have become one of those passengers who crane their head to get a better look at how to inflate their life jacket in the unlikely event of landing on water, and possibly the only one who looks around to check the nearest exit ‘which may be behind you’ And on landing I wouldn’t even dream of unbuckling my seatbelt until the crew had completed the safety-related procedures.


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