Learn the ATC Language by Doing

Spanish school in Costa Rica

As I write this, I am sitting in a small apartment in Flamingo, Costa Rica. It is Saturday. I’ve just finished a week of Spanish class at a local language school. I’ve got one week to go before I return to Atlanta. Think I can learn the entire Spanish language in 2 weeks?

Probably not.

Considering I’ve never had even one minute of Spanish instruction before this week, I have to say, learning Spanish is muy difficil, (very difficult.)

Por Qué? (Why?) and What the Heck Does this Have to Do with Flying?

Why learn Spanish? Two reasons:

First, most of my airline trips go to countries in Central America. Granted, all of the air traffic controllers in Central America speak English very well. So knowing Spanish for flying is not valid. In fact, we are required to communicate in English as we fly.

It’s the after-flying part where Spanish would be useful. We lay over in the countries where we fly. Knowing Spanish on a layover would make life so much easier.

Second, you are trying to learn the language of air traffic control for the very first time, and I want to experience what that feels like. It’s not as though I was born into the language.

Jurassic Jeff

Long ago, when dinosaurs still roamed the earth, I had to learn the language of air traffic control. The dinosaurs have all died off and several ice ages have come and gone. Over time, I’ve forgotten what it was like to learn the ATC language.

After just one week of Spanish class, I remember! Learning any new language is a bitch.

Your Classroom Moves at 100 Knots

Consider this. I am learning Spanish while sitting in a chair in a quiet classroom. You have to learn the ATC language in a chair that is moving forward, through turbulence, as you also learn to control an airplane. Are you kidding me?! Talk about difficult!

Pointy Talky

So, here’s what we are doing in Spanish class. The class begins with the teacher speaking to us in Spanish. She tells stories and asks questions.

You might say, that makes no sense. How can we communicate with the teacher if we don’t know Spanish?

The answer is, as the teacher speaks, she uses her hands to gesture. For example, if she says, “Yo penso,” (“I think,” in Spanish,) she touches the side of her head and makes an expression like she is thinking. She also draws a picture on the whiteboard if a word needs illustration.

The Spanish school also provides a very good notebook with all of the common verbs, nouns, and phrases the teacher uses along with the English interpretations of those words.

By hearing, seeing, and speaking Spanish, we learn the Spanish language slowly, but surely. I think, it would be even better, if we could experience Spanish in action, we would learn it more quickly.

Learning by Fighting Your Way Out of a Box

There aren’t many things in life in which you can say, “Always,” but here’s one: Learning by doing is always faster and more permanent than learning by seeing; or learning by hearing alone.

You might say, wait a minute, I know I learn something better when I read it than when I hear it. Or, you might say, I learn better when I hear something rather than read it.

Okay, I’ll agree with either statement. I’m not you, and one of those statements is true for you. So who am I to argue with your truth?

But here’s a truth that I’ll wrestle you to the mat to defend: Learning by doing always beats learning by hearing, or learning by seeing alone. When you are physically thrown into the middle of a problem, and you have to physically fight your way to a solution, you will learn that solution in a way that is personal and lasting.

You Stink Like a Skunk

Even the Spanish school knows this because they encourage their students to live with a host family where only Spanish is spoken. By getting immersed in the daily lives of Costa Ricans, students learn Spanish by doing. Want breakfast? Either ask the lady of the house for breakfast in Spanish or go hungry. Are your clothes dirty? Either ask the lady of the house to wash your clothes or you will stink like a homeless person for the rest of the week.

Simulate, Navigate, Communicate

Want to really learn the language of air traffic control? Get out there and fly and talk to ATC, or be stuck flying VFR-only in uncontrolled airspace for the rest of your life.

Learning the ATC language by flying is great if you have gobs of money. Learning by the ATC language by flying is great if you’ve got 2 to 3 hours at a time to spare–driving to the airport; pre-flight; flying; post-flight; refilling the gas tanks; paying the flight time bill; etc. Learning the ATC language by flying is great if you don’t mind sounding like a clown on the radio as you try to get the words right.

Which is why I’m building the Aircraft Radio Simulator and all of the supporting simulators for you. You can learn the language by doing, without the big cost, big time commitment, and big exposure to the clown factor.

Adios e hasta luego!

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Nascimento Gabriel January 15, 2012 at 3:06 am

Hello Jeff,
I’m glad you’ve been enjoying with the spanish language!
My native language is brazilian, and spanish can be consider a brother of the postuguese language!
I agreed with you that we need to ”take action” to learning a new language, it’s not just that, all we want to learn we need to practice.
I’m improving my english talking on this post with you, and this is a way to me getting better on english!

It’s just for at moment,
thanks for share a bit of your experience learning Spanish,
and enjoy with it!

See you soon with new articles,
take care!



JeffKanarish January 15, 2012 at 4:11 am

Hello Nascimento,

Good to hear from you. Yes, keep practicing and practicing. That is the key. It is said it takes 10,000 hours of practice to truly master anything.

If you want to practice writing your English regularly, write to me anytime at jeff@ATCcommunication.com and I will write back.

By the way, my wife and I have a good friend who is from Rio de Janiero.



Nascimento Gabriel January 15, 2012 at 2:47 pm

Okay Jeff,
I will write to you to keep practicing my English,
and Rio de Janeiro is so closy at my city, about 2 hours!

And I’m very glad to figured out your site, it is very helpful and a source that I can get knowledge about my passion which is to fly!

Thanks for all jeff!


SStink March 11, 2013 at 11:09 am

i’ts ok


SStink March 11, 2013 at 11:13 am

for that ….. thanks jeff


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