ESP Project Leader Profile: Elizabeth Matthews

Hello, ESPers worldwide!

In this ESP Project Leader Profile, we visit Elizabeth Matthews at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida. In her profile, she addresses aviation English, the development of leadership skills in pilots and cabin crew, and International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) language policy creation. On a personal note, I was extremely impressed that she was writing this profile and a newsletter article for ESP News (the ESPIS newsletter), while she was evacuating Daytona Beach due to Hurricane Irma!

Please read her bio:

Elizabeth Mathews brings an academic background in Applied Linguistics and TESOL (MA-TESOL, University of Alabama, 1991) to language problems in aviation. An Assistant Professor in the Department of Applied Aviation Sciences at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU), Mathews focuses both on improving industry awareness and understanding of language as a factor in aviation safety (LHUFT) and in raising standards of teaching and testing English in aviation.

Elizabeth works at ERAU with Jennifer Roberts, who is another author in the current edition of ESP News, so be sure to read their articles on aviation English. You can read Elizabeth’s interview responses below.

Elizabeth Mathews
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University
Daytona Beach, Florida

Define leadership in your own words.

The aviation industry employs a unique approach to developing leadership skills in pilots and cabin crew. Decades ago, the airline industry understood that flight safety is enhanced when the captain integrates the full range of resources available, soliciting and advocating for the input of all the members of a flight. Conversely the safety of a flight can be threatened when a captain employs an autocratic, old-style of command leadership: “I’m the captain; don’t question my authority!”

Crew resource management, or CRM, is the industry approach to developing team leadership skills in flight and cabin crew. Leadership on the flight deck requires establishing a working environment, on every flight, with constantly rotating crew members, in which each individual’s input is expected and respected. Research into flight deck communications suggests that leadership is established, or not, in the first few minutes of the initial preflight briefing (Sexton & Helmreich, 2000). Understanding how pilots establish leadership is a rich area of research for applied linguists. The perspective of applied linguistics into all aspects of aviation communications is increasingly important as aviation is increasingly a multilingual activity. (See Casey & Condon’s LHUFT Bibliography, 2017.)

Tell me an ESP project success story. Focus on your communication as a leader in the project. How did you communicate with stakeholders to make that project successful?

Because of my early work in aviation English at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, I was invited, in 2000, to join the International Civil Aviation Organization, in Montreal, as Linguistic Consultant, to guide the Proficiency Requirements in Common English project, with the mission of strengthening ICAO Standards regarding the use of English in international civil aviation.

ICAO gathered a study group composed of more than thirty representative stakeholders, including applied linguists and TESL specialists experienced in aviation English and airline pilots, controllers, and representatives from civil aviation authorities, including the FAA, Russian, Argentina, and China. A wide cross section of aviation, operational, and language cultural backgrounds were represented.

My first step was to review existing ICAO provisions governing language use in aviation contained within the 19 various ICAO annexes to the convention. Working with the study group, we developed proposed amendments to the ICAO annexes, establishing language testing requirements and a target level of language proficiency. There were, naturally, many constraints upon the project, including most urgently a need to succeed in this first ICAO effort to establish language proficiency requirements for pilots and controllers. The strong consensus was that a failure to pass an amendment would lead to decades of delay in implementing an ICAO language policy.

A very interesting part of the process was that as the target audience got more important, more influential in the adoption or rejection of the proposed language proficiency requirements, our time and opportunity to present the case to them became briefer and more limited. For example, we wrote and discussed many internal papers within the study group; we had hours over several days to debate the proposals with the the Air Navigation Commission.

We were able to send documents to the 191 member states for feedback and input, which was then incorporated into revised proposals. Presentation to the council, however, was in a single brief paper and a one-hour debate, before they decided, in March 2003, to approve the adoption of the proposals, effective March 2008, giving member states time to prepare for the strengthened language requirements.

During the two years of this process, from initiating the process to council approval, a particular focus for me was to marshal linguistic and ESL support for what I knew would be an enormous, ongoing development of the teaching, testing, and teacher training infrastructure that is required to support what is the world’s first global language policy. I reached out to the International Civil Aviation English Association to alert them to the new ICAO requirements, as well solicited the interest of ILTA and other language testing specialists. While the ICAO Standards were a start, they were necessarily incomplete, and the real work of developing aviation English remains to be done. The need for academically well-qualified TESL specialists is key to improved success.

Elizabeth’s interview responses above were very interesting to me on two levels. First, she illuminates the policy-making process that generated the ICAO Standards. In contrast, I am reminded of the ESP Project Leader Profile of Jigang Cai as he addresses ESP-related policy-making processes in China. Second, Elizabeth’s focus on preparing aviation leaders made me recall a TESOL Blog post that I had written about Tony Hughes’ account of an air crash and Captain Richard de Crespigny, who responded to my blog post in the comments section.

If you have any comments or questions for Elizabeth, please feel free to contact her directly!

All the best,


Sexton, J. B., & Helmreich, R. L. (2000). Analyzing cockpit communications: The links between language, performance, error, and workload. Human Performance in Extreme Environments, 5(1), 63-68.

About Kevin Knight

Kevin Knight
Kevin Knight (PhD in Linguistics, MBA, MPIA) is an associate professor in the Department of International Communication (International Business Career major) and has also been working in the Career Education Center of Kanda University of International Studies in Chiba, Japan. In the TESOL ESP Interest Section (ESPIS), he has served as chair and English in occupational settings (EOS) representative, and he is currently the ESPIS community manager. He was also a member of the Governance Review Task Force (GRTF) appointed by the board of directors. In addition, he has been a TESOL blogger in the area of English for Specific Purposes (ESP). He has more than 30 years of professional experience working for private, public, and academic sector institutions including Sony and the Japan Patent Office. His doctoral research on leadership communication (i.e., discourse) as a basis for leadership development was under the supervision of Emeritus Professor Christopher Candlin and Dr. Alan Jones.
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