I'm an airline pilot and fly medium-haul all over Europe and North Africa. I speak Dutch (my mother tongue) as well as French, English, German and a little bit of Spanish.
Of course, and I'm sorry it is like that, it's allowed by ICAO that French controllers speak French to Air France pilots, greeks speak Greek, Italians speak Italian, and Spanish ATC use Spanish on the frequency.
Is it allowed? Yes? Is it smart? NO way!!!
It would be so much easier and safer for everybody if everybody would simply use the same language on the radio. It's not hard, you know!! In Holland and Belgium (and many other non-anglophone countries) all ATC is done in English. Using the local language is simply prohibited in controlled airspace!
As soon as you start training for a ppl in Holland, you will start to learn the English you need to fly in controlled airspace. And believe me, everybody learns it. Yes, even the french-speaking student pilot in Belgium will soon become proficient in English. In our Belgian airline about 50 % of the pilots have french as their mother tongue, but they will all agree that it would be better to use only ONE COMMON LANGUAGE on the frequency (And then English would be the obvious choice. Russian? OK! Give me 1 year transition period and I'll learn Russian!!) Our airline, as most airlines in Belgium, Germany, Holland, Scandinavia) only allows English to be used for conversation with ATC.
Why would it be easier (and safer) if everybody spoke one language? Well, for instance I would know when a conversation between Athens ATC and a Greek aircraft has ended and I can start speaking without interfering with an ongoing conversation. It would be easier if I were able to understand the weather report that Rome ATC was giving to Alitalia's destination that happens to be my alternate destination.
It would be easier (and safer) if everybody would understand Air France position and associated turbulence report. Etc, etc,... Isn't that so obvious that it doesn't need further explanation?
Why would it be safer? Well, EVERYBODY'S situational problem would improve. Yes, it may be the controller's responsibility to keep us apart, but surely you will have to admit that controllers are human and therefore sometimes make mistakes. Using one common language increases the chance that someone might catch the mistake.
I understand enough French, Spanish and Italian to be able to understand transmissions that contain nice-to-know information, but were not available to the Greek Olympic flight in the same airspace!
It sure was nice to understand the 2 Iberia flights in front of me reporting Windshear on short final. This info was never passed on to me! When I confirmed the windshear after landing, I did advice the Tower that this would have been nice info to have BEFORE we landed!
I am sure that the pilot who lost his live on may 25th 2000 in Charles De Gaulle would have appreciated one common language on the air! (check: http://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=20000525-0
My experience on this subject is that everybody originating from a country that imposes the use of English agrees that that is such a good rule. Only people speaking other Big-Ego-Languages tend do disagree.
So if you ATCO's and pilots from Spain, Greece, Italy, France, Quebec or from any other other language with a bigger self-esteem then safety consciousness want to continue using your own language on the air, please do so. ICAO does indeed authorise it. But PLEASE stop arguing that using your own language is easier or just as safe as using one common language! That is BU...HIT!!