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Second language communication strategies

Updated on June 2, 2014

Communication Strategies defined

Rubin (1981, 1987) defines communication strategies as those strategies used by a learner to promote and continue communication with others rather than abandon it. They are strategies used by speakers when they come across a difficulty in their communication because of lack of adequate knowledge of the language.

According to Brown (2000), communication strategies pertain to the employment of verbal or nonverbal mechanisms for the productive communication of information.

Bialystok, in her book Communication Strategies , cites four definitions relating to the strategies of second-language learners (Bialystok, 1990: 3):

1. a systematic technique employed by a speaker to express his ideas when faced with some difficulty;(Corder, 1977)

2. a mutual attempt of two interlocutors to agree on a meaning in situations where requisite meaning structures are not shared; (Tarone, 1980)

3. potentially conscious plans for solving what to an individual presents itself as a problem in reaching a particular communicative goal; (Faerch & Kasper, 1983a)

4. techniques of coping with difficulties in communicating in an imperfectly known second language.

All the above definitions reveal the same purpose of communication strategies, namely, to solve a communication problem that has emerged by applying some kinds of techniques.


Communication Strategies

Tarone's (1977, 1981) typology of conscious communication strategies are the following:

1. Avoidance

a. Topic avoidance

b. Message abandonment

2. Paraphrase

a. Approximation

b. Word coinage

c. Circumlocution

3. Conscious transfer

a. Literal translation

b. Language switch

4. Appeal for assistance

5. Mime

Communication Strategies and Foreign Language Learning Communication strategies (Dornyei, 1995 cited in Brown, 2000: 128)

Avoidance Strategies

1. Syntactic or Lexical Avoidance within a semantic category


L2 learner: I lost my road.

Native speaker: You lost your road?

L2 learner: I lost – I lost…. I got lost.

2. Topic avoidance: Avoiding topic areas or concepts that pose language difficulties.


pretending not to understand

changing the topic

not responding

3. Phonological Avoidance


difficulty in producing the sounds or correct pronunciation

Instead of saying “breeze” because of the fear that you might pronounce it /brεz/, you settle with saying “wind

Compensatory Strategies

4. Circumlocution: describing or exemplifying the target object


saying “the thing you put your money in” when you mean wallet

“what you use to wipe your hands clean” for towel

5. Approximation: using an alternative term which expresses the meaning of the target lexical item as closely as possible

Ex.:saying ship when you mean sailboat

saying “Stay away from strangers.” to mean “Avoid strangers.”

6. Use of all-purpose words: extending a general, empty lexical item to contexts where specific words are lacking

Ex.: thingie



7. Word coinage: creating a new word in order to communicate a concept


vegetarianist for vegetarian

airball for balloon

ice cabinet (or ice box) for freezer

8. Prefabricated patterns: using memorized stock phrases, usually for "survival" purposes; sentence frames (e.g. Where is the…?) plus a slot into which different noun phrases may be inserted.


“What is your name?”

“I don’t speak English.”

“I don’t know.”

9. Nonverbal signals: mime, gesture, facial expression, or sound imitation.

10. Literal translation: translating literally a lexical item, idiom, compound word, or structure from L1 to L2.


(from Tagalog to English)

“Suntok sa buwan” is literally translated as “a punch to the moon”

“She fell because she had a fever.” to mean “She collapsed because she had a fever.”

11. Foreignizing: using a native word by adjusting it to the second-language phonology (i.e., with the second-language pronunciation) and/or morphology (e.g., adding to it a second-language suffix)


“Shiros” used by some Japanese – Americans to refer to “Whites” because the Japanese for the color white is “shiro”.

12. Code-switching or Language Switching: using the native language term, without bothering to translate, in a second-language sentence.


“I went to buy shoes but I found out that wala na pala akong pera (I had no more money)!”

“My puppy is so kawaii (cute) I want to hug it.”

13. Appeal for assistance: asking for the right word from someone either directly or indirectly


directly – “What do you call…?”

indirectly – puzzled expression, eye contact, hand gestures

14. Stalling or time-gaining strategies: using fillers or hesitation devices to fill pauses and to gain time to think


uh (er)

as a matter of fact




Avval, Sarah Farrahi. (2009). Communication Strategies Do Work: the usage of communication strategies in translation by Iranian students of translation. Translation Journal, Vol. 13, No. 3. April 2010.

Brown, H. Douglas. (2000). Principles of Language Learning and Teaching. NY, USA: Addison Wesley & Longman, Inc.

Hakuta, Kenji. (1974). Language Learning: Prefabricated Patterns and the Emergence of Structure in Second Language Acquisition, Vol. 24, No. 2. Toronto, Canada: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

Martin, Judith & Thomas Nakayama. (2004). Intercultural Communication in Context. NY, USA: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


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    • Maximum A profile image

      Jee Ann G 6 years ago

      @ tolerance: that's good! language is an interesting topic to study and discuss. i'll try to post as much as i can about language/communication. :)

    • profile image

      tolerance 6 years ago

      hi please i want to learn about this subject a lot

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      English Secong Language Acquisition 6 years ago

      Some great tips here. Communicative competence is the best way to learn a second language. Your analysis was spot on.

    • Maximum A profile image

      Jee Ann G 7 years ago

      Thanks. I know someone who went to Thailand he also said the same thing! Hopefully I could go teach there, too.

    • World-Traveler profile image

      World-Traveler 7 years ago from USA

      Hello- Your knowledge will help a great many students. I suggest UAE, the United Arab Emirates for the best income followed by some places in Europe, then Japan, South Korea and Thailand. People in Thailand are the most friendly. I intended teaching there for only six months before moving on. I ended up spending five years there. Great place, one of the best.