Communicative and Compensatory Strategies  

'The easiest way to give the impression of having a good accent or no foreign accent at all is to hold an unlit pipe in your mouth, to mutter between your teeth and finish all your sentences with the question “isn’t it?” People will not understand much, but they are used to that and they will get a most excellent impression.' George Mikes 1946


A. Socially-motivated strategies for solving mutual lack of understanding (Tarone): a Communication Strategy (CS) 'a mutual attempt of two interlocutors to agree on a meaning in situations where requisite meaning structures do not seem to be shared'

       avoidance          topic avoidance
                          message abandonment
       approximation   “animal" for "horse",
       paraphrase        word coinage "airball" for "balloon".
       circumlocution    “when you make a container" for "pottery"
       transfer              literal translation "Make the door shut"
                                   language switch "That's a nice tirtil" (caterpillar)
       appeal for assistance “What is this?"
       mime                  getting some candles in a shop in France by singing "Happy Birthday" in English and miming blowing out candles.


Communication strategies in Tarone (1977)

avoidance: message abandonment 4%
paraphrase: approximation 12%
word coinage under 1%
circumlocution 80%
transfer language switch 2%
appeal for assistance 2%
Frequency of communication strategies in English-speaking girls learning French (adapted from Bialystok, 1990)

     approximation    51.05%
     word coinage      96.88%
     circumlocution    56.38%
      language switch 60.38%

Communication strategies in percentages pie

Success of communication strategies for listeners (adapted from Bialystok, 1990)

B. Psychologically-motivated strategies for solving the individual's L2 problems of expression (Faerch & Kasper): 'potentially conscious plans for solving what to an individual presents itself as a problem in reaching a particular communicative goal'

strategies           foreignising     
interlanguage    exemplification
  Non-cooperative                           word coining    
strategies                                  restructuring    
non-linguistic     mime               
strategies         imitation, etc   
Cooperative                                  appeals            
Formal reduction                           morphological  
Functional reduction                        propositional  

Communication strategies in interlanguage production (Faerch & Kasper (1984)


C. Compensatory strategies

Conceptual archistrategy { analytic "talk uh bird" for "parrot"
                                            { holistic "table" for "desk"
Linguistic archistrategy    { morphological creativity "ironize" for "iron"
                                            { L1 transfer "middle" for "waist"
Compensatory strategies from Poulisse (1989/90)

Conceptual  Linguistic
Analytic Holistic  Morpho
 Transfer Totals
advanced   466  138  53  762
upper secondary   630  171  93  903
lower secondary   707 182  7 122  1018
Totals 803  491  19  268  2581
Percentage   69.9%  19.2%  0.7% 


Superordinate strategies in L2 by group for four tasks (adapted from Poulisse, 1989)

percentage correct  range
Holistic   51.2%  0% ("tailor") to 92.3% ("wig")
Analytic  69.6%  20.6% ("applications") to 100% ("hairdressers")
Holistic+ Analytic  78.9%  34.6% ("hair-restorer") to 100% ("lawyer")
Transfer   59.3%  2.9% ("rabbit") to 95% ("wig")

Success of native speakers at guessing words from L2 compensatory strategies (adapted from Poulisse, 1990)

Research summary: Poulisse, N. (1990), The Use of Compensatory Strategies by Dutch Learners of English, Mouton de Gruijter, Berlin
: to investigate compensatory strategies at different L2 levels, in L1 and L2, and in terms of efficiency
Learners: 45 Dutch learners of English at three levels of acquisition: advanced, intermed- iate, and low.
Data type: transcripts of four tasks: I photo description, II description of drawings in L1 and L2, III retelling stories, IV interview.
Method of analysis: classification into conceptual (analytic and holistic) and linguistic (morphological and transfer)
Results: strategies vary inversely according to proficiency, vary partly in type according to proficiency, vary according to task, and vary according to superordinate versus
subordinate level.

English (L2)  

Dutch (L1)















upper secondary







lower secondary 














Comparison of compensatory strategies for shape description in L1 and L2 (adapted from Poulisse, 1990)


Bialystok, E. (1990), Communication Strategies, Blackwell, Oxford

Faerch, C. & Kasper, G. (1984), 'Two ways of defining communication strategies', Language Learning, 34, 45-63

Firth, A. & Wagner, J. (1997). On discourse, communication, and (some) fundamental concepts in SLA research. Modern Language Journal, 81, 285-300

Kasper, G. & Kellerman, E. (eds.) (1997), Communication Strategies, Harlow: Longman

Kellerman, E. (1991), 'Compensatory strategies in second language research: a critique, a revision, and some (non-) implications for the classroom', in Phillipson, R., Kellerman, E., Selinker, L., Sharwood Smith, M., & Swain. M. (eds.), Foreign/Second Language Pedagogy Research, Multilingual Matters, Clevedon

Poulisse, N. (1990), The Use of Compensatory Strategies by Dutch Learners of English, Mouton de Gruijter, Berlin

Poulisse, N. (1996), ‘Strategies’, in Jordens, P. & Lalleman, J., (eds) Investigating Second Language Acquisition, Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin

Tarone, E. (1988), Variation in Interlanguage, Edward Arnold, London

Extract from a Dutch student retelling a story

Here is an example taken from Nanda Poulisse (1990) of a Dutch student retelling a story in English. Take one of the schemes of analysis from Faerch and Kasper or from the Nijmegen project and see what strategies you discover; to what extent do you feel this shows that the bulk of communication strategies are in fact due to lack of lexical knowledge?

it's a story which call, the representer <laughs> it's a man uh, uh, uh who has uh, discovered, uh 1, uh 1 ja, a thing you can put on your head and then your hair will grow, when you're bald, that's very nice and uh, he tries to sell it, to uh, /so/ uh, to a lot of, erm, 1 haircutters <laughs>, erm 1 he does it uh, very, uh xxx clever, he's uh, bald, self, his himself, and uh, then, he puts on uh, uh <laughs> 3 'n pruik (=a wig) <whispers> 2 erm 6 erm, a thing which is made of uh, other man's hair or static hair, and you can put it on your head and then uh, it seems if you're not bald, and uh, then he, uh beweren (=claims), uh <whispers> 4 he says to the, to to the hair-cutter that uh 2 that uh has come because he has use his own uh 2 own, wat is uitviubdig nou weer (now what is invention?) <whispers> 2 own uh thing which he /ha/ had d discocered, uh. he, uh 2 he 2, he uh, earned a lot of money, uh, until the day of uh, the 2 meeting which is hold every year, in 1 outside of uh the houses, in the air, and the wind had uh, blew off, that thing 1 which he had on his hairs, and so 1 uh they discovered that he was a liar <laughs>

Learning strategies   Vocabulary learning strategies