Forms of address in Italian as a foreign language: a study on Dutch speaking learners in a guided learning context

This poster reports on a study on acquisition of pragmatics in Italian as a foreign language, in a guided learning context in Belgium. The study focuses on realization patterns of three speech acts – namely requests, complaints and apologies, following Nuzzo’s (2007) work – with special attention to the selection of the form of address and use of modifiers. While the use of modifiers has been analysed in other works (see Marocchini, 2017), the poster compares native and non-native realization patterns and examine if different variables such as social distance and language proficiency level make any difference in terms of selection of the form of address.

The methods used in the study consisted of a Sociolinguistic Questionnaire about learners’ sources for language learning, contacts with Italian native speakers and trips to Italy, and of a written Discourse Completion Task (DCT) made of 21 scripted situations (7 situations for each of the three speech acts), where just one interlocutor is addressed, with different levels of social distance and intimacy between subject and addressee.

The situations were set out orally, explained in detail by a native speaker, following Yuan’s (2001) findings on how orally elicited data seem to be closer to natural speech; participants were asked to write down what they would have said in the very first place.

The participants were Dutch native speakers attending an Italian course, 23 at a B1-level and 20 at a B2-level, and 20 Italian native speakers. The Belgian participants are generally older than the Italian participants.

The DCT outcome was used for building a dataset on which Conditional Inference Trees (ctrees) were plotted in R. As a non-parametric method for data classification, based on recursive binary partitioning, ctrees choose the predictor that is most strongly associated with the data partitions as the basis of the split.

This method is used in the poster for determining if social distance and language proficiency level have significant effects in the learners data in terms of selection of the form of address.

The generated plots suggest that Italian native speakers tend to reflect the unwritten norm of using the familiar form tu with friends, relatives, acquaintances and young people (Dardano & Trifone, 1985, p. 168), and the polite form lei, with people held in high regard, with older people, and with whoever the speaker is connected to at a low level of intimacy (Sensini, 1997, p. 208), and also with professionals and service providers in general.

Learners, instead, tend to be more polite to unknown people, while they pay less attention to social distance: they tend to overextend the polite form “lei” to situations with a younger or socially equal addressee, and to prefer the informal “tu” while talking to known professionals (e.g. doctors or teachers). Learners with a higher language proficiency seem to be slightly better at grammar and at selecting the polite form when social distance is higher and intimacy is lower.


Dardano, Maurizio, & Trifone, Pietro (1985). La lingua italiana. Bologna, Italia: Zanichelli.

Marocchini, Eleonora (2017). Politeness strategies in complaints in Italian: A study on IFL learners and Italian native speakers. E-JournALL, EuroAmerican Journal of Applied Linguistics and Languages 4 (2), 75-96.

Nuzzo, Elena (2007). Imparare a fare cose con le parole. Richieste, proteste, scuse in italiano lingua seconda. Perugia, Italia: Guerra.

Sensini, Marcello (1997). La grammatica della lingua italiana. Milano, Italia: Mondadori.

Yuan, Yi (2001). An inquiry into empirical pragmatics data-gathering methods: written DCTs, oral DCTs, field notes, and natural conversations. Journal of Pragmatics 33 (2), 271–292.