Pen Pals 101: How to Find and Keep a Pen Pal to Practise Your Language Skills
Have you ever thought about being a pen pal?
Finding a pen pal is a great way to connect with people from other parts of the world, to learn a foreign language, and to open yourself up to a new culture.
Of course, these days we have Skype and email, which make connecting with others around the world much easier. But the desire to connect with people in different countries has been around far longer than the Internet! The postal service has been helping people learn languages and make new friends for hundreds of years.
And, even in this technological age, using snail mail to connect can still be incredibly effective. Thousands of people all over the world are looking to learn a language with a pen pal, and if you like writing letters (or if you think it’s something you might enjoy), it could be the language learning solution you’ve been looking for.
Let’s look a little closer at what a pen pal is, and how being one can help you learn a language.
What is a Pen Pal?
Pen pals are long-distance friendships you maintain by writing letters to each other.
The best pen pals are usually those who have an interest in learning about different people, cultures and languages. They want to connect with the world outside their borders, but on a more personal level.
Traditionally these pen pal opportunities would have been advertised in a newspaper or magazine. There would be a short profile about the person who was looking for a pen pal, and you could decide to send them a letter based how well your interests matched up.
This might sound like an odd way to start a friendship, but many pen pals go on to become best friends and forge lifelong bonds thanks to these common interests.
Nona Avery and Alice Powers are a great example of this. After seeing Alice listed as an American looking for a pen pal in a popular girl’s annual, Nona sent a letter to her from her home in England. She received a response two weeks later, and they’ve been sending bi-weekly letters to each other for the last 72 years!
Technology has changed how pen pals find each other, with many websites offering to connect pals from all across the globe. But the written word remains at the core of their relationship, whether that’s through an app like HelloTalk or good ol’ fashioned pen and paper.
How Can a Pen Pal Help You Learn a Language?
Pen pals have always had their role in language learning.
As I’ve mentioned, the desire to connect with someone on the other side of the world and practice your language skills before getting to the country predates Internet access and the invention of Skype. And the practice is still used today, despite all of the technology available to us.
Being a pen pal is a less intimidating way of connecting with someone while practicing your writing skills in your target language. Crafting a letter to send to someone can help you learn new vocabulary, practice talking about specific themes, and improve your grammar. Developing these friendships can also create opportunities to travel to countries and experience life there as a local.
Take The Guardian columnist Libby Page for example. As part of her school French course, she was connected with a girl called Juliette who came from a town in western France. Libby would send her letters in French and receive a response in English so that Juliette could practice her skills. Their letters would be filled with grammatical errors, and drawings to try and make their points clearer, but neither of them cared; they were learning by doing. After a few months, Libby had the opportunity to go to France where she stayed with Juliette and her family. They went to school and socialised together, and Libby experienced a side of French culture she couldn’t have seen by just going on vacation. An opportunity that wouldn’t have been available without her pen pal connection!
If you enjoy writing and connecting with other people, having a pen pal is a great way to support your language learning efforts.
Who Are Pen Pals For?
Pen pals are for anyone looking to learn a language or discover more about another culture.
Adults often worry if being a pen pal is just for young people or if it’s weird for older people in the community to take part. But that’s one of the best things about being a pen pal; you don’t have to meet any specific requirements.
It doesn’t matter if you’re: tall, short, old, young, employed, studying, pink, purple, from Mars or have a penchant for chocolate cake. As long as you’re open to new people and experiences, you can be a pen pal.
The 3 Different Types of Pen Pal
Technology has created lots of options for pen pals to connect with each other. So you can customise the type of pen pal you want to be based on how you like to write to people:
- Snail Mail: This is the traditional type of pen pal you’ve read about in this article so far. You send proper letters to fixed addresses in different countries. If you like the way receiving a handwritten letter makes you feel, this type is for you.
- Email: Many people prefer email to snail mail these days because it’s free, quick and easy.
- Digital: These are pen pals you connect with via instant messaging or services like HelloTalk. Here you can have daily or ongoing conversations with a pen pal through your mobile phone. If you prefer a fast-paced digital world, there are lots of options here.
I find the most personal connections come from snail mail because a lot of time, care and attention goes into sending a handwritten letter. But you can still develop deep connections with people using the other two as well.
10 Websites to Help You Find a Foreign Language Pen Pal
Pen pal websites have replaced the magazine and newspaper advertisements that Nona and Alice used to find their pen pals 72 years ago.
There are now opportunities to connect with hundreds of like-minded people who want to share the language learning experience with you. It’s as simple as joining a website, uploading a profile, and finding people to write to.
Many people join these sites purely for language learning. So, it won’t be too long until you find yourself connected with someone who speaks your target language and wants to learn your mother tongue.
Here are ten websites you can join to find your pen pal:
- Global Penfriends
- Conversation Exchange
- Penpal Party
- My Language Exchange
- Polyglot Club
- Students of the World
- PenPal Schools
Don’t be disheartened if it takes a while to find a pen pal, or if you have to wait a little while for a response. This is a normal part of the process, and these letters can often take longer to craft if they’re being written in a second language.
How to Find a Pen Pal as a Language Student
If you’re currently attending a language school, or you’re studying a language as part of your school curriculum, there may be some pre-arranged pen pal opportunities for you.
Lots of independent language schools are connected to a local community and may be able to connect you with people in that community to become pen pals. These may come through a teacher’s personal connections, or from professional connections the school has set up with a sister school elsewhere.
Your normal junior, middle or high-school may also have connections with a student exchange program for language learning. These often come with the opportunity to connect with other students in your connected school as pen pals.
Either way, it’s worth asking your teachers if they’re able to connect you with a pen pal.
What to Write in a Pen Pal Letter
Once you’ve found a pen pal, it’s time to write your first letter.
This can be a scary task because you want to express yourself well and make a good first impression. But don’t stress yourself too much here; it’s supposed to be a fun process where you learn from your mistakes!
One of the great things about the CEFR language framework is that the levels progress in the same way as getting to know someone would. This means pen pal letters are accessible no matter what level you’re at.
As an A1 (beginner) learner, you may only be able to ask them their name, where they’re from, what their hobbies are and which music they listen to. That might also be all the information you’re able to give about yourself. But that’s great! Many conversations start around these topics anyway.
If you’d like a simple structure for your first letter, I’d recommend something like this:
- Introduction: Say a little about who you are, where you’re from, and why you wanted a pen pal.
- Talk about your shared interests: Mention some of the shared interests that made you want to write to them. What did you feel you could bond over and why?
- Ask some questions about their life: What information do you want to learn about them?
- Mention what you’ll be doing between now and their next letter: This will give them something to write to you about. For example, if you’re going to a concert that could prompt a question in their next letter.
- Sign off: Thank them for reading your letter, let them know where to contact you, and let them know you’re looking forward to their response.
To keep the conversation going and ensure your pal writes back to you, it’s important to be curious. Ask questions about their life, take an interest in who they are and talk about the things that matter to both of you. And when writing about yourself, you’ll sound more interesting if you describe one or two events in detail rather than gloss over several events. For example, if talking about a party, don’t just say, “The food was good and everyone had a nice time”. Mention something funny or memorable that happened, or describe the food or the ambience in some detail.
Mr Postman, Look and See…
When you’ve sent your letter all you have to do is wait for your reply!
This can take a few days or a few weeks depending on where you’ve sent your letter, so don’t be too upset if you don’t get a response straight away.
If you don’t get a response at all, don’t worry, you can try again with a different pen pal using the same ideas I’ve shared in this post.