Writing letters has always been one of my favourite things to do. As a language learner, I find it to be one of the most effective ways to practice my target language. It is essentially writing exercise, vocabulary revision, reading comprehension practice and cultural exchange rolled into one.
If you’re old-fashioned like me, snail mail would be right up your alley. But if you prefer something more fast-paced, you might want to start with email.
Why You Should Keep a Pen Pal
You Get to Practice Your Writing Skills Regularly
Any experienced language learner will tell you that consistency is one of the most important things when it comes to practicing your target language. It’s better to write a short paragraph every day than a long essay once in a while. A long-term correspondence requires you to reply regularly, if not often.
It is also altogether a far more stimulating exercise (in my opinions) compared to writing a diary entry every day in your target language. This is because when we do freestyle writing, particularly in a language we aren’t comfortable with yet, we tend to stick to what we already know.
When you are writing to your pen pals, however, you get to control only half of what is being discussed. You are often challenged to respond to the things your pen pal has written, whether it’s sharing your thoughts on the topics they are interested in, or answering any questions they might have for you. It forces you to get out of your comfort zone.
It Helps Activate Your Passive Vocabulary
I’ve written in another post here about ways to activate passive vocabulary quickly and effectively, but generally speaking, exercises that allow you to put newly acquired vocabulary to use immediately work best. This is because according to the Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve theory, we start forgetting new information almost as soon as we acquire it. If we go a week without revisiting the information, we stand to lose up to 80% of it. The only solution to this is reinforcing the knowledge by using it immediately and repeatedly until it sticks. With letters, you can do just that by immediately incorporating the new words and expressions you encounter in your pen pals’ letters into your replies.
It Lets You Interact with Native Speakers
It goes without saying that to become more like the native speakers, we need to interact with them often. Doing so exposes us to natural expressions that help make us sound less like robots, and introduces us to cultural nuances that our textbooks rarely cover. Skype calls and face-to-face language exchange are great, but can also be very stressful for people who find such interactions with strangers overwhelming and draining. With letters, though, you get to take all the time you need to think about what you want to say and formulate your reply.
How to Make the Most Out of Your Exchange
Writing Your Letters
I recommend approaching every single one of your letter like a writing assignment. Make it a goal to learn something new from every single letter you write. Prepare topics you would like to talk about and research them. Read as many articles as possible on those topics, and write down any interesting sentences you come across. Use as many of these sentences as possible in your letters. Remember, the key to remembering words and expressions is to use them as often as possible. I usually try to repeat the same sentences to every single one of my pen pals (one of the reasons why I keep more than one) until I can recite it from memory.
Reading Their Letters
Treat every single letter as an intensive reading comprehension practice. Look up every single word you do not know. Write them down along with the new expressions you encounter in these letters, and work them into your replies. For example, let’s say I have three pen-pals – Mary, Kate and Ashley. If I learn a new word from Mary’s letter, I’ll be sure to use it when I’m writing to Kate and Ashley. If I find a useful expression in Kate’s, you can bet that it’ll appear in my replies to Mary and Ashley.
What to Write About in Your Letters
The topics you will be able to talk about vary depending on your level of proficiency. Like your friendship, it will grow over time – your topics will become more complex as you become better at the language. Nevertheless, here are some ideas to get you started.
Daily Life – Share interesting stories from your daily life and update them on what and how you’re doing at the beginning of every letter. A good thing about this is that you’ll end up learning words and expressions that are highly relevant to your everyday life.
Movies, Books & Music – Talk about movies, books or music that you like. I find writing plot summaries for books and movies in particular a very challenging yet productive exercise. I usually have to spend an hour or two reading wikis and online reviews before putting my thoughts down in words, and I learn a lot of interesting expressions and vocabulary this way.
Food & Culture – I have yet to meet a pen-pal who doesn’t enjoy this topic. It’s human nature to be curious about people and places that are different from what we are used to, and cultural exchange is one of the best things about keeping pen pals from all around the world.
Where to Start
Instagram – There is a very vibrant pen-pal community on Instagram. You can find them via the hashtags #penpalwanted, #penpalswanted or #snailmail. Post an ad up and tag it with the these hashtags and wait for others to approach you!
Interpal & Penpal World – Both comes with search filters and varying features of profile customisation, allowing you to narrow all your options down to people of the same age group as you, and those who share common interests with you.
笔友贴吧 – If you’re looking to a) write your letters entirely in Mandarin Chinese; b) meet new friends from China, try looking in this tieba! Like reddit, it works like a forum. Just make an account and start a thread stating what you’re looking for in a pen pal, and wait for people to approach you in the comments!
공식 펜팔전문 카페 – This is a naver cafe, and it works as a forum, like reddit and the Chinese penpal forum mentioned above. Make a naver account, join this cafe and start a thread. Make sure you introduce yourself and include your email address!
Just like making friends in real life, it takes time to find pen pals that you truly click with. Don’t be discouraged if they stop writing back – accept that they have moved on, and look for new ones. People come and go, and pen pals are no different. Just enjoy it while it lasts!