So… What exactly is a pen pal language exchange?
A language exchange of any kind is where two people who are learning each other’s languages help each other to learn. So a pen pal language exchange is where the people don’t necessarily meet up in real life, but write to each other instead. This can be done online, through messaging services or email, or by using good old-fashioned snail mail. The format can be decided between you, either each writing in the language you are learning, or half-and-half each.
Benefits of a pen pal language exchange
There are many benefits to participating in a pen pal language exchange.
#1 Teaching helps you learn
Learning another language is obviously the main benefit, but there is so much more to it. You will be learning, but also teaching, helping another person on their language-learning journey. There might be times when it encourages you to learn something about your own language that you didn’t know before!
#2 Insight into cultural references
Interacting with someone from a different culture can be an enriching experience at any time, but it is critically useful when trying to learn a language. Many of our phrases/sayings that we think of as normal are actually very culturally specific. If an Italian speaker, for example, said “you can’t have a drunk wife and a full barrel of wine”, an English speaker might wonder what on earth they are talking about. But once explained, they would realize that this is simply the Italian version of “you can’t have your cake and eat it”. These small but significant differences allow us to understand what is considered important within a specific culture (for the Italians it’s wine, for the British – cakes!).
These everyday sayings are very useful if you want to learn a new language but might not come up if you are only studying in books, which is why a pen pal language exchange can help, as there really is no substitute for a native speaker.
#3 Time to think it through
Writing emails, letters or postcards gives us time to really think about what we want to say. This is especially useful if you are learning a new language and need some time to properly formulate your thoughts. In this way, you can take your time and really get your points across in exactly the way you want to.
#4 Staying relevant
Another benefit to taking part in a pen pal language exchange is that you can rest assured that the vocabulary you are learning is relevant and up to date. As with English, in every language, words go in and out of fashion or common usage. So if you are learning from books or articles, or even from a native teacher (if they haven’t lived in their country of origin for some time), some of the vocabulary you are taught may sound old-fashioned or unusual to other native speakers. Having a pen pal who lives in the country that speaks the language you are learning, avoids this problem. Plus, it’s always fun to learn new slang.
#5 Getting post – that isn’t just bills…
Who doesn’t like receiving nice post? Nowadays most of the junk that comes through to our inboxes or letterboxes is exactly that. Kunk, advertising or if not, dreaded bills! So wouldn’t it be wonderful to wake up one morning, or indeed several mornings, to a beautifully crafted piece of personal post written to you by someone in a far off land?
#6 Freedom to express yourself
There is something magical about writing, even typing, that gives people a sense of freedom to express themselves in a way spoken words don’t allow. Being involved in a pen pal language exchange allows you to express yourself exactly as you would like to. And to someone who really wants to hear what you have to say! The same applies the other way around… You will be let in to the thoughts of another person maybe thousands of miles away, who knows what you might learn?!
#7 Making friends!
When starting a pen pal language exchange your partner will of course be a stranger, but as the communication between you continues, the relationship will also grow. What starts off as a random stranger halfway across the world could quickly become one of your closest friends!
How to maximize benefits of a pen pal exchange
The most important thing to remember when embarking on a pen pal language exchange is that practice makes perfect. You have to keep up regular communication, otherwise you will forget what you have learned. The best way to do this is to set aside a regular time. Try once a week or however frequently you can, to focus on writing. It doesn’t have to be for long, even half an hour, but make sure you keep it up!
Tip #1 – Ask questions
A good way to make sure the relationship continues with your pen pal is to keep asking questions. These don’t necessarily need to be about the language itself, just things you’d like to know, about their culture, food, work etc. These will give your pen pal something to think about and answer in their reply to you, and make sure the communication flows. It’s also useful practice… You will need to know how to engage someone in their language if you ever plan to use your newly acquired language skills in real life. Here’s how to write a letter or postcard to a pen pal if you’re a beginner (or you’ve run out of things to say).
Tip #2 – Don’t be shy
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. When you are writing or speaking in a foreign language, you’re expected to make mistakes, so just carry on. The most important thing is that your partner understands what you are trying to say. Communication is the main goal, not perfection.
Tip #3 – Communication is key to pen pal language exchanges
Regarding mistakes, it might be a good idea to tell your pen pal language exchange partner how/if you prefer to be corrected. Make sure to ask them the same, because some people really want to be picked up on every single error whereas others will just be happy to have someone to share ideas with.
If there is a particular reason you are learning their language, let your partner know! It’s far easier and more fun to be reading/writing about something you are interested in, and that is useful to you. So if your plan is to learn Korean to study abroad, let them know! Maybe they can give you some useful tips about living over there.
Tip #4 – Don’t give up!
Don’t be disheartened if you don’t hear back. There are many reasons why someone might not reply to you, or take a long time to reply. They might get busy, decide they don’t want to learn anymore, or there could be other life issues that get in the way, but don’t let it stop you finding a new pen pal language exchange partner, there are so many to choose from!
How to find a pen pal for your exchange
There are several websites and apps that allow you to find a pen pal language exchange partner. Some offer in-app messaging, or others that just connect you and allow you to exchange emails.
There is one particular website, however, that connects you with another person from across the globe, and allows you to send actual physical postcards to them. Addresses are encrypted and privacy is guaranteed. You just have to sign up, choose a design or upload your own, and write your card! You’ll be matched on the platform and your postcard is printed and sent for you. So once it’s done, all you have to do is wait for a reply. If this sounds like something you might be interested in, then check out our very own PenPal and start making friends from across the world!