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March 1995 - Issue No. #18
One of the most exciting ways to raise students' global awareness while providing plenty of language practice is by introducing them to an overseas penpal. The following article, by an English teacher who has just moved from Japan to Korea, explains how to arrange this.
In the global village we now live in cross cultural communication has never been more important. Since English is now considered the international language, we teachers of ESL/EFL have a responsibility to make cross cultural communication accessible to our students. I suggest introducing your students to an overseas pen pal. They will love it! It allows them, possibly for the first time, an opportunity to use their English for practical communication outside the classroom. Presently, my students are corresponding with people from Canada, the United States, Italy, Germany, England, Scotland, Holland, Poland, Czech, Slovakia, Hungary, Turkey, Ghana, Nigeria, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines.
As a writing exercise, I have my students write the first draft of their letters without regard for spelling or grammatical mistakes. I also do not grade their letters. As a result, I find my students tend to be more free and uninhibited than usual with their English. I do have, however, three requirements:
As a reading exercise, foreign correspondence often exposes my students to foreign colloquialisms and expressions. One student was puzzled over her Italian pen pal's use of "kisses" as a way to end a letter. Another student was introduced to the slang definition for "cool" from her American pen pal. I believe it is important for my students to be exposed to non-textbook and sometimes even non-native English occasionally. Not everyone speaks American English.
The correspondence I find of particular interest is the one between my former Japanese student Hitomi and her Italian pen pal Pina. Hitomi was a "C" student in the lowest level conversation class. She was painfully shy and rather introverted. Her English conversational ability was very basic. Pina (whom I met while travelling through Europe) was an extrovert. She enjoyed talking and spoke English quite well. What she could not express verbally she tried to communicate through gestures. If Hitomi and Pina were to meet in person they would probably not get much past the simple greetings stage. Yet as pen friends they developed a relationship and have been corresponding now for over two years.
Each woman shared personal information about her hobbies, interests and families. They also exchanged postcards, money, clothing and pictures of themselves and their families. In one letter, Hitomi even gave Pina a lesson in the Japanese katakana and hiragana writing systems.Here is how Hitomi expressed her appreciation for the gifts she received from Pina: "By the way, I thought from your letter, you're a woman with a tender heart."
1. Write, Write, Write!
The first step is to write to everyone you know. That includes family members, distant relatives, friends (particularly friends who are teachers), and your former high school and university international departments. Anyone and anywhere! Be creative!
I also suggest including a leaflet explaining your needs. You can ask the person you are writing to to make copies of your leaflet and pass it out among their friends. I found having my leaflet posted on a high school or university bulletin board to be especially effective. Thai is how I found many American, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand pen pals.
2. Advertise in International Magazines
When I first began collecting pen pals, I came across an Afro/Asian magazine that had a list of requests for foreign pen pals. (Regrettably, I cannot for the life of me remember the name of that magazine.) I wrote to them explaining my pen pal program. About three months later, I began receiving letters from Ghana and Nigeria requesting pen pals. To date, I have received hundreds of requests from Africa.
3. Introduce Your Pen Pal Program To People You Meet When Travelling Abroad
I found this to be extremely successful. Most of the European pen pals that are participating in my program I met while travelling through Turkey and Europe. I did not receive one negative reaction from anyone I approached. Everyone was delighted to be given the opportunity to use their English to communicate cross culturally.
4. Use Pen Pal Organizations
I personally am not a big fan of pen pal organizations. They often match up people without consulting the parties involved. I like to give my students options and let them choose their own pen pal. But if you are in a pinch, the organizations are worthwhile. They do however charge a nominal fee.
Foreign correspondence is a fun and exciting way for your students to use their English to communicate cross culturally. If you would like to introduce your students to Korean pen pals, please write me at the address given here. Please include name, age, address, sex and photo, if possible, for each student. Thank you!
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