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March 11, 2010

Finding windows into teenage worlds oceans away

by Larisa Antonisse, Page Editor
Sitting day after day through her eighth grade French class, sophomore Sally Barth, like many foreign language students, found herself in a continuous state of confusion. As time ticked by slowly each class, Barth struggled to speak and understand a language which at times seemed no more than gibberish. But instead of continuing to slip, Barth took her foreign language education into her own hands. She got a pen pal.

Despite the decline in postal exchange since the growth of online communication technology, millions of people in the U.S. still correspond with strangers across the world by letter. Relationships with pen pals, strangers often in a foreign country to whom one writes regularly, have proven to be a beneficial learning experience for youth, according to Robin Bruscato, executive director of the New Bridge International Learning Center (NBILC), which sponsors a U.S./China pen pal program. The benefits of pen pals, including improvement as a writer, cultural understanding and self-awareness, have motivated Blazers and countless other students to begin foreign correspondence.

Snapshots of society

When Barth initially connected with her two French pen pals through a pen pal web site, she was not looking for friendship. Her main goal was practical: to improve her French skills. And she did. Her pen pals, who were fluent in both English and French, helped her with her understanding of the French language by responding to questions in French and correcting her writing. But Barth had not anticipated gaining a window into her pals' day-to-day lives. "I kind of got to see into their cultural world, not like we do in class," she says. Bruscato agrees that pen pals allow a greater cultural understanding that brings many kids out of their sheltered lives and exposes them to how other people live. "It gets kids who never go outside their neighborhoods out to a new community," he says.

As her pen pal correspondence continued, Barth found that there were a surprising number of differences between her life and that of her pen pals. For Barth, the most striking of these differences was French society's high standards of academic rigor. "In France, there are different expectations for life for kids…it is mandatory that [the French] take languages from second grade," she says. "It makes me scared for competing with people like that in the job course because they're trilingual, and I barely speak French."

While Barth and her pen pals exchange stories about the differences in their societies, senior Jenny Zhang, who corresponds with a pen pal from Thailand and a pen pal from Canada who lives in Wisconsin, finds that similarities with her pen pals allow them to connect on a more intimate level. Zhang first found her pen pals on a forum for individuals with a passion for anime. Zhang and her pen pals soon discovered more similarities. Zhang says her own Asian heritage allows her to understand a lot of the perspectives of her Thai pen pal on topics like the Asian school system and Asian holidays.

While both Zhang and Barth learned a great deal about foreign cultures from their pen pals, they also taught their pen pals about life in America. Barth says that her pen pals were most shocked to learn about the busy nature of American teens' extracurricular lives. "Many students here participate in multiple sports, clubs and organizations as a part of daily life…they were really surprised at how active we are as students, extracurricular wise," she says. Zhang, as well as telling her pen pals about American culture, is able to enhance their familiarity with her own life through the exchange of cultural gifts, postcards and photos.

Putting pen to paper

Neither Zhang nor Barth felt initial hesitations about writing to complete strangers because they both were able to connect with their pen pals in relaxed online environments, which they felt made the entire experience less threatening than speaking with a stranger face-to-face. Not only was connecting with their pen pals more relaxed than meeting someone face to face, but writing the actual letters was also enjoyable. According to Bruscato, pen pal correspondence can be a more interesting way to improve one's writing style than writing countless essays in a typical English class.

Barth says the letter format itself is partially responsible for this advantage over essays, and why she, like many others, chooses to write letters instead of using instant methods of communication like e-mail or Facebook. "Writing by e-mail is a little less personal," says Barth, "Getting mail from another person is so out of the ordinary today that it's exciting."

However, correspondents find that maintaining a pen pal relationship is time consuming. Despite the many benefits of pen pal correspondence, after less than a year Barth found herself unable to keep up with her letters, and had to end the relationships. Zhang still writes to her pen pals regularly. But whether it's for a year or a lifetime, these relationships improve understanding and bridge gaps between cultures in ways that few classes will.



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