Building Language Skills with a Foreign Penpal

Lexa Pennington's picture

Only 10 pieces of personal mail are received each year by the average American household. With that number including holiday cards and invitations, there isn’t much room left for letters. It is no longer commonplace for one to write or receive a handwritten letter in the mail, but many believe it is a beautiful gesture. Encouraging students to become penpals with someone from another country can help improve not only their foreign language ability, but also their English grammar skills. The art of writing letters is one that has been all but lost in this age of email and texts. Whatever language you write them in, handwritten letters can be a beautiful, sentimental, and profound.

Building Language Skills with a Foreign Penpal

Where To Begin

When the average high school, or even college, student was born, email was already commonplace. For many students, letter writing isn’t something they’ve traded for the conveniences of electronic communication; it’s something they have truly never known. Currently, there is a resurgence in appreciation for the handmade, for the craftsmanship of things made by artists and creatives. The United States Postal Service makes fun stamps to complement any stationery, but according to, they can be purchased online for greater convenience, or if the local post office or stamp vendor doesn’t carry a large variety. In addition to the linguistic benefits of having a penpal, you can appeal to your students’ desire to support artists, small businesses, and the “vintage” exploit of writing letters.

Use It Or Lose It

Now that everyone is all set with equipment, how can becoming a penpal help your students with a language? We’ve all heard the old adage, “use it or lose it,” and it couldn’t be more true than with a foreign language. Following travels to another country and learning a language in a classroom, or living abroad for any period of time, many people find that the language skills acquired will diminish. If there isn’t anyone around with whom to practice, it can be tough to keep language skills sharp, but if you have someone to write to, you can practice regularly. Giving your students a foundation in writing and grammar in whatever foreign language they're learning is key to facilitating such writing.

Facilitate New Friendships

If you have the opportunity to introduce your students to potential penpals, arrange pairings for them. You can eliminate the awkward conversation of students having to make the requests on their own. Collecting names and contact information of those who may want an American penpal is also helpful, and you can disseminate that information along your travels or through your teaching. If you have students who are not able to meet anyone during their travels, there are plenty of ways to meet people online who are looking for penpals as well, so you can point them in that direction.

One of the most wonderful things about learning a new language is how much better you end up understanding your own. You can not only teach your students new languages and enhance their understanding of English, but introduce them to new cultures through the words of a native. Your students will become better writers, as well better communicators in general. While letter writing is a delightful lost art to rediscover, it can also be a wonderful educational tool.


Building Language Skills with a Foreign Penpal