Writing roundtrip

 Staffer explores learning a foreign language with French pen pal

pen pal

We’ve all heard high schoolers complain about learning a foreign language.  There are the students who spend four years taking Spanish classes but still don’t feel like they could have a conversation; there are the graduates and parents who used flashcards faithfully in school, but then their skills became rusty.  Then there are the advertisements for expensive online classes and systems claiming to be able to teach us to speak in just 10 days on a free trial. And meanwhile, students in high school in other countries have often been studying multiple foreign languages at the same time for years.

I started learning a foreign language later than most. Last year, as a sophomore, I started taking French for the first time. I wish I could have been one of those kids who grew up bilingual, but unfortunately, I’m pretty sure the benefits of starting a language from a young age don’t really apply to me anymore.

Of course, I love how the language teachers at school do the best they can to motivate us with songs, parties and crazy games. They try to make it easy and accessible, and most of the time, language classes are pretty fun. But, there are still times when it can be frustrating and daunting to realize how far I have to go.

I started talking to Bérénice over email almost a year ago. It began when an English teacher at Lycée Joachim du Bellay in Angers, France, emailed my French teacher, and she asked the class if anyone would be interested in having a pen pal. We began simply. We introduced ourselves and wrote about where we live, our family, our school, and what we like to do. Then, we started writing back and forth regularly, alternating paragraphs of French and English so we could practice and read both. We talk about anything: school, music, traveling, culture, life. We even became friends on Facebook.

skypecallSometimes, I get to talk with Bérénice by videochat. The first time, she took her laptop and sat out in her beautiful garden while we talked. We have some trouble understanding each other, especially because she is learning English in a British accent at school, and I haven’t had a lot of practice listening to a French accent, but we just laugh about it and manage to get our message across. It was adorable when her younger brother came over and asked, in broken English, “Do you like… ‘chocolat?’”

It’s challenging to learn to hold a conversation in a foreign language, and I’m far from perfect at it, especially because I started so late. But practicing regularly (even if I have to look up words a lot) helps me to remember those words and get used to the way we use them in French.  I’m incredibly grateful for the experience to communicate and share cultures with my pen pal. It’s not only helped me accelerate learning French language and culture, but it has also just been a fun way to make a new friend.

In class, I find myself recognizing new vocabulary words and grammar patterns because my pen pal has used them before. Even lessons that are completely new are easier to grasp because I have had more practice picking things up quickly and understanding the language. You can’t get experiences like that in the classroom. While studying in the classroom is really important, nothing can compare to having a real conversation with someone.

I’ve learned that a foreign language doesn’t need to be frustrating if you explore and take initiative outside the classroom, whether it is through writing to a pen pal, watching videos or movies, using websites like duolingo, or even listening to music. After all, learning a new language is all about making connections and interacting between cultures. Writing to a pen pal transforms this process from work to fun.

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