When I was a kid, I had a pen-pal from Belgium. Her letters on tissue-thin paper would arrive "par avion" in their light envelopes, having traveled across the Atlantic and most of the continental United States. Though her first language was French, she wrote to me in English, the slightly different letters and occasionally awkward syntax the only give-away that English was not her primary language. I still have one of her letters and a thumbnail picture she sent of herself.




Kids and adults these days still have pen-pals, but the Internet offers a way to find a pen-pal and communicate back and forth in seconds, not days or weeks.




Googling terms like "international," "pen-pal," "Internet" and "e-mail" yields a bevy of sites devoted to linking up people from different countries. You can find pen-pals who speak English, or practically any language in the world. Unless you're pretty fluent in another language, a good bet for an American is to find a pen-pal who speaks English as a second language.




Our family went to to find a Mexican pen-pal who speaks Spanish as well as English. The Web site is run by a nonprofit group in France interested in opening the doors of the world's cultures to young people.




The number of available pen-pals on just this one site is mind-boggling &

literally thousands. They range in age from elementary school into their 20s and 30s.




To use the site, pick the country where you want a pen-pal. Iraq, Mongolia, Kenya, Cuba, New Zealand &

you name the fascinating locale and this Web site probably has someone from there.




Scroll through the pen-pal profiles, which list the person's age, interests and languages. You can then click on the person you like and send off an e-mail. Then it's a matter of waiting to see if the pen-pal you selected e-mails back. This can happen almost instantly, or it could take weeks. There's also a chance you may never hear back, so in that case, pick someone new and try again.




I picked out a man named Benjamin from Mexico because of his interest in politics and books. He's in his 30s, has a seven-year-old son, speaks Spanish and wants to improve his English skills.




If you're interested in practicing a different language, many international pen-pal Web sites recommend you write your message in both your "practice" language and your first language. That way your pen-pal can give you tips on proper usage and you'll both have more flexibility in trying to communicate your thoughts. Both partners also get a chance to read and write in their practice language.




When I sent off my first message to Benjamin, I didn't hear back for a few weeks. But when he e-mailed back and understood my Spanish, I couldn't have been more proud if I had been a NASA scientist who sent a signal into outer space and then got a message back from a civilization on a distant planet.




I've picked up Spanish almost exclusively from Pimsleur Language Programs tapes (available at the Ashland Public Library), which means I don't get feedback from a teacher about whether I'm even remotely comprehensible.




Here's part of Benjamin's first e-mail back to me: "Hola Vickie! Gracias por escribir. Si no te incomoda, re-escribire tu carta para que cheques algunos peque&

195;3/8os errores. Hi Vickie, Thanks for write to me. If you don't mind, I'll write again your message in order to check some little mistakes."




He then went on to correct any oddities in my Spanish. For example, while tapes and books told me to say, "Me llamo Vickie," or literally, "I call myself Vickie," Benjamin suggested that I say simply, "Mi nombre es Vickie," or "My name is Vickie."




He asked me to correct his English as well. I was happy to return the favor and let him know how Americans would use various phrases.




Now, good luck finding your own international pen-pal!




Just a word of caution, there's no way international pen-pal Web sites can screen all their users, so use common sense. Don't give out personal information like your street address, and make sure your kids don't give out personal information either if they are the ones communicating with the pen-pal. It's always a good idea to keep the computer in a central location like the living room or kitchen when your kids are on-line.