The pen pal I exchanged the journal with is a third grader named AA. His parents came from X but he says he’s born in Canada. I’m not insinuating in any way that he’s lying, but it could be that he came to Canada at a very young age and he didn’t know about it. He’s a bit on the shy side, or it could be that I was being awkward with the kid and that he was merely being a mirror. At least that was the impression I received in a face-to-face meeting. I came to Canada when I was old enough to attend high school and, not having been brought up here, I’ve never had the chance to learn children’s language and to this day I find it very difficult to converse with kids in English. Our journal exchange was more successful, however, as I had more time to come up with questions that he’d be interested in, and he didn’t have to see my awkward facial expression to feel likewise.
AA started off his journal by asking about my favourite sports, video games and cartoons, and telling me about his language schools on weekends. At first he only used very basic sentence structures indicative of memorized formula, such as I don’t like cherries, my favourite sport is hockey, and so on. He started writing longer and displaying more complex sentence patterns after the March break, when I wrote three pages instead of one. Perhaps he felt compelled to write more in response because I wrote three times the usual amount. That’s also when I wrote about a real part of my life for the first time (hanging out with buddies, staying up all night playing Guitar Hero and so on) instead of asking superficial questions. Maybe he sensed my sincerity. This is also when I started slipping in bigger words such as ridiculously, complicated, appetite, triathlon, breaststroke, and so on. Words such as triathlon and breaststroke, I had to explain, but words like complicated and appetite, I used them so that he could figure out their meaning by context.
Part of his spelling reflected how he thought the words sounded. Romble = rumble, tring = trying, where = we are, there = they are.
He had problem with mechanics: he’d write something like “What’s your favourite cartoon mine is XYZ world my favourite character is X because he is funny,” which should be three separate sentences but he wrote as one long sentence. However, I felt that it was more from his general lack of regard for mechanics than his errors, because those mistakes came up randomly and he’d do fine in the very next sentence. This never seemed to have improved even at the very end of the journal exchange.
The length of each sentence increased in general, but as he was already quite fluent in spoken English, he just needed to find new subjects in order to increase the complexity of his written sentences. I just needed to ask the right questions to bring it out of him.
Compare his first journal entry with one of his later ones:
My favourite sport is hockey. What’s yours?
Thank you for the letter. I liked reading it, especially the part about the Transformers.
‘especially’ is quite a big word, and the word probably doesn’t see many uses in everyday spoken exchanges between children. He probably had heard of the word but couldn’t find the context in which he could use it. Then I wrote him about, among many other things, the movie Transformers, telling him the movie’s about big robots from space brawling, wrestling and shooting missiles at each other and hurting a lot of people in the process. He probably liked the part more than the rest of the writing and that’s when he probably thought he could use the word ‘especially’. But then, there’s also a good possibility that he already knew how to use the word long time ago.
Over the time he became more comfortable writing to me. He started using jokes, and that’s a sign I could say that he became more open.
It was funny when he said “I like Shawarma more than my mom’s cooking. Don’t tell my mom!”
Later towards the end he even pulled an April Fool’s joke on me. “My school ends at April 10 April Fool My school really ends on June 26th and where (we are) going to water park before school ends.” Actually this one sentence shows all his problems and improvements: His lack of regard for periods, his phonetically motivated spelling, and increased sentence complexity.
It was a little frustrating when I couldn’t write about certain things because I had to be mindful of his age. Having to dumb down my writing was the most frustrating part of this journal experience.
Also, I felt that he hasn’t been sincere enough with me and with this journal exchange. Many times he used a lot of irrelevant fillers. Other times he would utilize huge spaces between words just to fill the page. It could be that I wasn’t asking questions that interested him. It could be that there’s an irremediable gap between a third grader and a 24-year old university student. Maybe I didn’t make the good first impression and he has been wishing all along that he’d get a different partner. Maybe he wanted an attractive female pen pal. Or perhaps I shouldn’t take all this too seriously.