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Couchsurfing: How to practise with a native without even needing to leave your home

| 30 comments | Category: learning languages

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Edit: This post was so well appreciated by people that I’ve rewritten it and added it to lots of other unconventional tips, in the Language Hacking Guide.

I recently shared my most important decision ever that started me on the path to becoming a polyglot, but it lead to a lot of questions that some of you have been raising in the comments and contacting me about. What if you don’t live in the country that speaks the language you want to learn? How can you learn several languages at once without getting them mixed up? What if you are just too shy to get out there and meet people? All of these issues and more can actually be solved very simply… in a few mouse clicks!

Once again, I’ll start with a little background information:

Forgetting my languages and too shy to get out and meet others

After living in Spain for one year and successfully having reached a pretty good level of Spanish, I moved to Germany for 2 months (to practise the German that I had learned in school), then Italy for 3 months. I was working at the reception in one of Rome’s most important youth hostels and it gave me an excellent chance to practise all of these languages every day with budget travellers. It really was an ideal situation (well, except for the miserable pay)! As a popular hostel we had people from all over the world, and they were happy to able to speak their language with me and help me practise.

But I needed to think about my career; working in youth hostels and teaching English were not related to my degree in Electronic Engineering. After lots of searching, I found a job in Paris as an intern in a very interesting job as a pre-sales engineer with foreign clients; they didn’t need me to speak French, which was convenient because I didn’t :P

After 8 months in Paris I was finally starting to get by in French. French was much harder to learn not because of the language itself, but because of the Parisians’ refusal to help me. They would give me a disgusted grimace any time I would speak with my anglophone accent, and any kind of encouragement was out of the question. I longed for the day when a local would tell me that my French was pas mal. This meant that I was barely socialising (especially since I was still avoiding English speaking expats) and because of this, I had quite a negative experience in Paris apart from my work. At the time I was still quite introvert, so I actually spent most of my time in Paris at home when I wasn’t at work.

To make matters worse I was completely forgetting my Spanish, Italian and German (and in fact, I never did get my German back; that will be another 3-month mission some day!) After all the work I put into speaking these languages, it was depressing that I was back to square one and not even able to piece together basic sentences again! If only I still had the hostel environment again of meeting young travellers who speak many different languages… Then in another crucial life changing moment, I came across a website that solved all of these problems.

Couchsurfing: changing the world, one couch at a time

The concept of Couchsurfing is very easy to “sell” to travellers. They sign up (for free), make a nice profile and then when they travel, they don’t have to pay for accommodation! They get to stay with a local who may show them around, but always gives them a nice place to sleep, and it doesn’t cost a penny! Although I have used it a couple of times to save on money that I would otherwise have spent on a hotel or hostel (and it has been great having a local show me the city) I immediately saw a completely different possible advantage of it when I was signing up, which has been essential for my language learning!

How about we look at it from the host’s perspective: You can have a native of the language you are learning come and stay in your house for a few days, speak to you only in that language, correct you if you ask them to, cook their country’s typical meals for you (providing you buy the ingredients, since they are usually on a tight budget) etc. and attentively listen to you as you try to speak… and it’s completely free! You just have to provide them with a place to sleep, show them around your city (if you have time) and give them advice on what to do and what not to miss.

In fact, thanks to Couchsurfing, I have been able to practise every language that I’ve learned up to now on a regular basis, no matter where I am in the world. I actually started learning Portuguese by hosting Brazilians in Toulouse (France), a French Couchsurfer introduced me to Esperanto in Montreal, and here in Prague I have greatly improved my Portuguese, French, Spanish and Italian… without ever needing to even step outside of my flat.

It’s safer than you think

If you have a spare bed, or even a couch that is big enough to sleep on (hence the name of the site), and especially if you live in any major city that is generally visited by foreigners, then why not sign up, set up a profile and invite travellers to stay with you?

OK, there is obviously a very good answer to that “why not“? They could be axe-murderers, rapists, thieves, assholes, or Parisians. (Just kidding about that last one :P I’ve hosted lots of Parisians!) Well, Couchsurfing actually has a very efficient 3-level trust system. Firstly, you can verify your name and address to prove that are who you say you are, then you can leave references (similar to on e-bay for example) to describe how the stay was and confirm that that person is friendly and trustworthy, and then you can even vouch for the person. To maintain the quality of the vouching system, people can only vouch for someone else if they themselves have been vouched for 3 times. References are an excellent account of what others have thought of that traveller. A combination of some or all of these options means that you really know that it’s very unlikely that anything bad will happen with that person. Normal common sense is also required of course.

I have actually hosted about a thousand budget travellers in apartments that I’ve rented in various cities in the last 4 years (once I even hosted over 40 at the same time), and nothing horrible has ever happened. Seriously. They have never even used my toothpaste without asking first! This isn’t because of pure luck, but because of using the site efficiently and being very selective in deciding who I host. Most of those using the site are very generous, open-minded travellers so I always consider Couchsurfing as a network of (currently over a million) nice people.

Here in Prague I’m getting an amazing 10-30 requests a day from various travellers, so I can pick and choose as I like. I’ve been mostly hosting French and Brazilian travellers because I’d like to focus on improving my level of their languages. They have corrected me in mistakes that I needed ironing out, and been very glad to do so. This side-mission that I have mentioned before is precisely why I chose to live in Prague over a less touristy city in the Czech Republic; there would be less travellers visiting other places. When locals ask me how to improve their English without travelling I tell them about this site, because there are obviously lots of English speakers who travel with it too.

It’s ironic, but I’ve actually learned way more French by hosting Couchsurfers outside of France than I ever did living in France!!

So many other benefits

How do you prevent yourself from mixing up similar languages? One way I’ve achieved this is regularly switching between the languages. When I tried speaking Spanish or Italian after 8 months in Paris with no practise, I simply could not stop thinking in French. But now, since one day I may be having dinner with a French backpacking couple, and the next day chatting with an Argentinian staying with me while looking for a flat in Prague, it keeps each language fresh in my mind. I’ll mention other ways not to mix up languages another time, but this has by far been the most important for me.

There are also the non-linguistic reasons; meet experienced and novice travellers with interesting stories to tell; they can share their culture with you and you can almost feel like you are travelling without ever needing to pack your bag. Because of this I’ve also hosted plenty of Couchsurfers that can’t really help me with languages (English speakers, and those from countries I haven’t decided to learn the language of and who have to speak to me in English), simply because they were so interesting!! If you are starting off in the site you should host as many people as you can from many countries to improve your references; while you mention that you’d prefer to host someone who can help you with language X if possible. Since a lot of people use the site during the summer, now is the best time to sign up!

The site is about much more than just free accommodation though. There are regular meetings and discussion groups for almost every city, and you can go out and meet travellers in your city at one of these meetings right now! This is a great way to ease into the Couchsurfing programme without hosting, and generally meeting some interesting and fun people. You can also possibly get references this way, since from the guest’s perspective they have to be careful too and if you haven’t been verified by the site’s trust-system then why would they want to take the risk staying with you?

It’s also been great for changing me from a shy introvert not used to talking to people to being much more social. I can show these people the city, eat with them, chat with them in the evening, go out on the town with them etc., and they are the ones who contacted me, so I didn’t have to approach strangers, which is always hard if you are shy when you are somewhere new and need to make friends. There are many ways to meet people everywhere (click the link for some great suggestions from a friend of mine), but this way is a little easier if you are still too shy to actually get out there. I’ve learned a lot from those that I’ve hosted and it has definitely helped me become more social. Note that Couchsurfing is not a dating site, so you should give men and women equal preference, and never take advantage of someone’s trust just because they are sleeping in your house.

If you want, have a look at my ridiculously complicated Couchsurfing profile (most others are much easier to read!!) Besides all of the benefits that I’ve listed here, meeting so many people from many different countries opens up your eyes and your horizons and you can make some excellent friends. Afterall, a stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet! :)

If you have any experiences with Couchsurfing (or sites like Hospitality Club for example), do share them in the comments! Do you have any other equally powerful ideas for being able to regularly practise a foreign language when not in the country it is spoken in? I have some more tips about that I’ll share later, but try to beat me to it in the comments! ;) Your general thoughts and opinions are always appreciated of course!

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Comments: If you liked this post or have anything to say, please leave a comment! I love reading them :)
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  • http://www.nomadicmatt.com/ Nomadic Matt

    this would be good advice but no one ever says yes to my couchsurfing requests!
    .-= Nomadic Matt´s last blog ..Cheap Flights Aren’t Always Best =-.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ benny

      Matt, I was looking forward to a comment of yours on one of my posts related to travel and I have to say that I’m quite disappointed. Did you even read my post? This has nothing to do with getting a couch or being a traveller looking for a couch. I wrote about how HOSTS can use couchsurfing to learn languages. Your comment is totally irrelevant to the content of this post and is just venting your frustration for something that can easily be solved.
      Anyway I’m going to give you some advice to increase the chances of getting a yes and I hope you take it to heart!
      I’ve read on your blog (post about finding cheap accommodation) that you have already used Couchsurfing several times, and you gave very useful tips about what kind of hosts to look for.
      What you didn’t talk about is what the requester has to do!
      I couldn’t find you on Couchsurfing, so I’m not sure what your profile is like, but I’ll presume that you have lots of photos, have written a lot about yourself, are verified, vouched for several times and have lots of good references. As well as this comment, you should definitely read Couchsurfing’s official advice and Matador’s tips about writing a good request and getting a couch in general.
      As I said, I’ve hosted almost 1000 people, but what’s even more important is that I’ve turned down about 10 times that. I would just as easily turn someone with a full profile down for one very simple reason: impersonal email.
      How are you writing your requests? Is it something along the lines of “Hi! My name is Matt, and I have been travelling for x years. I’ve got a blog about it and live off that Here’s the link. My travels have brought me to your city and I was wondering if I could stay with you for a few nights? Maybe you can show me the non-touristy and more typical parts of the city so that I can have a more authentic experience! Hope to hear from you soon!”
      This is actually THE most typical and boring request that I get. They just talk about themselves (which I can see on their profile if I wanted to), and sometimes don’t even say my name. Clearly copied and pasted to dozens (if not hundreds) of people; the approach is quantity rather than quality: If you request a couch from 100 people, one of them has to say yes, right?
      No. It’s much better if you invest at least 5 minutes per profile and find something interesting that you have in common with that person, or find interesting about that person and write about it. Also if possible, be clever and funny in a unique way. For example, I have a “secret message” hidden on my profile that I ask people to copy in their subject title (The default “Request to surf your couch” shows that they may not have much imagination) and some guy recently put a hidden message in his email asking ME to copy it to my title in the response to prove that I read his email. It was hilarious giving me a taste of my own medicine! I gave him an instant positive response. Others have taken the time to read my profile, or even click the link to my blog and told me that they liked it. Couchsurfing is NOT a replacement for hostels where your emails are simply a request to make a booking and can thus be the same for everyone. They have to be personal.
      The personal approach will always increase your chances. Sorry if you are doing this already and I’m presuming that you aren’t, but if you are “in a rush” and don’t give each profile time, then you are shooting yourself in the foot. As a single guy traveller you have to work extra hard to convince people. Also note that this is August and most people are drowning in requests, so of course the answer has to be no most of the time. Also, your timing may be wrong. Are you requesting a few days or a few weeks before arriving? There is no right time to write your request because each host has different priorities (some like to be organised and some prefer to be spontaneous).
      As I’ve said before, you’d be more than welcome to surf with me here in Prague before I leave. I know you through your blog and your reputation so I am genuinely curious to meet you, but in most cases you need to talk more about why you want to meet the HOST, rather than why they may want to meet you.
      If possible, try to host some time for a completely different experience and to see from the other perspective how it works. I almost never get negative responses the odd time that I request to surf with someone because I know what they want to read in the request.
      I hope you appreciate this advice!

  • http://www.nomadicmatt.com Nomadic Matt

    this would be good advice but no one ever says yes to my couchsurfing requests!
    .-= Nomadic Matt´s last blog ..Cheap Flights Aren’t Always Best =-.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com benny

      Matt, I was looking forward to a comment of yours on one of my posts related to travel and I have to say that I’m quite disappointed. Did you even read my post? This has nothing to do with getting a couch or being a traveller looking for a couch. I wrote about how HOSTS can use couchsurfing to learn languages. Your comment is totally irrelevant to the content of this post and is just venting your frustration for something that can easily be solved.
      Anyway I’m going to give you some advice to increase the chances of getting a yes and I hope you take it to heart!
      I’ve read on your blog (post about finding cheap accommodation) that you have already used Couchsurfing several times, and you gave very useful tips about what kind of hosts to look for.
      What you didn’t talk about is what the requester has to do!
      I couldn’t find you on Couchsurfing, so I’m not sure what your profile is like, but I’ll presume that you have lots of photos, have written a lot about yourself, are verified, vouched for several times and have lots of good references. As well as this comment, you should definitely read Couchsurfing’s official advice and Matador’s tips about writing a good request and getting a couch in general.
      As I said, I’ve hosted almost 1000 people, but what’s even more important is that I’ve turned down about 10 times that. I would just as easily turn someone with a full profile down for one very simple reason: impersonal email.
      How are you writing your requests? Is it something along the lines of “Hi! My name is Matt, and I have been travelling for x years. I’ve got a blog about it and live off that Here’s the link. My travels have brought me to your city and I was wondering if I could stay with you for a few nights? Maybe you can show me the non-touristy and more typical parts of the city so that I can have a more authentic experience! Hope to hear from you soon!”
      This is actually THE most typical and boring request that I get. They just talk about themselves (which I can see on their profile if I wanted to), and sometimes don’t even say my name. Clearly copied and pasted to dozens (if not hundreds) of people; the approach is quantity rather than quality: If you request a couch from 100 people, one of them has to say yes, right?
      No. It’s much better if you invest at least 5 minutes per profile and find something interesting that you have in common with that person, or find interesting about that person and write about it. Also if possible, be clever and funny in a unique way. For example, I have a “secret message” hidden on my profile that I ask people to copy in their subject title (The default “Request to surf your couch” shows that they may not have much imagination) and some guy recently put a hidden message in his email asking ME to copy it to my title in the response to prove that I read his email. It was hilarious giving me a taste of my own medicine! I gave him an instant positive response. Others have taken the time to read my profile, or even click the link to my blog and told me that they liked it. Couchsurfing is NOT a replacement for hostels where your emails are simply a request to make a booking and can thus be the same for everyone. They have to be personal.
      The personal approach will always increase your chances. Sorry if you are doing this already and I’m presuming that you aren’t, but if you are “in a rush” and don’t give each profile time, then you are shooting yourself in the foot. As a single guy traveller you have to work extra hard to convince people. Also note that this is August and most people are drowning in requests, so of course the answer has to be no most of the time. Also, your timing may be wrong. Are you requesting a few days or a few weeks before arriving? There is no right time to write your request because each host has different priorities (some like to be organised and some prefer to be spontaneous).
      As I’ve said before, you’d be more than welcome to surf with me here in Prague before I leave. I know you through your blog and your reputation so I am genuinely curious to meet you, but in most cases you need to talk more about why you want to meet the HOST, rather than why they may want to meet you.
      If possible, try to host some time for a completely different experience and to see from the other perspective how it works. I almost never get negative responses the odd time that I request to surf with someone because I know what they want to read in the request.
      I hope you appreciate this advice!

  • http://www.couchsurfing.org/people/sugarblum/ Yankl-Perets

    Great tips! I’ve recently started using CS with just that motive in mind, and so far have had fantastic experiences learning languages (well, so far, German and Spanish) and meeting NICE people. Living in an English-speaking country (especially America), it can be hard to get into non-English immersion environments, especially non-intimidating ones, but when I host foreigners, it’s like the country is coming to me! Fortunately, I also live in a town people tend to visit (New York).

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ benny

      Thanks so much for sharing!! :) It’s great to see that others have used the site like me to improve their languages!

  • http://www.couchsurfing.org/people/sugarblum/ Yankl-Perets

    Great tips! I’ve recently started using CS with just that motive in mind, and so far have had fantastic experiences learning languages (well, so far, German and Spanish) and meeting NICE people. Living in an English-speaking country (especially America), it can be hard to get into non-English immersion environments, especially non-intimidating ones, but when I host foreigners, it’s like the country is coming to me! Fortunately, I also live in a town people tend to visit (New York).

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com benny

      Thanks so much for sharing!! :) It’s great to see that others have used the site like me to improve their languages!

  • Jana

    Zdravím!
    Na tvém profilu na couchsurfing.org jsem si přečetla, že jsi ukončil univerzitu ve 20 letech. Můžu se zeptat jakou univerzitu jsi studoval a jak dlouho? Je to v Irsku obvyklé?
    V ČR se ve 20 letech studuje většinou teprve 1. maximálně 2. ročník vysoké školy/univerzity.
    Neznám irské školství, ale tohle mě zaujalo.
    Doufám, že se neptám na příliš osobní otázku :)

    Jinak Couchsurfing jsem objevila až díky tobě a učitě ho budu považovat za další možnost při příštích cestách. Díky za užitečný článek, jen tak dál!

  • Jana

    Zdravím!
    Na tvém profilu na couchsurfing.org jsem si přečetla, že jsi ukončil univerzitu ve 20 letech. Můžu se zeptat jakou univerzitu jsi studoval a jak dlouho? Je to v Irsku obvyklé?
    V ČR se ve 20 letech studuje většinou teprve 1. maximálně 2. ročník vysoké školy/univerzity.
    Neznám irské školství, ale tohle mě zaujalo.
    Doufám, že se neptám na příliš osobní otázku :)

    Jinak Couchsurfing jsem objevila až díky tobě a učitě ho budu považovat za další možnost při příštích cestách. Díky za užitečný článek, jen tak dál!

  • http://www.nomadicmatt.com/ Nomadic Matt

    Benny! I did comment on the post. I said it was good information, which it is. But I never have any luck with couchsurfing. I’ll keep your tips in mind though, they are very helpful!
    .-= Nomadic Matt´s last blog ..The Weekly Photo: Sydney Opera House =-.

  • http://www.nomadicmatt.com Nomadic Matt

    Benny! I did comment on the post. I said it was good information, which it is. But I never have any luck with couchsurfing. I’ll keep your tips in mind though, they are very helpful!
    .-= Nomadic Matt´s last blog ..The Weekly Photo: Sydney Opera House =-.

  • ALicia

    HAHAHHAA just LOVED the joke on Parisians. ;

  • ALicia

    HAHAHHAA just LOVED the joke on Parisians. ;

  • http://www.lifttowoopwoop.com/ rideshare

    Hmm.. that pic dont look like a couch to me!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ benny

      I never said it was ;) It’s a pic of me pretending to surf that I took when partying with Couchsurfers.

  • http://www.lifttowoopwoop.com rideshare

    Hmm.. that pic dont look like a couch to me!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com benny

      I never said it was ;) It’s a pic of me pretending to surf that I took when partying with Couchsurfers.

  • http://www.IrishGaeilge.com/ Cathal

    A Bhenny, a chara,

    Go raibh maith agat as an eolas uilig ar do dhá shuíomh. Molto informativo! I tried out the old couchsurfing thing myself when trying to learn Ulster Scots off the Antrim coast, but the damn sofa sank, so I’m bak till square yin!
    .-= Cathal´s last blog ..Na Longa Arda =-.

  • http://www.IrishGaeilge.com Cathal

    A Bhenny, a chara,

    Go raibh maith agat as an eolas uilig ar do dhá shuíomh. Molto informativo! I tried out the old couchsurfing thing myself when trying to learn Ulster Scots off the Antrim coast, but the damn sofa sank, so I’m bak till square yin!
    .-= Cathal´s last blog ..Na Longa Arda =-.

  • troy

    Benny, muito legal a sua idea! Que pena que eu nao sabia antes de me casar! Estava sempre procurando gente para conversar em Portugues. Mas agora tenho a minha brasileira–melhor ainda!

  • http://italianstudent.wordpress.com/ jody

    ciao Benny! Grazie per il tuo blog – e' molto interessante per me. Sto facendo Couch Surfing, ma solo quattro persone sono stati con me da Australia, Francia e' Slovakia. Vorrei imparare italiano ma purtroppo non ricevo un messaggio da un'Italiano. Credo che Couch Surfing potrebbe essere utile per imparare una lingua ma per me, adesso, e' difficile! Forse potrei scrivere il mio Couch Surfing sito in italiano… Cosa tua consiglia?!?! Grazie mille

  • jody1980

    ciao Benny! Grazie per il tuo blog – e' molto interessante per me. Sto facendo Couch Surfing, ma solo quattro persone sono stati con me da Australia, Francia e' Slovakia. Vorrei imparare italiano ma purtroppo non ricevo un messaggio da un'Italiano. Credo che Couch Surfing potrebbe essere utile per imparare una lingua ma per me, adesso, e' difficile! Forse potrei scrivere il mio Couch Surfing sito in italiano… Cosa tua consiglia?!?! Grazie mille

  • http://whitehindu.blogspot.com cm

    Another way to speak with people… A woman in my area started a Meetup.com group for Hindi speaking. She started it as a way for Indians to connect and keep up their own language skills now that they're in America. There are hundreds of members, some have come to America recently and some a while ago and some are first generation here. There's a handful of people like me there to learn it for the first time and it's a great resource. We have dinner once a month and then members are always sending out invites to different events and parties.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    In Ireland we say “a stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet”. If you come from a culture with illogical fear of people outside of your social circle, I don’t expect to convince you to change your mind so quickly. Couchsurfing has a safe reference system that you can trust. But if you are getting online practice that’s a good start.

  • Ali Sidd

    Hi Benny great post! I could find many posts talking about couch surfing from a couch surfer’s perspective but hardly any posts from that of a host. I find the idea of learning languages from the couch surfers very amusing. I’d like to suggest http://volunteerstays.com/, the site features a lot of profiles of couch surfers and great platform for interacting and getting to know them before you invite them to your place. Do check it out.

  • Ali Sidd

    Hi Benny great post! I could find many posts talking about couch surfing from a couch surfer’s perspective but hardly any posts from that of a host. I find the idea of learning languages from the couch surfers very amusing. I’d like to suggest http://volunteerstays.com/, the site features a lot of profiles of couch surfers and great platform for interacting and getting to know them before you invite them to your place. Do check it out.

  • Ali Sidd

    Hi Benny great post! I could find many posts talking about couch surfing from a couch surfer’s perspective but hardly any posts from that of a host. I find the idea of learning languages from the couch surfers very amusing. I’d like to suggest http://volunteerstays.com/, the site features a lot of profiles of couch surfers and great platform for interacting and getting to know them before you invite them to your place. Do check it out.

  • http://twitter.com/lumonte Lu Monte

    Hello from Brasil! :)
    Depois desse post, até fiquei mais animada a participar do couchsurfing… tenho perfil lá, mas o fato de ser mulher e de ter de lidar com pessoas potencialmente desagradáveis/perigosas me assusta um pouco. De qualquer forma, nunca tinha visto o site como uma forma de aprender/treinar outros idiomas, e gostei do enfoque. :)
    And now you’ve practiced a little bit of portuguese. ;)

  • Wren Wilkins

    Do you still recommend Couchsurfing after what happened to the site recently? Do you know anything about BeWelcome? After reading this article I got all excited but it seems like CS is not what it used to be. What is your take on this?