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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 😛
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 😛 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! 🙂