Language Is More Than Just Input And Output

  • Donovan Nagel
    Written byDonovan Nagel
    Donovan NagelTeacher, translator, polyglot
    🎓 B.A., Theology, Australian College of Theology, NSW
    🎓 M.A., Applied Linguistics, University of New England, NSW

    Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator. Founder of The Mezzofanti Guild and Talk In Arabic.
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Language Is More Than Just Input And Output

Here’s a quick update on what’s been happening on my trip to the Gaeltacht (one of the areas of Ireland where the Irish language is spoken) so far.

I’ve been in Gleann Cholm Cille, Co. Donegal for a week now and spent the first three days hiking the hills and enjoying the gorgeous landscape here while getting to know the other students and faculty at Oideas Gael.

Apart from stepping in the bog and all the midgies this place is fantastic 🙂

My own course started on Sunday and will go till Friday with classes going through the day and cultural activities such as traditional dancing, singing (in Irish) and most importantly, plenty of drinking in the evenings.

This particular course that I’m on attracts some really interesting people from all over Ireland and the rest of the world. You’d never expect to see so many people from places like Russia, Japan, Italy and even Australia of all places here taking such a keen interest in Irish! 😉 It’s a real eye-opener into just how alive the language actually is.

Plenty of high profile people come here to do this course as well and I’ve been fortunate enough to spend time this week with one of my favourite actresses from Irish television (in fact one of my favourite characters from Rásaí na Gaillamhe – a show that I’ve been using as a learning tool for the last few months) and the Minister for Tourism last week who were both here for the same course.

I’ll write up a detailed review of the school I’m at when the week’s over and I’m putting together some video footage that’ll hopefully pursuade other learners to venture out here as well.

Keep checking back for that!

UPDATE: Read the end result of this trip here.

Language is much more than just input and output

I’ve been confronted by something crucially important over the last few days.

If you’re an experienced language learner then you’ve no doubt been in that frustrating situation where you feel like you’re at a very high level, you head off on a trip somewhere to use the language and then when a native speaker asks you a basic question it throws you completely off guard making you feel like you actually don’t know as much as you thought you did.

It might be something as simple as how are you? – you know it perfectly well and you know how to answer it but you seem to forget everything for a brief moment – er… um… I’m good… emm… er… and you?

When I first arrived here in the Gaeltacht last week I had a delayed response to pretty much everything that was said to me in a target language that I was supposed to be quite good at by now.

Here I was understanding television shows and reading books yet a simple greeting had me stumped!

Talk about massive blow to the ego.

Now, as frustrating as it was it actually wasn’t an entirely new experience for me – I’ve been in a similar situation several times before with other languages but this time I decided to pay close attention to it.

It was worse with Irish because with other languages I’ve always had people in Australia or online to practice with in the early stages but all this Gaeilge practice is very new to me so it’s a giant struggle.

It’s all part of the process of turning a very strong passive knowledge into an active skill.

Exchange is a vital aspect overlooked

Without other human beings you can’t beat the fluency mark.

It’s bad news for people who like to fly solo but you can never really claim to be properly fluent in a language until you’re managing to exchange discourse with another person or people.

I can hear you all saying well duh! but hear me out for a second 🙂

We use language to get a desired outcome, whether it be requesting something, expressing thoughts or feelings, making a demand, etc. and although you can theoretically learn a language in isolation (sometimes with minority, endangered or dead languages you have no choice after all), there eventually comes a time where fluency will only come when you’re face-to-face with another speaker.

Here’s an analogy for you:

You can practice throwing a baseball up in the air and catching it with your mitt, and you can practice throwing the ball on your own.

But it doesn’t prepare you for when you’re playing catch with another person and the ball’s flying toward you; it’s faster and it’s unpredictable. You might have taught yourself how to throw the ball but it doesn’t completely prepare you for when the other person’s moving around and you have to throw it accurately.

No professional baseball player ever became a pro just by tossing the ball to himself in the backyard.

I know it’s not a great analogy and it sounds like simple common sense (you might be thinking no shit!) but I don’t believe a lot of people fully understand this until they’ve been in the situation themselves.

Only by having unpredictable questions and statements thrown at us again and again, having to think on our feet and respond appropriately does our competency change dramatically (not to mention the benefits of error correction and so on that come as well).

I’m happy to say that all of the passive knowledge I’ve built up over the last 8 months is activating rapidly but to really get to the level that I want I’ll need to spend more time here in the Gaeltacht.

I’ll be heading to another Gaeltacht area on Saturday for two days before I head off to Dublin and then back home to Australia (then immediately off to South Korea *phew*).

Keep checking back as I’ll have some video (with a 9 month progress video to come), a detailed review of the course to share and plenty to say on the Irish language itself (since I received quite a few messages and emails asking me about it).

Oh and if we’re not friends on Facebook then we should be! Click here 🙂

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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek


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With the internet there is no excuse not to pratice with native speakers.



This is certainly something I’ve experienced in the past. My theory is that when you get a lot of input most goes to your “slow memory” or “passive memory”, or in other words: it gets stored somewhere for later use. However, when you speak the language needs to be in the “fast” or “active” memory. Just having conversations will get the language from the passive to the active memory.

As for SamB’s experience: I would simply look for more language exchange partners to avoid this. I’ve done that and never experienced anything like that (or maybe I was just lucky).



Just to add to this, it’s important to practise that exchange with more than one person. When I went to Norway recently, I’d spent a lot of time conversing with a friend online (over webcam), and I felt pretty confident in my abilities.

However, I realised when I got there that my friend was clearly adapting (either subconsciously or not) to me, simplifying his speech somewhat, and I was used to his voice and the type of vocabulary he used. When confronted with strangers, I suddenly realised how low my active level actually was! It was a bit of a wake-up call.



Is féidir go raibh deachrachtaí agat muintir ná háite a thuiscint mar ní raibh taithí agat ach ar an chanúint Chonnachta. Cluintear í níos minice ar TnaG ná Gaeilge Uladh agus tá difríochtaí ann Deir muid Cad é mar atá tú? ach deir siadsan Conas atá tú? Ar scor ar bith, tá áthas orm gur bhain tú sult as an chúrsa.



Completely agree, I can’t imagine a person who thinks they’re going to get good at talking to people without talking to people, that’s very strange. This is also why I love and continuously recommend language exchanges where you can find a native speaker of the language you’re learning who’s also learning your native language and then you can get on skype with them and start talking. You can do this even if you’re a beginner, you just need to find people who are at an intermediate or higher level in your native language so you can still communicate when necessary.

I know you told me you tried to do this with Irish and just had a hard time finding people, but it’s something that works if you want to learn just about any of the more common languages.

So how exactly are your conversational skills progressing? How many conversations have you had at this point? Do you find that those passive skills are rapidly being turned into active ones? I’m just really curious as to whether or not they translate (figuratively speaking) well, that is whether or not passive listening skills can easily be turned into active speaking skills.


"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."
- Ludwig Wittgenstein
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