The stages of learning

Stack of books with ladders propped against it.

I love to know new things. There's so much out there to know, too! I don't, however, love learning new things. I get impatient when I can't know something all at once. Why can't I? Why does it take so long to learn?

Well, it turns out there are stages of learning, and we can't jump right to the last stage. We have to make our way up through each one to finally reach full competency in a new skill. And that takes time and effort, and a lot of patience!

There are different models for the stages of learning, but a common one is:

  1. Unconscious incompetence
  2. Conscious incompetence
  3. Conscious competence
  4. Unconscious competence

These stages apply to any new skill, but let's look at each one as it relates to language learning.

We can think of learning in a macro sense and consider all of English. Or, we can also think of learning in a micro sense and consider details of what you've learned.

1. Unconscious incompetence

You don't know what you can't do.

At this stage you have no idea how much there is to know about the language. You've heard it spoken and maybe even been able to make yourself understood for basic needs ("Where is the toilet?"). You can get a long way with pidgin English. But it will only get you so far, and if you need to become fluent for work or school, you'll have to move beyond this stage.  

2. Conscious incompetence

You know what you can't do.

Here's a hard stage—you know how much there is to learn. You know how many mistakes you're making. It can get very frustrating, and you might feel embarrassed. If you're like me, you hate to make mistakes, especially publicly! But it's important to stick to it if you want to learn.

When you are actively learning, you will spend time here. Look at a complex sentence: "If I hadn't met him, then I wouldn't have gone." It's hard! But knowing what you don't know is a key step.

3. Conscious competence

You can do it, with concentration and effort.

Good for you if you've reached this stage! You now know that you speak the language well, even though you still make mistakes. It takes some effort to get it right, but you do get it right most of the time.

Especially for specific skills and grammar patterns, many people stop here. "If I had studied more, I would be better at speaking!" Is that grammar understandable? At your level, it probably is. But is it still only conscious competence?

This might seem like the end of the journey, but there's still more progress to make. Don't stop now!

4. Unconscious competence

You can do it easily, without thinking too deeply.

Now you've made it all the way to full language competency! You no longer make serious mistakes, and you don't even think about how well (or not) you just said something. Native speakers don't think about how to use the language—they just do it.

Think of the phrase, "Nice to meet you." It's so easy that you don't have to think about it. Most simple skills are probably at the level of unconscious competence.  

It's important to realize that most language learners never reach native-level accuracy. But you will eventually be able to speak well without thinking about it. You are now fully fluent.

So don't give up too soon. With consistent study and practice, you will reach Stage Four. Knowing doesn't happen immediately, but if you're persistent, you'll learn.

pidgin /PIJ-ən/ [noun]—a simplified form of a language used for communication between speakers of different languages.
stick to it [idiomatic phrase]—to continue doing something, especially when it is difficult.