Learning a new language, or committing to teaching one to someone else, can be a daunting proposition. After all, most of us just ‘know’ our native language(s). We don’t think about ‘how’ we know it, or even how we learned it. The idea of absorbing or conveying all of that information at once seems superhuman – and it probably is.



Why the 4 stages of language competence are useful tools


The key is not attempting to do it all at once, but breaking language acquisition up into stages – the 4 stages of language competence. Dealing with them individually not only makes the whole task seem a great deal less Herculean, it helps teacher and student alike to understand the process of learning a language.


Students can use this guide to accurately place themselves in one of the stages, which will help them to understand where their language competence actually is right now, and what techniques they should focus on in order to bring themselves up to the next level.


Teachers can do much the same thing, either for individual students or for entire language classes. As each of the stages are most amenable to different teaching and learning methods, understanding of them can make nearly any teaching programme faster and more effective.



History of the 4 stages and the conscious competence ladder


The 4 stages of competence were developed by a man named Noel Burch as a part of his work with Gordon Training International in the 1970s. It is worth noting that this concept was not initially applied to learning or teaching a language, but rather to the psychology of learning in general.


The concept has, at its core, the idea that people begin the learning process completely unaware of how very little they know about a subject. Rather like the advice of Yoda in the original Star Wars, we must ‘unlearn what we have learned’, and accept that core incompetence before we can build a solid framework of competency upon it.



Understanding the 4 stages of language learning



We all begin at the first stage of learning, and the very point of it is that most of us don’t even know that we are at that stage. I would hazard a guess that the vast majority of the people reading this are at the first stage of learning quantum physics, animal dentistry, and programming iPad apps in COBOL all at once.


Everybody knows what this level of skill is like. You need only imagine a language you know effectively nothing about, and you’re there.


  • The second stage is called ‘Conscious Incompetence’


Progressing past the first level is not just about realising our own ignorance (we are all ignorant about a great many things, after all). It also requires recognising the value of acquiring the new skill. Once you both ‘know that you know practically nothing AND are willing to expend the effort to learn’, you have achieved stage 2.


Practically, almost anyone reading this article is at the second rung of the competence ladder in at least one language. Even those of us lucky enough to speak several languages already would like to be able to speak at least one more, and are in a better position to know how much learning would be required to make that happen.


  • The third stage is called ‘Conscious Competence’


Most of the time you spend ‘studying’ a language will be on the third rung of the ladder, achieving what is called conscious competence. This is not the same as true fluency, but it is something very close.


Once you have achieved conscious competence rung of the competence ladder in a language, you can speak it quite well. You ‘know’ a huge number of words and phrases, but you still ‘think’ almost exclusively in your native language. You plan out what to say in your head, and then translate it, either word-by-word, phrase-by-phrase or sentence-by-sentence. You need to concentrate on speaking or writing in English (or any other language) consciously.


This ‘feels’ like excellent technical competence, but you still have to ‘focus’ on translating or understanding what is said. You would have difficulty for example, in driving whilst being given directions by someone speaking your new language. You would have to stop frequently and give your navigator your full attention to avoid misunderstandings.


  • The final stage is called ‘Unconscious Competence’


This is roughly equivalent to true native-level fluency. You do not need to consciously translate from one language to another in your head. You can think in the new language, and understand not just what was said but what was meant, idiomatically, without ever having to think about how it would be said or written in your native language.


Interestingly, like stage 1, this stage doesn’t ‘feel’ like anything at all. You might even forget that you are conversing in a language other than your first. You effectively are a native speaker, whether or not you retain any kind of accent.


Incidentally, according to the original psychological model of the 4 stages of competence, this is the only stage from which it is appropriate to try to teach the skill you have learned.



How language teachers can use the 4 stages of competence in languages


You will, perhaps, get the most usefulness from this concept if you remember to start every language student off with the most basic principles. Do not assume they are at stage 2, even though they probably are.


Begin with explaining and demonstrating their unconscious incompetence, but of course do so in a way which is neither insulting nor belittling. Do not be judgemental, and try not to use the word ‘ignorance’ or any of its equivalents, as many people will react poorly to what they may see as pointing out a weakness.


Once stage 2 is achieved, you can focus on building the basic framework upon which stage 3 competence can be achieved. Most teachers will consider themselves to be quite successful after shepherding their students to stage 3 – conscious competence. Of course they will still have a great deal to learn, but most will seek stage 4 on their own, possibly by living and working in a country that speaks their new language almost exclusively.



How language students can use the 4 stages of competence in languages


First, you must take a good, hard look at yourself and assess your skill with your chosen language. Be harsh with yourself, as failing to recognise your actual progress will delay your studies dramatically.


If you are really at rung 2 of the conscious competence ladder, then attempting to gain native fluency will be all but impossible. You must still, for example, build up the same nearly complete mastery of vocabulary and syntax as most native speakers before you can even make the attempt.


Like all learning, this requires a bit of humility, tempered with faith in your inherent ability to learn and prosper. A little faith in your teacher, and a commitment to enduring ‘the boring bit’ will also see you far.



Climb the rungs of the language competence ladder with programmes like italki.


Language programmes such as italki can help you gain a deep understanding of your place on the language competency ladder, and show you how to work your way up to true unconscious competence.


These programmes also help you to find the teachers you need to gain higher level competence quickly. Nothing results in real fluency faster than one-to-one lessons with a real native speaker. Join italki for free today, and see for yourself!




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