The journey to full fluency in a foreign language can be roughly divided into what psychologists call the four stages of competence: Unconscious Incompetence, Conscious Incompetence, Conscious Competence, and Unconscious Competence. You can think of progress through the stages like climbing up a mountain peak all the way from sea level:

Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence

You start out at the sea level of “Unconscious Incompetence,” at which point you don’t know what you don’t know. You haven’t learned a lick of the language and think it all sounds like random noise. Monolinguals remain at this stage their entire lives. And most of us remain at this level for most languages, even if we may progress through the other stages for other languages.

Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence

If you decide to learn a language, you soon progress to the next level, the foothills of “Conscious Incompetence.” You begin to familiarize yourself with the language’s basic sounds, vocabulary, and structures. You realize just how much of the language you don’t know. For many learners, this is the most difficult phase, especially on an emotional level. The initial excitement of learning the language begins to wear off, and many “fair weather learners” call it quits. Fortunately, dedicated learners can overcome this hump by:

Stage 3: Conscious Competence

The third stage in the learning journey is the long climb through “Conscious Competence.” By this phase, you can communicate a fair amount in the language, but it still takes significant conscious effort and it’s hard to speak or understand the foreign language while doing anything else. This level of competence is sufficient for many language learner’s needs (e.g. short travels abroad) and most stop their journey here.

Stage 4: Unconscious Competence

Truly dedicated language learners eventually reach the fourth stage of learning, the summit of “Unconscious Competence.” You can now communicate effortlessly in the language, saying what you want to say, and understanding almost everything you hear or read. This is the level native speakers operate in when using their first language, and most take their language skills for granted since they operate at a subconscious level. As you would expect, reaching this level of fluency takes significant time and effort, but it’s well worth the investment for those who wish to live abroad long-term, work in the target language, etc.

Take a moment to assess what stage you are currently at in your target language or languages. How far up the mountain do you want to climb? Keep in mind that it’s perfectly fine to stop at Conscious Incompetence or Conscious Competence for some languages, reserving Unconscious Competence for just your native language or one or two foreign languages. There are no awards for reaching the peak, but there are countless rewards for those who keep climbing.

How do you get started? How do you keep going when the going gets tough? The answer is the same for both: keep putting one foot in front of the other.


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