Learning French? Know your Learning Stages

Knowing what to expect when learning French is a vital part of managing your own expectations so that you don’t sabotage yourself with self-deprecating stories about your capabilities. But you can also also massively improve the way you learn by learning about learning.

One model that I think is helpful is the “conscious competence” model created by Noel Burch in the 1970s. It explains the stages of learning that we must go through when learning any new skill, including French.

Learning stagesThe stages of learning a language

In my view, the best way to apply this model to language learning is not to apply the stages to the whole of, say, French, but to each individual competency that must be learned within the language (whether that be an item of vocabulary, a grammatical rule, an aspect of pronunciation or even an aspect of culture).

Unconscious Incompetence

In this stage, the student has not consciously encountered the new competency and therefore they have no real access to learning. This is related to the "unknown unknowns" I blogged about in finding your language blindspots. When you start a new language, you are largely at this stage across the language. Even advanced students will be at this stage with respect to more advanced parts of the language. You could call this the “huh?” or “what’s that?” stage.

Conscious Incompetence

When the student first learns about something, they now know of its existence but they are not yet capable of producing it. The student is capable of recognising the word, grammatical pattern, sound or aspect of culture in use. You could call this the "Ah, that!" stage. Comprehension generally precedes production skills in languages.

Conscious Competence

With practice, students are capable of producing the vocabulary and grammatical patterns they have learned about, but as with any skill, when you first learn to do something, you do it consciously. The conscious mind is slow, deliberate and prone to error because you are still learning how. When speaking French at this stage, you should expect to speak slowly, make mistakes and still be largely thinking in English. This stage is often very painful for students to go through, and fraught with embarrassment. See my tip later.

Unconscious Competence

When we are unconsciously competent at something, our subconscious is handling the task. This stage in language acquisition is strongly related to fluency – but notice that since we acquire a whole body of competencies, it is entirely natural, indeed probable that you will attain fluency in chunks. Use this fact to increase your French speaking confidence: I highly recommend learning a set of common key phrases rote, and practising them to the point of absolute fluency. If you can master a small set of the language to real proficiency, you will learn much, much more quickly.

Learning French Tips

How to move through the consciously incompetent and consciously competent stages quickly

“Becoming fluent” in a language is a bucket expression that’s too comprehensive to be useful, or indeed very meaningful. You become fluent in French in stages and you can practise fluency at each stage. It’s entirely possible to get to level B2 or even C1 without being fluent! Conversely you can be a fluent A1 or A2 French speaker if you practise correctly – you will just be limited in expressiveness but your confidence will benefit enormously.

1. Avoid getting overwhelmed, focus on one level at a time.

2. Find out your CEFR level.

3. Don’t rush. Make sure you understand fully before moving on to avoid fog.

4. When practising speaking any phrase, it’s vitally important to say it very slowly and gradually speed up with each repetition. Your mouth needs to learn how to form new shapes, so be kind to it!

5. Practise writing phrases down and saying them in your head as well as out loud.

6. Test, test and test again. Testing has been proven to be far more effective at improving recall than revision.

7. Most of all, you should expect to make lots of mistakes and experience fog, slowness and confusion. It’s all a perfectly normal part of learning a language.

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Author info

Despite the very Welsh name, Gruff is actually half French. Nowadays, he's a tech entrepreneur (and some-time novelist) but he used to be a physicist at Imperial College before getting hooked on inventing things. He has a special interest in language learning, speaks five languages to varying degrees of fluency and he often blogs about language learning, science, and technology. As well as co-founding Kwiziq, he is the author the Amazon best-selling SF thriller, The Looking Glass Club and the inventor of the Exertris gaming exercise-bike and Pidgin, a free online tool that makes drawing flow charts and relationship diagrams as quick and easy as describing them in pidgin English.

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