How to tell when you are learning

Learning is happening constantly, we just don’t notice it.

Only when look back do we notice how much progress we have made. However, if you don’t notice how much you are learning, you may think that you are not learning anything.

This can lead you into a vicious circle: if you cannot see the progress you are making, you will think that you are not making any progress, then you will get frustrated at yourself, which limits your ability to learn, which impedes your progress even more.

It may seem like it gets worse before it gets better

To get out of that circle and back on the right track, it may help to understand that you go through stages of learning, and it may seem like your language skills get worse before they get better. They do not actually get worse, you only become more aware of what you need to learn.

Maslow’s four stages of competence show how this actually works.

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Diagram by Donna Horn

The Four stages of Competence (De vier stadia van leren)

(partial descriptions from Wikipedia)

  1. Unconscious incompetence (onbewust onbekwaam)
    The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognize their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage. 

    You leave this stage when you decide to start learning something; you recognize that something is missing in your knowledge. This is when you decide to sign up for English lessons, for example.

  2. Conscious incompetence (bewust onbekwaam)
    Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.

    This is a vital stage where you might have the tendency to quit. You become aware of all the things you don’t know, which may feel overwhelming. In language, there seems to always be more that we don’t know.

  3. Conscious competence (bewust bekwaam)
    The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.

    You make fewer mistakes, but speaking your new language still requires effort. You may start to wonder if you will ever speak “with ease”.

  4. Unconscious competence (onbewust bekwaam)
    The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become “second nature” and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. The individual may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.

    You feel that you have arrived. You radiate confidence.

The second stage: the one that hurts, the one where all the learning happens

Many students I see are in the second stage. You realize that you are missing something but may not be quite sure what it is. After a few sessions, you have a better idea what is missing and sometimes it’s a lot.

Confidence can plummet at this point–all you can see is how “bad” you are, and not how much you are changing week by week. But progress comes in many forms.

Here is how to recognize that you are learning something:

  • You can say what you don’t know– you can put a name to it
  • You can correct your mistakes when they are pointed out to you
  • You can identify your mistakes or recognize when something is “wrong” (even if you don’t know what is “right”)
  • You can ask questions about what you don’t know
  • You can say what parts you understand and what parts you don’t


So please don’t get hung up on the fact that you are making mistakes. That’s exactly what you should be doing–making mistakes! You should be struggling with difficult concepts–the more you focus on what’s difficult, the more you’ll learn. No need to be flawless and perfect the first time.



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