Are You a Conscious Incompetent?

“Who does she think she is, calling people names like that?” That’s what readers might be thinking right now. Former students, on the other hand, will likely be nodding in recognition as they see one of their old teacher’s favorite learning theories reflected in this week’s title.

On the whole, I’d say my classes tend to be quite light on theory. I usually dispense with it pretty quickly in the first few days of each training module and then move on to practical matters, revisiting the theory only if I think it might shed light on students’ difficulties in practice. However, there is one bit of theory which I love to explain in class, and since it seems to strike a chord in everyone I tell it to (picture classroom after classroom full of students nodding in unison), I thought I would share it with readers today.

4, 3, 2, 1 … Go!

I’m referring to the theory known as “The Four Stages of Learning”, and like all great gems of knowledge, I have no idea where I picked it up. I am pretty sure that I first heard it from one of my teachers at the University of Westminster, but I couldn’t tell you the context or the exact source. Until quite recently, I had never even Googled it to see whether it actually existed. I just happily imparted the theory, year on year, convinced of its merit as a learning tool, without knowing anything of its pedigree.

I’m pleased to say that recent Google research has confirmed to me that it is indeed a bona fide theory (whew!). According to Wikipedia, it goes something like this:

The Four Stages of Learning provides a model for learning. It suggests that individuals are initially unaware of how little they know, or unconscious of their incompetence. As they recognise their incompetence, they consciously acquire a skill, then consciously use that skill. Eventually, the skill can be done without consciously being thought through, and the individual is said to have unconscious competence.

Here are the four stages in detail (quoting from the same Wikipedia article):

  1. Unconscious Incompetence

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 recognise their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage. The length of time an individual spends in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.

  1. Conscious Incompetence

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.

  1. Conscious Competence

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.

  1. Unconscious Competence

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.

Right now I’m sure you’re all busily thinking of how these four stages apply to your own learning experiences. It’s easy enough to see how one goes through the stages when learning how to ride a bike, drive a car, juggle, play the piano … any new skill, really. But how does this learning theory apply to the interpreting process? Let’s take a look.

Get a load of that kid's unconscious competence!

1) Unconscious incompetence – In this stage, you don’t know how to interpret, but you don’t know that you don’t know (I’m starting to sound like Donny Rumsfeld). Some (though of course not all) bilinguals will assume that all they have to do to interpret is get into a booth, put on the headphones, turn on the mike, and the rest will come naturally. Not true.

I have heard from colleagues of at least one case of unconscious incompetence at work: a diplomat insisted on his bilingual assistant being put into the booth to translate his comments, and couldn’t be talked out of it. As was to be expected, the poor assistant made a dog’s dinner out of his speech – she had the other interpreters practically crawling under their consoles trying to avoid the confused stares coming from the delegates – and yet, when she came out of the booth, the first words she said were, “That went pretty well, don’t you think? I knew it couldn’t be that hard!” Unconscious incompetence, indeed…

2) Conscious incompetence – Actual instances of the first stage of learning being played out in a real-life interpreting context may be few and far between, but the second stage is unfortunately part and parcel of the experience on any interpreter training course. Many students suffer, class after class, from feelings of conscious incompetence. There is nothing more frustrating than understanding what is expected of you and not being able to deliver it.

My main advice for interpreting students in this phase is that they should remember that no learning can happen without passing through this initial frustration, because if you don’t know what it is you are working toward, you will never be able to achieve it. Also, what doesn’t kill you will only make you stronger (or possibly fatter, if you believe the Spanish idiom).

3) Conscious competence – Picture a little kid balancing proudly on his two-wheeler for the first time, or a novice surfer finally riding a wave without being swallowed up by the surf. Those first moments of conscious competence are probably the best part of the learning process – and witnessing them in a student is undoubtedly a teacher’s most gratifying experience.

I’m sure we all remember those moments when it suddenly all “fell into place”, when the challenge of listening, understanding, analyzing, translating, reformulating and monitoring all at the same time suddenly seemed to be manageable, however briefly. Those moments of clarity, rare at first but then occurring with more and more frequency, somehow made all the frustration worthwhile – and gave us the will to struggle on.

Progress from stage two to stage three of the learning process is anything but smooth, however, and students are likely to move back and forth between the two stages regularly and often. Interpreting students can shift between competence and incompetence many times over the course of a week, a day, a lesson … even several times in the same speech! This is also normal, and should not lead to discouragement. The idea is for the learning curve to aim steadily upwards, despite the occasional dips, for competence to slowly gain ground over incompetence until the skills have been fully consolidated.

4) Unconscious competence – I was asked in class the other day how long it took to reach stage four: the phase where you can perform the task of interpreting as “second nature”. I don’t know what answer the students were expecting, but when I told them they could be happy if they’d taken up steady residence in stage three by the time the final exams rolled around, there were a few looks of surprise – and dismay – in the room.

Let’s face it: the skills you leave an interpreting course with are not at a par with the smooth, practiced, unconscious competence that you find in some veteran interpreters. Just as someone with a freshly minted driver’s license will probably dread hill starts for some months or years to come, a conference interpreter who has only recently completed his training will need some time in the booth to consolidate those newly learned skills to the point where they become “automatic”. Or as my own trainers put it upon my graduation: “Congratulations, you’ve got your degree. Now go out there and learn to be an interpreter.”

At this point, I’m sure you’re all wondering when I reached stage four… well, I’ll let you know when I get there! Seriously, the idea that professional conference interpreters live in a permanent comfort zone of unconscious competence is a fallacy. The more we work in a given context, the better we will get and the more confident we will feel. But put even a veteran interpreter into a new situation and there will be a bit of a learning curve to go through. That’s part of the fun of this job! Any conference interpreter who claims to have nothing left to learn is probably either deluding himself or has something to hide.

In conclusion, I guess it all boils down to recognizing which stage of the learning process you find yourself in, and appreciating the value of each stage. I’m very lucky to be able to enjoy a comfort zone of regular clients and familiar contexts – and I consider myself equally fortunate that my professional practice also includes opportunities to work in situations where I find myself going back to stage three (and sometimes even stage two!). Because when the learning process grinds to a halt, well, there’s not much else left, is there?

23 thoughts on “Are You a Conscious Incompetent?

  1. Hi Michelle!
    Thanks for this amazing post! I like every single part of it…It is so true; and indeed this is the beauty of our job …. bouncing up and down the learning curve all the time 😉

  2. i am currently learning Auslan having almost completed the first year. I can honestly say I have reached Stage 2. Until I read this post I though I was doomed. Thank you for sharing it. I now pick up my study with new vigour.

  3. Hi Michelle!
    This is very amazing post! I like every single part of it.Everything is so true.Thank you very much for sharing your personal experience with us.
    I guess that this is the meaning of life after all we have to learn new things every single day.
    My best regards ,

    • Dear Rosanne and Svetlin,

      I’m glad you liked the post. Like I said, students seem to derive great comfort from hearing about the four stages and finding out where they’re at in the learning process. That’s why I bring it up in class, year after year – I find it really does help. And as a teacher, I find it helps to put the whole thing into persepective as well.

  4. Hi! I’m a fellow interpreter and I’ve just started a blog on interpreting, translation, language, linguistics and other oddities.
    I’ve added a link to your blog there, so I’d just like to say you’re very welcome to stop by at

    Best wishes


  5. After 2 years (in June I’ll finish my degree) I am still in stage 2. I think I might need another 2 years to get to the 4th =P

    Lovely post! =)

    • Well, as long as you can see the light at the end of the tunnel! A lot of interpreters do say that a one-year postgraduate degree doesn’t give them the time they need to reach the necessary skill level (let’s say stage 3). One thing is certain, and that is everyone has their own rhythm of learning.

  6. “Congratulations, you’ve got your degree. Now go out there and learn to be an interpreter.”

    So true! This is exactly what I am experiencing now!

    This post highlights the many humbling aspects of interpreting – just when you think you’re on top of it all you come across another hurdle.

    It’s reassuring to reflect on the fact that the fourth stage is only reached after a considerable amount of experience. Although this is somewhat daunting for someone only starting out, it means that interpreters can look forward to lifelong learning and an infinite number of challenges: no such thing as ‘fed up with the 9 to 5’!

    • That is why I am finishing out my degree in interpretation. There are so many facets to this business that I don’t think I can ever really get bored of it. If you work freelance, the clients and the surroundings change which means the demands change and addressing those demands means really stepping up and taking on the challenge. I like this business already and with so many settings available to us to work in….

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  8. I really enjoyed your post. Thank you.

    I am not an interpreter, but applying this to language learning in general, it helps me to understand my progress in learning Swedish.

    • I’m glad you found it useful. That’s the great thing about these four stages – you can see how they apply to all types of learning.

      With language learning in particular, I’ve found there’s often an extra phase squeezed in there, which I call (in my technical jargon ;)) “hitting the wall”: you learn at a steady pace until you reach a decent level of proficiency, and then suddenly seem to stall, and it seems impossible to make any more significant progress.

      At that point, I sometimes find it useful to back off the language for a while, let it all sink in, and then come back to it again later. It’s almost like the mind needs that time to process all the learning, map the new language onto your brain or something, before it can proceed with the next phase.

      Just a little theory of mine, no scientific backup for it at all, just my own experience…

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  10. Thank You for this posting. I remember reading this either this semester or last semester in my IPP, ARC. I’m reminded of the plan I set for myself during winter break, “Deliberate Practice”. Again, Thank You!

  11. Pingback: I hope I am a conscious competent | Interpretings

  12. The scariest part is when your livelihood depends on your ability to perform. If you’re still learning something, yet you must perform at least at a moderate level of conscious competence, the failures you will inevitably face could well be your undoing.

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