Is Chinese Really So Damn Hard?

Over the years I have come to believe that much of the conventional wisdom on language learning is misguided. My experiences have convinced me this is especially the case for Mandarin Chinese, often considered one of the hardest languages in the world for English speakers to learn. 
Recently I reread an old but still widely shared article titled ‘Why Chinese is so damn hard’ about the unique difficulties of learning Mandarin. I originally encountered this piece as a beginner level learner and found it extremely demotivating to read the author - who had been learning Mandarin for several years - appear to suggest the task was virtually impossible for a number of reasons. Reviewing the piece it strikes me that while some of the points made are valid, many of them are quite unhelpful and possibly the result of frustrations due to ineffective and outdated learning methods. Reaching a milestone of 10,000 words on Lingq inspired me to reflect on my own experiences and how they differ from th…

Jess Phillips: A Political Obituary?

I first came across Jess Phillips in 2015, shortly after she was elected to parliament. Corbyn had just made it onto the ballot and his leadership campaign was gathering momentum as many Labour members - for decades starved of representation in the Parliamentary Labour Party - quickly warmed to an MP who finally dared speak out against austerity and rapacious capitalism. Newsnight were in need of some anti-Corbyn Labour figures to dampen the mood and in Phillips they had found the perfect voice. Asked whether she thought her constituents could relate to Corbyn's politics she retorted "no! Not normal people!" That summer Phillips abstained on the Tory welfare bill, leading to cuts to Employment and Support allowance, cuts to housing benefit for young people, cuts to child tax credits and the abolishment of legally binding child poverty targets. 
Not that this dented her Everywoman (the title of her debut book) credentials. Championed by her adoring fans in the liberal pres…

My Chinese Learning Philosophy

Through conversations with numerous Mandarin scholars I have learned that people can be divided broadly into three camps, as regards their motivations for learning the world's most spoken language. The first camp contains those who have noticed the economic rise of China and believe that learning Mandarin will secure them great wealth and prosperity. Second, there are men who wish to impress Chinese women. And third, there are those who enjoy the process of language learning so much that doing so serves as an end in itself, requiring no additional rewards. 
Many people's motives combine elements of more than one category. However, those who fall strictly into either of the first two camps - and there are a great many - invariably fail in their quest. A single introductory class should be enough to convince the most materially driven pupil that there are surely easier ways to make money. As to those men who wish to impress Chinese women, this motivation will rarely survive the k…

Learning Chinese From Scratch

(Originally published by the Business Confucius Institute)

I am often asked by friends and acquaintances why I decided to learn Chinese. There is no simple answer to this question. However, in this post I will attempt to summarise some of the main reasons and describe my experience of joining an estimated 200,000 Brits as a student of the world’s most spoken language.

I started working at the University of Leeds two years ago, following a career transition. Having moved to a new city I was looking for things to do which would enable me to meet new people in my spare time. I noticed that the Business Confucius Institute (BCI) were offering Chinese evening classes on the university campus and, together with a friend who had also recently moved to the city, decided to sign up to a beginner (level 1) class.

This initial decision was made on a whim – there were no grand career ambitions, set goals or plans to travel to China in the immediate future. Part of my attraction to the challenge o…

My encounter with a vegan activist

Today I was wondering around the students' union at lunch time when I stumbled across a group of people at a stall who were getting students to try on some virtual reality headsets. I had no idea what was behind it but decided to try on a pair of goggles.

When I put the headset on I was transported to an animal slaughter house and as I looked around I saw many cows crammed into cages. Then a farmer walked towards me and stunned a nearby cow who immediately collapsed unconscious. After this the cow was strung up and bled to death.

When I took the headset off one of the men at the stall asked me how I felt about what I’d seen. I told him I was surprised at how painless the slaughter had appeared, and that it was surely towards the humane end of the factory farming spectrum. It quickly became apparent that the man was a vegan activist as he began questioning me about my ethical opinions and presenting stock philosophical arguments against factory farming. I made it clear that I had alr…

The next chapter: Higher Education

Over the past few years I have had the privilege of working as a freelance journalist, covering issues which I care about - from miscarriages of justice to disability rights - for numerous publications. I have thoroughly enjoyed this experience and have learned a great deal from researching social issues and interviewing fascinating people. Unfortunately, during the last few months I have been unable to write as much as I would have liked, owing to commitments related to a career transition.

Through my writing I have become increasingly interested in labour issues, including youth unemployment, graduate prospects, worker instability, the growth of freelancing and self-employment. This interest has led me to pursue a second career as a consultant, helping students in higher education to navigate the challenging and often confusing world of work as they plan their future careers.

I recently completed my training towards a professional guidance qualification and have now been offered an e…

Has gambling got out of control?

(Originally published by the Guardian)

Most people are able to place a small bet once in a while without suffering any real consequences beyond losing a tenner. However, for a small minority, gambling can become a serious addiction with the power to destroy lives. 
In the UK, it’s estimated that around 350,000 people suffer from an addiction to gambling – recently classified as a disorder in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders(DSM V) – and those numbers are growing.
Last week the Guardian hosted a debate in collaboration with Discuss, where two expert speakers debated whether or not gambling is now out of control. Here’s what they thought:
If members of the audience were in any doubt about the potential for gambling to cause harm, few remained unconvinced after hearing the first speaker, Paul Buck, recount his personal story. Buck who is the founder of EPIC, a problem gambling consultancy, began his career in retail shortly after graduating …