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Learning languages

By Sarah Whitebloom

A surge in interest in language learning has emerged as a phenomenon of the current social distancing. One popular language learning apps has claimed increased usage of more than 200%, while others are reporting new sales up more than 50%.

Academics maintain it shows a pent-up interest and wish to study languages. For a nation supposedly averse to speaking other languages, the British have been turning in numbers to foreign tongues as a first resort – in the absence of more traditional forms of entertainment.

For a nation supposedly averse to speaking other languages, the British have been turning in numbers to foreign tongues as a first resort

‘It shows there are a lot of people who want to learn a language,’ says Oxford Professor Katrin Kohl. ‘It’s surprising how often you meet people in all walks of life who are taking language courses.’

But, she maintains, many people have been put off by unrealistically difficult exam syllabuses at school: ‘GCSE and A level papers are too demanding and grading is too harsh when compared to other subjects.'

‘The exam system conspires against language learners...they’re discouraged on all fronts.’

Professor Kohl says that, while many people therefore believe they are ‘rubbish at languages’, there is clearly interest. She also highlights that there is a huge pool of talent for languages in the UK.  In England, for more than one in five primary school children and almost one in six students at secondary level, English is a second language. ‘This means they already have well-developed language learning skills, a benefit that isn’t sufficiently valued at present.’

It might seem that, with globalisation, everyone speaks English. But Professor Kohl says: ‘That simply isn’t the case. The world isn’t just culturally diverse, it’s also linguistically diverse. People care about their distinctive languages, as we can see in Wales and Ireland.

'Developments such as this surge in interest shows that people see language learning as a fruitful way to spend time.’

Apps have revolutionised what’s on offer for learners. You can get quite a long way with apps and they can continue to support your learning, even if you later join a class

She dismisses the idea that online and app learning will not assist people to take up classes in future: ‘Apps have revolutionised what’s on offer for learners. You can get quite a long way with apps and they can continue to support your learning, even if you later join a class. They incentivise you, send you reminders and introduce competition, allowing you to test yourself.’

Professor Kohl insists: ‘Language learning thrives on variety of learning styles and options.’

She recommends:

  • Don’t set the bar too high
  • Set a modest minimum per day, and do more if you’re feeling energetic
  • Vocabulary learning can be fun with a helpful app, and you can measure your progress
  • Practice pronunciation – find how a word is pronounced online by typing in the word and ‘pronounce’
  • Read a novel in the language with a strong plot, e.g. a Georges Simenon thriller if you’re learning French, and refer to a translation. Or read a translated Agatha Christie and refer to the English original (Set yourself very short sections to begin with). There again, La Peste by Albert Camus is currently proving very popular.
  • Watch ads and kids’ stuff on YouTube.
  • Watch a non-serious film with subtitles, then watch it without, in very short sections.
  • Follow news stories – e.g. developments with the coronavirus crisis. Compare the reporting.
  • Research information about a hobby in a country where the language is spoken. Find a blog that’s relevant.
  • What place might you go to where the language is spoken? Explore local websites to find out what there is to see and do using local websites, and involve Google Translate to help you along.
  • Try your hand at translating a very simple text, with a dictionary and Google Translate·
  •  Find a language learning buddy. It’s much easier to learn a language and keep it going if you’re doing it with someone else or in a class.

 If you give up because it’s hard work and progress is slow, remember that’s normal. Start again and set the bar lower. The effort won't be wasted!  

It’s a great way to keep your brain in trim – studies have shown that using more than one language can delay the onset of dementia by four to five years, and language learning has similar benefits.

Spectacles Seller - Museum De Lakenhal.

By Sarah Whitebloom

Rembrandt, the Rembrandt, was not very good – at least not initially. Among a new and much-anticipated exhibition of his early works at the Ashmolean in Oxford are some pretty poor examples, according to the museum’s experts. But dogged determination saw Rembrandt develop from an, apparently, untalented amateur, who was his own muse, into an Old Master, courted by aristocratic patrons, and able to make paint do what he wanted.

It should be an inspiration to us all, according to An Van Camp, the curator of the exhibition, which looks certain to become the Ashmolean’s latest sell-out show, telling, as it does, the story of genius and hard graft. 

Dogged determination saw Rembrandt develop from an, apparently, untalented amateur, into an Old Master

But there will be no demands for refunds because the new exhibition is intended to show the artist’s development and painstaking attention to his art. In ten years, Rembrandt went from an uncertain 18-year old, with little apparent talent, to an artist whose works show the detail and mastery for which he is internationally known. He went from drawing himself to drawing himself, self-portraits are a particular favourite. But the difference in skills over this decade is remarkable.

‘This is not a matter of gradual and even development,’ said Professor Brown, describing Rembrandt’s progress as a ‘struggle’. He said the artist found the artistic process difficult and demanding. ‘He worked very hard,’ maintained Professor Brown, emphasising that Rembrandt was no child or even teenage prodigy.

 In these 10 years he makes rapid progress. It’s very interesting to see how he struggled. He was very hard-working and he is an example of [what you can achieve with] persistence

 From the very beginning, said Ms Van Camp, the museum’s curator of North European art, Rembrandt was full of creative ideas, even if some of the execution was ‘cartoonish’. And it is possible to see the artist’s early interests develop and continue into his later works, along with his fascination with drama and action. Rembrandt, the ninth of ten children, was always interested in older people and some of his earliest works are of his parents, who must have been in their 40s when he was born.

Portrait of an Old ManPortrait of an Old Man, Rembrandt c 1632
‘He was fascinated by old age,’ said Ms Van Camp. Along with the hard-work he put in during these apprenticeship’ years, this curiosity bears fruit in his later and better-known pieces.  It is the ability to detect and follow such interests and even facial expressions from early and unformed works into the accomplished works that makes the exhibition so compelling. Some of Rembrandt’s earliest sketches are of him pulling faces. But these grotesque expressions of surprise and scorn – along with his face - emerge again and again in subsequent years. And they are a stark contrast to later portraits, when he presents himself as a respectable, sombre and affluent artist.

 Aside from older people, another feature of Rembrandt’s work from his early days, is his interest in low-born subjects. At a time when most paintings were of wealthy subjects, Rembrandt returned again and again to draw peasants and ‘washerwomen’.  The exhibition shows Rembrandt’s characteristic illumination and attention to detail begin to feature, with some early works showing that he was ‘half way there’, according to Ms Van Camp.

 Several of the paintings have never before been on public display in the UK. Many come from overseas, especially from Leiden’s Museum de Lakenal. Together they weave a fascinating insight into the progress of the painter, showing how a Old Master can develop and emerge from unpromising beginnings.

The Young Rembrandt exhibition is at the Ashmolean Museum from 27 February to 7 June. Full price tickets, including gift, are from £15. Under 12s, Oxford University students and members are free. Concessionary rates are available.

Eamonn diaryy

Listeners to Radio 4's Today Programme will have heard Eamonn O'Keeffe, a doctoral student in the Faculty of History, explaining a new discovery this morninig.

He found an 1810 diary entry by Matthew Tomlinson, a Yorkshire farmer, which suggests that recognisably modern understandings of homosexuality were being discussed by ordinary people earlier than is commonly thought.

Interestingly, this is not what Eamonn was looking for when he opened the large volume of diaries in Wakefield Library last year. In a guest post on Arts Blog, Eamonn takes us behind the scenes of his unusual find:

"While looking for something completely different, I discovered a remarkable discussion of homosexuality in the diary of an early-nineteenth-century Yorkshire farmer.

Reflecting on reports of the recent execution of a naval surgeon for sodomy, Matthew Tomlinson wrote on 14 January 1810: “it appears a paradox to me, how men, who are men, shou'd possess such a passion; and more particularly so, if it is their nature from childhood (as I am informed it is) – If they feel such an inclination, and propensity, at that certain time of life when youth genders [i.e. develops] into manhood; it must then be considered as natural otherwise, as a defect in nature”. Either way, “it seems cruel to punish that defect with death.” This inference sparked solemn religious introspection, as Tomlinson struggled to understand how a just Creator could countenance such severe penalties for a God-given trait: "It must seem strange indeed that God Almighty shou'd make a being, with such a nature; or such a defect in nature; and at the same time make a decree that if that being whome he had formed, shou'd at any time follow the dictates of that Nature with which he was formed he shou'd be punished with death."

A forty-five-year-old tenant farmer, Matthew Tomlinson resided at Dog House Farm on the Lupset Hall estate, a mile south-west of Wakefield in Yorkshire. His voluminous diaries chronicle local Luddite disturbances, agricultural life, and his attempts to find a second soulmate after the demise of his first wife. A former Methodist, Tomlinson was an observant but ecumenical Christian; he wrote extensively on faith, love, death, and the political and economic affairs of his day. Although a few historians have quoted from Tomlinson’s diaries in the past, his meditations on homosexuality have never previously been brought to light.

I identified the passage by chance in the course of my PhD research on British military musicians during the Napoleonic Wars. Returning by train from a conference in Leeds, I decided to stop in Wakefield on a whim to view Tomlinson’s diaries, having noticed colourful quotations from them in a book by Ellen Gibson Wilson on the Yorkshire election of 1807. As it turned out, the diaries had little to say about military music – Tomlinson was disdainful of patriotic pageantry – but his reflections on homosexuality, which I spotted by chance while paging through the journals, stood out to me as striking and unusual for the time. I decided to reach out to specialists on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sexuality to discern if my instincts were correct. Dr Rictor Norton and Prof Fara Dabhoiwala both generously shared their expertise, confirming the rarity and significance of my discovery.

The argument that same-sex relations were natural and innocuous was occasionally advanced in eighteenth-century England, while Enlightenment thinking on individual liberties and legal reform spurred calls for Britain to emulate its Continental counterparts by abolishing the death penalty for homosexual acts. Some Georgian men and women who engaged in same-sex relationships viewed their sexual orientation as innate: Halifax landowner Anne Lister justified her lesbian feelings as “natural” and “instinctive” in her diary in 1823. Utilitarian philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham even expressed support for the decriminalization of homosexuality in various writings from the 1770s to the 1820s, contending that sodomy statutes stemmed from “no other foundation than prejudice”. However, he did not dare publish such radical views. After all, this was an era when spreading false allegations of same-sex proclivities was considered by some commentators as akin to committing murder, such was the reputational ruin faced by the accused. In an age of rampant persecution, homosexual men in Georgian Britain were regularly executed or publicly disgraced, brutalized by hostile crowds in public pillories and forced into exile overseas. Tomlinson’s own meditations appear in his private diary, an intimate record of his thoughts not intended for a wider audience.

While Tomlinson’s writings reflect the opinions of only one man, the phrasing implies that his comments were informed by the views of others. This exciting new evidence complicates and enriches our understanding of historical attitudes towards sexuality, suggesting that the revolutionary conception of same-sex attraction as a natural human tendency, discernible from adolescence and deserving of acceptance, was mooted within the social circles of a Yorkshire farmer during the reign of George III.

Tomlinson’s reflections were prompted by reports of the court-martial and execution of naval surgeon James Nehemiah Taylor, who was hanged from the yard-arm of HMS Jamaica on 26 December 1809 for committing sodomy with his young servant. Newspapers across Britain and Ireland published accounts of the case, reminding their burgeoning readerships of the draconian state penalties for homosexual behaviour. Contemporary media reporting on sodomy cases, often couched in the language of moral panic, both reflected and reinforced social stigma against same-sex intimacy, but Tomlinson’s writings suggests that not all readers uncritically accepted the homophobic assumptions they encountered in the press. Disheartened by the ignominious demise of an accomplished medical man, the diarist questioned the justice of Taylor’s punishment and debated whether so-called “unnatural” acts were truly deserving of such an appellation.

However, Tomlinson’s musings are still very much the product of his time. Although the diarist seriously considered the proposition that sexual orientation was innate, he did not unequivocally endorse it. Erroneously believing homosexual behaviour was unknown among animals, Tomlinson still allowed for the possibility that homosexuality might be a choice and therefore (in his view) deserving of punishment, suggesting that capital sentences for sodomy be replaced by the still-gruesome alternative of castration.

Tomlinson’s meditations thus prove ultimately inconclusive, but nonetheless provide rare and historically valuable insight into the efforts of an ordinary person of faith to grapple with questions of sexual ethics more than two centuries ago. His comments anticipate many of the arguments deployed successfully by the LGBT+ and marriage equality movements in recent decades to promote acceptance of sexual diversity. Tomlinson’s remarkable reflections suggest that recognizably modern conceptions of human sexuality were circulating in British society more widely – and at an earlier date – than commonly assumed.

I am thrilled to be able to share this exciting and historically significant new evidence with a wider audience, particularly during LGBT+ History Month. I hope the buzz surrounding the find will inspire other historians and students to engage more fully with the rich collections available in local and regional archives, while serving as a reminder of the serendipity inherent in historical research. Sometimes the most interesting and important discoveries are the ones you weren’t even looking for!"

This post was written by Eamonn O'Keeffe, a historian in the Faculty of History at the University of Oxford.

A gavel on a background of hearts

Professor Jonathan Herring’s new book, Law and the Relational Self, imagines how we could create laws that foster caring relationships, instead of breaking them apart.

Professor Herring is not your average law professor. His background is typical: studied Law at Hertford College, trained as a solicitor, did his BCL, then later went into education. But it’s not every solicitor or professor who ends up specialising in relationships.

He wrote a book called How to Argue, which was featured in newspapers as a guide to navigating those tricky conflicts in relationships. Late last year he hit the papers again, referenced as an argument expert in pieces about discussing Brexit and how to avoid doing the same at Christmas.

Jonathan Herring headshot

(He also gave a very entertaining talk on Can Law Be Fun, which is worth your time once you’ve finished reading this.)

He’s also written some more classic law texts, including Criminal Law: Texts, Cases and Materials and Family Law.

His most recent book almost seems to mix these two areas, looking at how law could move from protecting individual rights, to protecting and nurturing relationships.

Perhaps the first thing to consider when we look at this new book is what exactly is meant by ‘relational self’. Professor Herring elaborates: ‘The standard view of the self is individual.  Our bodies, beliefs, jobs and possessions define who we are. The relational understanding instead argues that our identities emerge from our relationships.’

It’s a bit like the old John Donne quote “No man is an island”. We’re all part of a larger whole, and the things that make us us are the things or people that we care about. If we try to define ourselves separate to that, then we come up short.

He continues: ‘If you are ask a person to describe themselves, then they are likely to use relational terms: they are someone's sister; they belong to this religious group; or they support this football team. The things that give our life meaning are not things that are unique to us, but our relationships.’

Well, what does this mean for the law? Professor Herring explains that the standard model of law is currently about individual rights: ‘For many lawyers, the most important legal rights are those of autonomy, bodily integrity and privacy. But these rights are about keeping people away from you. They are about preserving the individual as separate from others.’

The law, as it stands, protects independence. It sees your rights as something to be protected from other people. You use the law to look after your interests, perhaps at the expense of others.  Law and the Relational Self argues for a version of the law that looks at what’s best for people together.

‘A good law will be one that promotes caring relationships between people.’ He explains. ‘So a successful society, I argue, is not one where people are left free to pursue their own goals as "billiard balls in suits". Rather, it’s one where there are flourishing caring relationships.’

Law and the Relational Self book cover

He cites law relating to children as a good example of this. The law currently enshrines the welfare of the child alone as the criteria by which judges should make decisions. This sounds sensible enough until you think about the relationships at play. If what seems best for a child isn’t best for their relationship with their caregiver, it actually isn’t going to be very good for the child after all.

We imagine we can think about the interests of children as separate from their parents, but that is a fiction … It would be better to ask what order will promote good caring relationships between the child and their carers.’

Or we can look at contract law. Effectively, it sets up an “us vs them”, with little obligation to consider what is fair for ‘them’. Whereas Jonathan argues that ‘a contract law designed to promote caring relationship would put obligations on contracting parties to look out for each other.’

A lot of the ideas in the book are informed by his previous work, but it was becoming a parent that crystalised all those ideas into the concept for Law and the Relational Self. Not, as you might expect, because of how a child requires care of its relationships to thrive (that one was a given). Instead, what struck him was how much emotional support children give to their parents.

He describes the experience, saying: ‘Parenthood vividly showed me how false vision the ideal of the "autonomous self-determining free man" is. That seems to be the dream that the law seeks to preserve, but to me it now looks like a nightmare. All the things in my life that give me joy are things that undermine my autonomy. But those are all good things. And I think is true for most people.’

This vulnerability is at the core of the book. We define ourselves by our relationships, and our relationships make us vulnerable, so it follows that…

‘Being vulnerable is an essential characteristic of being human. We might think that as adults we are able to "look after ourselves", but we rely on farmers and shops for food. We rely on friends for meaning and our mental health. We need a whole array of people, from doctors to sewerage workers, to maintain our wellbeing.

‘The strange thing is that society often presents it as a bad thing to be vulnerable and to need care. Carers are some of the most undervalued workers in our economy, when they should be celebrated.’

Professor Herring also highlights how that vulnerability means we sometimes need support from the law when something goes wrong: ‘The importance of care also shows how harmful abuse within an intimate relationship is. If intimate relationships define who we are and, indeed, are key to our survival, then abuse with in them is a "crime against the soul." One of the great strengths of relational theories is that it can highlight the particular evils of domestic abuse.’

A lot of what he says about the book seems to be a question of how the law reflects what we value. To change the focus of the law, would thus give us better building blocks to support a society of caring relationships.

What would such a legal system look like and what would it say about our values? Professor Herring says: ‘At the moment, whether one listens to debates about the impact of Brexit or the arguments among politicians, it would be thought that economic productivity is the mark of a successful society. 

‘But what if our schooling, our labour market, our health care system, our political decisions were shaped around asking ‘what will promote good caring relationships?’ This would have huge ramifications for employment practices, tax systems, benefits payments. Being a carer would be an accepted part of being a citizen. The legal and political system would be built around that as a norm rather than, as it is at the moment, being seen as a problem if a worker is a carer.’

In the end, Law and the Relational Self is a book about what we decide important and how we reinforce that. It should be a great read for anyone with in interest in law and how it shapes us.

Jonathan sums it up by saying: ‘We know that making money is not what is important in life.  We know our lives are not just "ours" to live as we like, but are made up of responsibilities which constrain our freedom, but that we choose because they are of huge importance and value.  We know that what is important is our interactions with others, the smile, the touch, the kiss, the giggle together.  That is what matters, not the high sounds principles of autonomy and freedom which dominate the law.’

Someone types at a keyboard

As shopping surged over Christmas and now into the January sales, it has been one of the busiest times of the year online. Yes, Santa, the high street, and Amazon have all been doing overtime … and so, each year, does cybercrime. (You may, indeed, have caught the recent credit card hack over at Macy’s.)

So what can we do about cybercrime? To answer that, you need to understand it. Enter Dr Jonathan Lusthaus, Director of The Human Cybercriminal Project in the Department of Sociology, at the University of Oxford. Dr Lusthaus has spent the last seven years researching the hidden details of cybercrime. His book on the subject, Industry of Anonymity, is published by Harvard University Press. He’s also written on the subject for range of periodicals including The New York Times and The New Statesman, and been interviewed by the Financial Times’s Tech Tonic podcast and the a16z podcast..

In those years of research, he interviewed almost 250 people. These included law enforcement agents, security professionals and former cybercriminals. Speaking about the people he met, he remarked on how normal this new kind of criminal seems to be: ‘I was able to interview a number of former cybercriminals from a range of countries. There are a lot of interesting characters out there, but ultimately they are just people like the rest of us. Many of the former offenders I spoke to were intelligent and engaging.’

What drove him to find out so much about this world? Originally, he was planning to research religious violence, but found himself fascinated by cybercrime after a talk on the topic from the journalist Misha Glenny. With the subject becoming a growing obsession, he kept researching, doing his doctorate on the subject under the supervision of Federico Varese, a leading authority on organised crime.

A picture emerged of an industry that was strangely distant from traditional organised crime. Many cybercrime ventures seemed to function much like other online businesses, only they happened to be illegal. Out of several surprises that Dr Lusthaus uncovered, he recounts one of the most eye-opening as: ‘What surprised me most about the cybercrime world was how many of the offenders know each other in person. When I began this research almost a decade ago, I assumed this would be almost a purely virtual phenomenon. But the more I dug into it, the more I found cybercriminals who met online and then met up in person, or groups of people who knew each other in person already and then started to work together on an online scam. Sometimes this can be very much embedded in local communities and environments. This offline and local dimension is particularly fascinating and something that Federico Varese and I are continuing to investigate.’

Maybe it’s that knowing each other in person builds trust? Or perhaps it just makes it easier to organise if you’re not doing it all online? Indeed, in some cases, Dr Lusthaus found that some cybercriminals went so far as to invest in office space. They would even organise themselves along corporate hierarchies, with managers, specialist roles, and marketing teams. It turns out that in the cybercrime marketplace you still need someone to advertise your services.

If the way cybercrime can flourish seems oddly entrepreneurial to you, then you’re starting to identify one of what Dr Lusthaus sees as the key factors behind it. Some of the areas that tend to become cybercrime hubs are places with very strong technical education, but not enough jobs to support all the resulting talent. Lacking employment opportunities or legal avenues for start-up investment, some people turn to cybercrime as a quick way to use their skills to make ends meet.

But not all cybercrime hotspots are the same. There’s a lot of variation tied to the resources and skills available in each area, which then feed into local criminal specialities: ‘The former Soviet Union is one well-known hub for cybercrime. It is known for the most technical types of cybercrime, like malware production. Other key hubs include Romania, Nigeria and Brazil. These often become associated with different kinds of cybercrime. For example, some would say Romanian offenders are famous for "online auction fraud", which involves selling fictitious products online.

‘Nigerian fraudsters have entered so many people's lives through those (sometimes far-fetched) emails offering strangers part of some fortune if only they can provide a small amount of money to unlock it. This is known as "advance fee fraud". More recently, these offenders have evolved and now engage in other scams like impersonating CEOs and other company officers to authorise fraudulent transactions. Of course, we also can't forget about the West, which has a lot of cybercrime offenders engaged in the money side of cybercrime, "cashing out" virtual gains into physical or monetary ones.’

So, what can we do to combat cybercrime in these areas? Various experts, including Dr Lusthaus, have suggested it’s not a problem we can arrest away. Instead, it may be an issue we can invest away:

‘While we lack data and rigorous study on this, I suspect a number of future cybercrime offenders could be diverted into legitimate work. The UK's National Crime Agency is leading the way globally with cybercrime prevention programs. But the real need is to internationalise diversion programs beyond the West and target them to the hubs that produce the most effective cybercriminals, like Eastern Europe. This means creating more opportunities in places where very capable individuals are being pulled into cybercrime because there aren't enough good jobs to support them. The private sector can potentially play a huge role here.’

If you want to learn more about cybercrime, you can find the details of Dr Lusthaus’s book and various articles on the Harvard University Press site. But if there’s one key thing you should know about cybercrime, he thinks it should be this one: ‘Cybercrime is not as shadowy as people think. It's important not to view cybercriminals as exotic. Mystifying them makes it harder to develop solutions. I think approaching cybercrime in "human" terms is really important to addressing the problem in a more holistic way. It is not just a technical challenge.’