AngryFrenchGuy

What’s Yann Martel Reading?

with 385 comments

yann martel

Hey Yann,

I was watching you on Radio-Canada’s Tout le Monde en Parle last Sunday and I heard you say something so grotesque, so stupid and so ignorant that I felt I had to respond.

You said something like: “As far as I’m concerned, all languages are the same.”

So I’m going to do exactly what you are doing to Stephen Harper and send you a couple of books to set you straight. Feel free to pass them along to Steve when you’re done.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m an anglophile. I read and write in English all the time. I read Life of Pi in English. My Dad was raised much like you, speaking French at home but going to English schools. My grand-father was the son of a protestant preacher’s daughter who went to Catholic school with Félix Leclerc.

English is a fine language, Yann, but the one thing it isn’t is a language just like any other.

When I went to China a couple of years ago, young students would stop me on the street and beg me to – please, please mister! -speak English with them for ten minutes.  Do you think they behaved like that because they just happened to prefer your books to those of Michel Houellebecq or Lao-Tzu?

Of course not.  These students wanted – needed – to master English because it was their only way into the best universities, free economic zones and a decent life.  English was the difference between a meaningful career and a lifetime of stamping documents at the Sechuan Ministry of Public Works.

That’s what English is today.  It’s the great gatekeeper.  Ninety percent of Korean workers have to take English tests all through their careers just to keep their jobs.   Do you really thing that English is just another language to them?

Do think that the parents of the 30 000 Korean elementary school students that are sent to study in English-speaking countries every year in this world that confuses English with intelligence feel that it is a language like any other?  Elementary school kids, Yann.  They’re not even ten years old yet!

How about the citizens of Qatar whose government hired the RAND Corporation in the wake of September 11th to design a new education curriculum that the Washington Post celebrated as More English, Less Islam? I’m sure they got the message that English is just another neutral, international language, freely available for their use, should they be so inclined.  As the British scholar Sohail Karmani pointed out: « One need only reflect for a moment on the moral legitimacy of parallel calls for, say, more English and less Buddhism, less Sikhism, or less Judaism—or indeed even more absurdly ‘more Arabic and less Christianity’—to appreciate just how ludicrous and utterly repugnant such formulas are. »

Unlike you and me, Yann, most people in the world didn’t have the privilege of learing educated standard English effortlessly while they were young.  Cultivating the illusion that one chooses a language in which to persue a career and bogus theories about the equivalency of cultures and the benign nature of the worldwide spread of English is a luxury most of the world doesn’t have.

It might help you to rationalise the fact that the ability to write in the language of your ancestors has been educated out of you, but you are only kidding yourself.

So here’s a couple of books I think you should read. If you are in a scholarly mood, I suggest Linguistic Imperialism by Robert Phillipson or anything you can pick up by Alastair Pennycook. You might also want to check out Buying Into English, the very interesting book by Catherine Prendergast, an American teacher who witnessed first hand how English transformed from a tool of freedom to a crash course in capitalism in Slovakia.

But the book I’m sending you is Decolonizing the Mind by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, about his rise to international fame in English and his realization the language had only really put him to the service of the English-speaking elite of Europe and America and completely isolated him from Kenya and Africans.

It’s the last book in English he ever wrote.

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Written by angryfrenchguy

October 13, 2009 at 12:51 pm

385 Responses

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  1. Thanks for all the advice, les amis. In particular, your concern for my children’s future is quite touching.

    It’s another love-in.

    James

    October 22, 2009 at 7:08 pm

  2. “Ah the usual “quebec bashing” and “anglo bashing” banter back and forth. I knew this was going to ignite a spark. I suppose we will see how big of a spark starts any flames.”

    Actually, not much anglo bashing on the francophone forum, and more like “Canadian political system bashing”.

    It’s all pretty consistent with what we usually see. 90% of the comments on the French forum are “Canada is a bad political set-up for francophones, the current set-up it doesn’t take our needs into account, we have to get out of this system before it is too late, bla bla bla…”

    Whereas on the anglo forums 75% of the comments are “Quebecers are like this, Quebecers are like that, Quebecers are spoiled children, etc…”

    One group attacks a system, while another group attacks the people.

    Yesterday’s news item and the comments it attracted in either language is an excellent illustration of what I have been saying here for months.

    Acajack

    October 23, 2009 at 5:37 am

  3. “One group attacks a system, while another group attacks the people.

    Yesterday’s news item and the comments it attracted in either language is an excellent illustration of what I have been saying here for months”

    Yes, the separatists are on fire with this. Patick B advocating a demonstration at Brent Tylers office and the same “old” you will be sorry with out big blow shit.

    Basically, ACJ, the f’king system is broke and I doubt there is any way to fix it.

    Bottom line English Canada has the percpetion that Quebec is the problem child of confederation. (they make their case)

    Many in Quebec feel that English Canada is out to get them and destroy their culture (they make their case). I think this is a false pretense but whatever.

    As I have said before, the bottome line is that the two solitudes don’t really have a lot of respect or trust for one another.

    This will never end until it “ends”. It really has become quite tireseome. Maybe its time to say goodbye and for both english and french canada (or whatever they want to call themselves) to get on with life.

    Have a good day and enjoy whats left of your life.

    ABP

    ABP

    October 23, 2009 at 10:17 am

  4. James writes:

    “It’s another love-in.”

    LOL!

    Tony Kondaks

    October 23, 2009 at 11:47 am

  5. James writes:

    “It’s another love-in.”

    LOL!

    and I guess for your benefit I should have activated the [sarcasm on]…[sarcasm off] flashers.

    wow, over 700 comments from the herrenvolk on one little CBC page within mere hours of this ruling in which even the colonial court judges admit the plaignants are a bunch of four-flushers, appropriately represented by Me Four-Flusher himself.

    The comportment of the herrenvolk in these internet love-in’s seems, shall we say, less “model” than that of their big in-person one. I guess it helps when someone else is paying for your bus and plane tickets.

    James

    October 23, 2009 at 12:24 pm

  6. Yes, the CBC forum (and others) is very enlightening. Most striking perhaps is the infantilization of francophones. English-speaking Canada knows what’s best for us, both economically, culturally and linguistically, les amis. We just have to trust them and everything will be fine.

    Other taglines:

    – Canada is bilingual, so Quebec has to give equal prominence to French and English. Though if any commentators mentioned giving equivalent equal prominence to French in the ROC, I missed it. The bilingual requirement seems to apply to Quebec (and Quebecers) only.

    – English is currently the world’s lingua franca, na na na na na. My daddy is stronger than yours and can pee further than yours.

    – It is really great that people who willingly moved to Quebec from outside Canada, some of whom barely just got off the plane it seems, are forcefully challenging the fact that Quebec has been predominantly French-speaking for 400 years and helping make it more English. Ra-ra-ra, boys and girls, go settle Lord Durham’s unfinished business for us.

    – Canada is a great multicultural beacon where everyone gets along perfectly except the francophones with everyone else. If only the French in Quebec behaved like the Bangladeshis in Brampton, or even like the Fransaskois…

    – Anglophones in Quebec, who live in a majority francophone setting, should not be “forced” to speak French, but Quebec francophones, who also live in a majority francophone setting, should all speak English.

    – Some of my best friends in (name a ROC city) are francophones. They are all very nice and are not at all like those mean Quebecers, and speak English “when spoken to”.

    – I am of purely francophone origin and have lived in the ROC most of life. My life has been so much richer since I learned English and can now fully understand Lady Gaga’s lyrics and all the subtleties of My Name is Earl without the subtitles. However, please don’t ask me to type this exact same message in proper French. I beg you, DON’T! NOOOOOOOOO!

    Acajack

    October 23, 2009 at 1:59 pm

  7. Acajack writes (on others’ taglines):

    Anglophones in Quebec, who live in a majority francophone setting, should not be “forced” to speak French, but Quebec francophones, who also live in a majority francophone setting, should all speak English.

    Actually, yes, that is how it should and will be in an independent Quebec.

    Tony Kondaks

    October 25, 2009 at 12:23 am

  8. Allophone : «The French might have been a little bit milder here. Maybe they didn’t feel as powerful, less secure because of the distance between here and back home. I don’t know. But if they prevailed in NA, this wouldn’t be a “multinational continent”. It would be French from St-John’s to San Diego, from Anchorage to the Keys.»

    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/champlains-dream-lives-on-in-north-america/article1336484/

    Raman

    October 26, 2009 at 10:57 am

  9. Acajack, I’ve been compelled to post here just to remark on how wonderful your comments are. You’re one of the most level headed and insightful commentators on this blog, and I appreciate how you represent us. I was surprised the other day when browsing one of the English language sites for expats in Sweden to see you had posted (it was a few months ago, and had to do with Swedish language laws… and some Anglophone from Quebec commented and had of course mentioned what a horrible hell his life was and how awful and paranoid the French were and so on… thank you for putting him in his place…

    Anyway that said, I agree with that whole summary of the CBC forum. For that matter, this is pretty much the formula whenever Quebec and language are mentioned in any English language fora. I particularly love the “Francophones who have seen the light” as previously described, or even better the ones who are of French Canadian origin but don’t speak a word of French and can’t understand why the Quebecois can’t just stop being so narrow-minded and come out and sing kumbayah with the ROC.

    I constantly get in polite arguments with one of my anglo friends back up in Montreal about how hypocritical the Anglophone finger wagging is. Especially the argument of “Canada is a bilingual country.” It’s only bilingual when an English speaker encounters a French speaker. The stupid French yokels in Shawinigan *need* to know English, even though Farmer Brown somewhere in Alberta doesn’t need to know French.

    I love languages and speak seven. I definitely think knowledge of English is a good thing. But the cultural imperialism attached to it is off putting. Especially when some still act like they’re on a crusade to convert Quebec over to the righteousness of the English language cause.

    And yes, now that English is the world’s lingua franca, any francophone that doesn’t speak French is considered ass-backward.

    Raphaël

    October 26, 2009 at 8:41 pm

  10. Thanks for the compliments Raphael.

    And I forgot one.

    “Quebecers don’t speak real French anyway. I know this for a fact because people I met in Paris told me so.”

    Of course, Anglo North Americans don’t exactly speak the Queen’s English either, but that’s OK, since they’re not held up to the same standard that we lesser peoples are…

    Acajack

    October 27, 2009 at 8:30 am

  11. Acajack:

    It’s all pretty consistent with what we usually see. 90% of the comments on the French forum are “Canada is a bad political set-up for francophones, the current set-up it doesn’t take our needs into account, we have to get out of this system before it is too late, bla bla bla…”

    Whereas on the anglo forums 75% of the comments are “Quebecers are like this, Quebecers are like that, Quebecers are spoiled children, etc…”

    One group attacks a system, while another group attacks the people.

    You’re right, and I’m trying to understand why that is. Clearly the resentment that exists in Quebec towards Canada is not equivalent to the resentment that exists in Canada towards (francophone) Quebec. It’s just not the same thing. But why is that?

    Is it merely a function of the different way Quebec and Canadian nationalists define their nation? Quebec nationalists simply do not consider the rest of Canada (francophones as well as anglophones) as part of their nation, and therefore see themselves as having no standing to complain about Canada except inasmuch as it affects Quebec, while Canadian nationalists like to think of Canada as a multicultural paradise, but one where ultimately, even if they may not admit it to themselves, the language of cultural convergence will be English? And so Quebec insisting on an “ethnic” language as a language of convergence is seen as at best “ethnocentric”? Or is it more than this?

    And yes, I know that commenters on public forums may not be representative of the population they are taken from. They’re often people who like to complain (like us). But there’s still something at work there.

    Yes, the CBC forum (and others) is very enlightening. Most striking perhaps is the infantilization of francophones.

    I may have said this before, but a few years ago, during a period of frenetic Quebec-bashing in the Canadian media, I saw an editorial comment in Le Devoir that suggested that the way anglophone Canadians perceive Quebec is influenced by the works of Cornelius Krieghoff, an extremely popular Canadian artist of the 19th century who enjoyed painting the “habitants” of Quebec, but often in ways that showed them as little more than grown children. The Toll Gate (1859), with the habitants on a horse-drawn sleigh running through a toll booth without paying is a good example. Now, I guess that today most Canadians would not be aware of Krieghoff; I had never heard of him before reading that editorial. But somehow I wouldn’t be surprised if the underlying feeling was still there. And it could account for the belief, apparently common among anglophone Canadians, of a distinction between cosmopolitan, bilingual, urban Quebecers (specifically Montrealers) who will speak English “when spoken to” as Acajack says and who are presumably federalist, and unilingual, rural “habitants” who aren’t as educated, are more easily manipulated by a malevolent elite, and are presumably nationalist.

    What say you, Acajack? Of course, you’re one of the “good”, cosmopolitan ones, especially back when you were more of a believer in the Canadian model, so you may not yourself have experienced this kind of paternalism, but do you think it exists as I describe it?

    God, I so need a scholarly study of the ways Canadians think about themselves as a nation, how they define themselves and how they view the different groups in their country. And what they think the future of this country will be and should be. One that’s honest and hard-hitting, and doesn’t rely on bullshit about how Tim Hortons’ soups say something about the good hosts that Canadians are.

    And I want to second Raphaël’s remark about Acajack’s posts. They’re especially interesting because Acajack has spent most of his early years in an anglophone milieu, and therefore knows quite a lot about anglophone Canadians. He may hold the key to understanding them.

    “Quebecers don’t speak real French anyway. I know this for a fact because people I met in Paris told me so.”

    Ha! Yes, I’ve heard this one, or something similar. It doesn’t help that many francophone Quebecers seem to believe it as well. I’ve seen it as an anti-bill 101 argument from francophones: why should we protect French if we can’t speak “proper” French? I guess it comes with being a minority nation that until recently wasn’t known for its achievements in anything, basically. We tend to believe that anything we do (even how we speak) is somehow “wrong”.

    Still, I believe that any anglophone who believes this line is already poised to be hostile to Quebecers.

    Obelix

    October 27, 2009 at 3:49 pm

  12. Oh I get teased by friends from France all the time about my French being “archaic” or sounding ridiculous. One of my friends just had her first trip to France this summer and her tour guide in the Louvre observed out loud that her French sounded like it came out of the 17th century…

    But the French make fun of everyone, particularly the Belgians. Let’s just be glad we’re not Belgian!

    Anyway, after all, for a long time French Canadians were made to feel like their language was substandard to the language of France, and that they didn’t even speak something that was worthy of being called “French” but rather a creole or “patois”. This was before the whole joual debate. But even now, you’ll see some English Canadians comment online about how “I speak French, just not that horrible patois that the Quebecois call French,” which causes them to feel justified in thinking of the language the Quebecois speak as being substandard and not worth speaking.

    French is still an incredibly monocentric language, even with the advent of the Francophonie, the Francophone world still revolves more around Paris, because unlike all the other colonial languages (English, Spanish, and Portuguese) there’s not any one particular former French colony which has a greater number of speakers than France. The British can deride Americans all they want for not speaking the Queen’s English, but Americans really don’t care. The same thing when you hear the Portuguese complain about how godawful Brazilian Portuguese is… I don’t think the Brazilians care when the population of greater São Paulo alone has more Portuguese speakers than in all of Portugal.

    Raphaël

    October 27, 2009 at 5:32 pm

  13. I recently encountered a young person here (northeastern US) who told me that her French teacher had included some popular North American French culture in the curriculum of her advanced French class.

    I have heard anecdotally that this sort of thing is going on more and more both in the US and Canada. If this is true, I think it is a step in the right direction if it has the effect, as I suspect it will, of reinforcing the notion among anglo students that North American French is a variety of the language that has a value equal to that of European French.

    littlerob

    October 27, 2009 at 7:36 pm

  14. “What say you, Acajack? Of course, you’re one of the “good”, cosmopolitan ones, especially back when you were more of a believer in the Canadian model, so you may not yourself have experienced this kind of paternalism, but do you think it exists as I describe it?”

    I get infantilized all the time. Or at least “got”. That’s because a few years ago I began to pick and choose quite carefully the anglophones that I discuss Canadian politics with. Often, people pick up that I am reasonably knowledgeable on Quebec-Canada, and want to go down that road, but I quickly change the subject because I know exactly where the discussion will lead.

    I have found that as a semi-literate trilingual francophone Canadian who has travelled much of the world and studied this country’s political system and history both academically and for fun, that when it comes to Quebec and anglos, it’s all about the message and has little to do with the messenger.

    Not saying that I am, but I could be the most learned scholar on the planet (well, compared to some of the people I have argued with over the years, I might be close…), but just suggesting that francophones in Canada have some legitimate beefs is akin to telling these people that the world is flat. The unanimity of views on this in English-speaking Canada is near-total.

    Several million people in Quebec are so dissatisfied with their province’s place in Canada that they actually want to separate from one of the world’s most prosperous and successful countries and create another one. Some of them haven’t even completed high school, but some of them have PhDs and are some of the brightest minds this country has produced. Yet they are ALL wrong. On ALL of the issues. EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM.

    So I guess it is not surprising that we have never been able to find a lasting solution to the issue.

    Acajack

    October 27, 2009 at 9:04 pm

  15. Acajack:

    Not saying that I am, but I could be the most learned scholar on the planet (well, compared to some of the people I have argued with over the years, I might be close…), but just suggesting that francophones in Canada have some legitimate beefs is akin to telling these people that the world is flat. The unanimity of views on this in English-speaking Canada is near-total.

    Ouch. Well that sucks. Of course, there are some anglophones who are willing to listen, and of course, there are also issues that aren’t negotiable to most Quebec francophones. allophone keeps pointing out that the Charter of the French language is one of them. But of course, bill 101 is seen by francophones as an issue of cultural survival, while I don’t see how Canadian culture depends on francophones not having any legitimate complaints. It is true that the idea that francophone culture still exists in Canada today solely due to the compassion of anglophones appears to be a popular idea. But I sure hope it doesn’t define how anglophones view themselves.

    You know, I sort of thought that it might be interesting to go live in Canada outside Quebec for a few years, get immersed in a different culture and also discuss these issues with Canadians who’d care about it. Bring the Quebec viewpoint to people who haven’t had the opportunity to hear it, so to speak. But the way you’re talking, it seems it’s a wasted effort. That’s really too bad.

    Obelix

    October 28, 2009 at 12:11 am

  16. If this post ends up being posted twice, it’s because it didn’t appear the first time. This seems to happen from time to time.

    Acajack:

    Not saying that I am, but I could be the most learned scholar on the planet (well, compared to some of the people I have argued with over the years, I might be close…), but just suggesting that francophones in Canada have some legitimate beefs is akin to telling these people that the world is flat. The unanimity of views on this in English-speaking Canada is near-total.

    Ouch. Well that sucks. Of course, there are some anglophones who are willing to listen, and of course, there are also issues that aren’t negotiable to most Quebec francophones. allophone keeps pointing out that the Charter of the French language is one of them. But of course, bill 101 is seen by francophones as an issue of cultural survival, while I don’t see how Canadian culture depends on francophones not having any legitimate complaints. It is true that the idea that francophone culture still exists in Canada today solely due to the compassion of anglophones appears to be a popular idea. But I sure hope it doesn’t define how anglophones view themselves.

    You know, I sort of thought that it might be interesting to go live in Canada outside Quebec for a few years, get immersed in a different culture and also discuss these issues with Canadians who’d care about it. Bring the Quebec viewpoint to people who haven’t had the opportunity to hear it, so to speak. But the way you’re talking, it seems it’s a wasted effort. That’s really too bad.

    Obelix

    October 28, 2009 at 1:32 am

  17. Obelix,

    This is not to say that people are openly hostile to francophones. In fact, most are quite cool and perhaps even a bit passive. Your average person in the ROC doesn’t really care if you’re francophone any more than if you are Italian or Ukrainian. (I guess that’s exactly the point.) But they also think that Canada (with respect to its treatment of francophones) is perfect just the way it is, and perhaps that it might even have gone a bit too far in its accommodation. That’s why people get all riled up whenever there is a complaint out of Quebec or a minority francophone community in the ROC.

    Regarding a possible move to the ROC, go for it if you want to. But who knows, you may end up thinking the same way! Much stronger men than you or I have fallen into the trap, I assure you!

    Another point I wanted to make is consider how much credibility the hypothesis that Quebec, if it were to become independent, would be really, really poor, (borderline Third World) has in ROC circles. You can actually say this at a social gathering in the media, and almost no one will call you on how ridiculous this is. In fact, many will nod in approval. Stuff like this should be seen as ridiculously unacceptable as saying “I don’t think Barack Obama will be a good president because he is black”, but it is not. You can say it in total impunity without being labelled a charlatan (like you deserve). It is so accepted as a hypothesis that even many francophones believe it and repeat it.

    Acajack

    October 28, 2009 at 11:56 am

  18. I’m not saying anglophones are hostile to francophones. What I’m saying is that it’s odd that the idea that Canada’s language policy is “perfect” (or perhaps even too liberal) is a point which anglophones are not even willing to discuss. It’s odd because there is no lack of interesting alternatives to Canada’s current policy.

    I think it’d really help me discuss Canadian politics to actually understand anglophones, and be able to view Canada through their eyes.

    As for moving to English Canada, the idea is that I may eventually do postdoctoral research, and if this happens it would be a good idea to do it “abroad”. Of course, it could bring me altogether outside Canada.

    Another point I wanted to make is consider how much credibility the hypothesis that Quebec, if it were to become independent, would be really, really poor, (borderline Third World) has in ROC circles. You can actually say this at a social gathering in the media, and almost no one will call you on how ridiculous this is. In fact, many will nod in approval.

    Quebec’s economic situation after independence would of course depend a lot on how economically isolated it would be. (This said, unlike Kondaks, I don’t actually believe that Quebec would attract hordes of unilingual anglophone businessmen who’d expect, nay, require to move here and be able to live their whole lives in English only and not even have to notice French.) It’s likely that Quebec would be somewhat poorer, but Third World-level? Of course that’s ridiculous.

    I suspect that those who believe such things are, like ABP, people who (for political reasons) keep repeating facts about equalization payments until they actually start believing that Quebec’s economy is wholly propped up by the rest of Canada. Now, it is true that Quebec is a net recipient of equalization. But it’s not Canada’s poorest province, not by a longshot. And it’s richer than a fair number of independent, First World countries.

    Obelix

    October 28, 2009 at 1:11 pm

  19. I don’t think it is possible to foresee how an independent Québec’s economy will fare, although my guess is that things won’t change that much. I do think it likely, however, that an independent Québec will acquire two more sets of unpleasant border crossings (with Ontario and NB) to go with the one it now has with the US.

    littlerob

    October 28, 2009 at 8:34 pm

  20. What nation in the world is ‘economically isolated ‘
    in our modern open economy? So Power Corp will refuse to make money in Quebec? The only nation in the world economically isolated is North Corea, and of course our anglos canadians neighbors used to compare that country to a future independant Quebec..

    midnightjack

    October 29, 2009 at 3:26 am

  21. These canadians who feels so proud to live a sooo.. open country are often the same to be openly racists and hatefull in the Roc blogs when Quebec is at the menu. To hate Quebec and Quebeckers seems normal, justified and unanimoustly recommanded. Some rare people, probably from mixed marriage, are more polite. But Quebec is guilty of what exactly? And why racism against quebecois is so tolerate for a people unabable to call a cat a cat because it could not be politically correct?

    midnightjack

    October 29, 2009 at 4:36 am

  22. “But Quebec is guilty of what exactly? And why racism against quebecois is so tolerate for a people unabable to call a cat a cat because it could not be politically correct?”

    Well.. do the anglos in the ROC have any fored laws in Canada…it’s only Quebec that has laws regarding langauge and educuction…sgns etc.

    So then, MDJ, who are the racists and bigots? Those with laws as 101 or those who allow freedom of choice?

    ABP

    October 31, 2009 at 10:39 pm

  23. Sohail Karmani is not a “British scholar”. He is a Pakistani-Brit who teaches English in Saudi-supported Sharjah where the ambiance is definitely islamist.

    alastair dawson

    May 7, 2010 at 10:44 am

  24. You are right ! they are great gifts. I have been learning English from books and there is no coiarpmson to watching video to learn , they ( the video) make it easier to understand, as you have a live teacher infront of you. This is really great. Thank you podEnglish! You have made leraning fun, finally.

    Abhi

    January 18, 2013 at 3:30 pm

  25. Hello there, I believe your weistbe could be acquiring browser compatibility troubles. When I search at your site in Safari, it appears good but when opening in World wide web Explorer, it’s some overlapping. I just wished to provide you with a swift heads up! Other then that, wonderful weistbe!

    Tarjan

    December 30, 2013 at 6:09 am


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