Isabella Lima

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Abstract

Throughout the interview, Isabella talks about her experiences in ESL--English as a Second Language--classes in elementary school when she first arrived in North Carolina from São Paulo, Brazil. She explains the structure of her classes, how she felt about them, how she learned English, and who her main supporters were as she was learning her second language. She shares about how bilingualism has shaped her as well as how she believes ESL classes can be improved in the public-school system.

R0906_Audio.mp3

Transcript

Alex: [00:04] Hi. I'm here with Isabella Lima. I just have a few questions for you. So where are you from originally? When did you move to the U.S., and where exactly?

Isabella: [00:17] So I was born in São Paulo, Brazil. I moved to the U.S. in 2008 and I was about eight years old, almost nine. We moved to Durham because we had family in the area, so we moved in and stayed with my aunt.

A: [00:40] And do you still live there now?

I: [00:41] Yes, well, now I live on the Durham-Chapel Hill border, so pretty close.

A: [00:47] And how old are you now?

I: [00:48] I am eighteen.

A: [00:50] So what grade are you in and what are your plans for next year if you know them?

I: [00:54] I'm a senior at Jordan High School, and I plan on going to college next year. I'm not sure which one yet at the moment. I'm waiting to hear from other places still, but yes.

A: [01:10] Ok. We can kind of dive in to some of the language aspects of this. What is your first language and do you consider yourself a native speaker or fluent in that language?

I: [01:19] Yes. So my first language is Portuguese, from Brazil, not Portugal. I do consider myself a fluent speaker because I can read, write, speak Portuguese pretty well. I have a little bit of difficulty because I moved when I was pretty young, but I still consider myself a native speaker.

A: [01:49] And do you consider yourself to be a native speaker of English? Or how would you categorize your fluency level?

I: [01:55] I think I'm pretty fluent with English. I do-- Sometimes I do better than my other peers. So I think I'm pretty fluent in English also. I have difficulty pronouncing certain words sometimes, but I think that that's normal with any people. So I think I'm pretty fluent.

A: [02:16] But you wouldn't consider yourself to be a native speaker?

I: [02:19] I don't think a native. But definitely fluent.

A: [02:24] So since you moved to the United States at a fairly young age, how do you think that your age impacted your ability to learn English or a second language in general.

I: [02:32] I think it definitely helped because the younger you are when you learn a language, the faster you learn and the better you learn it. I think that me being nine, I was able to learn it pretty quickly, but if I had moved here earlier I would probably know it better and I would have less trouble pronouncing certain words, or I would be able to hear certain changes-- between then and than, and those little differences.

A: [03:06] Interesting. So how did you learn English? What were the services available to you or the requirements that you had to fulfil, or things that you did on your own?

I: [03:20] I was like-- I started going to elementary school and they placed me in the ESL program and it was me and two other Hispanic girls. They were twins. And we would go out of class and go to ESL and the teacher would teach us basic things in the beginning, you know, like basic vocabulary words like "up," "down" and things like that. That went on for all of my third grade year and a little bit into fourth grade, but by the end of third grade I knew English pretty well already. And then at home, my mom and my cousins and stuff, they would read to me and I would read little children's books and stuff so I could practice my English and get better at it. My mom bought a bunch of little vocab books and stuff like that. And then I had my cousins who would practice English with me.

A: [04:24] So you think you learned most of your English outside of the ESL classroom?

I: [04:28] Yes, because then I also had-- There were also kids at school who would try and talk to me and I would try and talk back to them in the best way I could. So I think that my English was learned by people around me helping me and influencing me and stuff like that.

A: [04:48] Okay, cool. So how did you feel being forced to learn a new language or did you feel forced at all?

I: [04:54] I was-- I felt more motivated than forced. I hated the fact that I couldn't really talk to people around me when I was at school since I was around people who spoke English throughout most of my day. I really wanted to communicate with them, so I didn't feel forced very much, but more motivated to want to learn the language so that I could communicate with my peers and help my mom.

A: [05:33] That's a pretty good segue to my next question: how were your interactions with your English-speaking peers when you first started school in the United States?

I: [05:40] Right in the beginning, I had a tough time because I-- some people tried to be friends with me, but I didn't really understand what they said at all. So the beginning was tough because I didn't understand the customs and I didn't really understand what was happening and what people were saying, but the kids were very nice. They tried to reach out and stuff, but as I started to learn more English, I was better able to communicate with them and I learned the customs and everything that happens in elementary school. So as my third grade year went on, by the second half, I was better able. I had more friends and I was able to communicate with them and we would play at recess.

A: [06:34] Did you ever have any negative responses from other kids as far as your language barrier?

I: [06:43] None that I remember. I think it was just-- I think in the beginning I just felt very left out. But I think that was just because I didn't know how to interact with them and they already had their own little friend groups and stuff. And it was hard for me in the beginning to try and be friends with them when I couldn't really communicate.

A: [07:07] So you've-- I mean you already talked about a little bit how those interactions changed over time-- So how quickly did those interactions become more easy and in what ways?

I: [07:20] I think it was more towards-- So the end of my third grade year and then mostly during fourth and fifth grade. During-- By the end of third grade, I had a few friends that I played with and I could talk to them already and stuff, but it was mainly during fourth grade where I started making more friends and I started finding people that I fit in with and stuff. And then fourth grade was also the year that I was added to an AIG math class, so I was opened up to different people that I didn't have contact with before. So that was another way I made more friends and stuff.

A: [08:17] So at what point did you feel fully capable in your English speaking abilities and feel really comfortable around your peers?

I: [08:26] I think it was when-- in fourth grade. Third grade I was still-- I felt that I was still learning, especially during the first half of third grade, I was-- I didn't know any English at all. During the second half, I knew some, but I wasn't-- I didn't feel very comfortable. But then I had that summer after third grade year right before fourth grade, and then that was a time where I practiced more. I would help my mom with her house cleaning business that she had and sending emails to clients and stuff and speaking. So fourth grade I felt more comfortable with my English and talking to people.

A: [09:11] Pretty cool. That's really quick. Switching gears a little bit, how do you think that your native language Portuguese has shaped you?

I: [09:21] I think it definitely has had an effect on me, you know, just because of the-- Well, Portuguese has helped me a lot. I take French in high school and Portuguese has helped me learn different languages like French, and then it has also helped me with Spanish, which I can speak a little bit of. So it has definitely provided me with many benefits. And then I think that Portuguese-- I think that me being able to speak a different language just sets me apart in a way. And it makes me a little different than the other people, which I like.

A: [10:24] Do you think that could be the case with any other language, or do you think that Portuguese has any specific effects on you?

I: [10:36] I think it can be with any other language, but I think that what-- where that language is linked to-- like Portuguese is linked to Brazil, which has a big impact on me. So it has personal meaning to me, but if I spoke Chinese, that would set me apart too. So I think that speaking any other language sets you apart and makes you different from others, but just the connection that it has to a country or something, that has an impact on you.

A: [11:11] So can you talk a little bit more about how your bilingualism has shaped you, or what advantages that it has given you?

I: [11:19] I think it definitely has, like I said before, provided me with a chance-- It has made it easier for me to learn different languages, especially Romance languages. They're all very similar to each other. So I don't have such a difficulty in learning French as other students have, because some of the words are similar and things like that. So I have more experience with it and it's easier and it sticks with me. I think that's definitely a way that being bilingual has helped me and helped shape me. It also increased my interest in learning other languages since I already knew-- since I knew Portuguese and I learned English, it made me want to learn different languages, and the more languages I learn, the better I think I'm making myself, because I wanna be able to communicate with other people from different countries. I don't wanna be that person who only speaks one language and can't communicate with anyone else.

A: [12:46] So earlier you briefly mentioned using your new English skills to help your mom. Can you speak a little bit more about that and what that means?

I: [12:58] My mom, she also-- When we came here she also didn't know any English at all. And so she signed up to take classes at Durham Tech so she could learn some English, but that wasn't really enough because she learned some stuff fairly quickly and she learned the grammar portion, but speaking for her was and still is very hard. She doesn't feel very comfortable speaking English because she feels afraid that she's gonna say the wrong thing. So I have always been the person that has translated for her and spoken for her and written emails for her and everything. So when I was younger and she still had her house cleaning business, I would email the clients for her, I would go to meetings with new clients for her and translate everything that they said and what she said back. So it has always been a very strong relationship between the two of us. Translating has brought-- built that connection even stronger and stuff.

A: [14:18] So that's something that you've enjoyed doing?

I: [14:19] Yes. Not all the time. There are certain situations-- When she's-- It's hard to translate her emotions also, when she's really angry and I'm trying to translate, it's very hard, because I'm always smiling and sometimes I think it's funny. And so they look at her face, but then they hear what I'm saying and it doesn't match up. So sometimes it's not very [enjoyful], but it's something that I've always liked doing.

A: [14:54] Interesting. Thank you. So switching gears a little bit again, do you feel like you have lost any of your identity with your native language or culture when you began to learn English, or, on the other hand, do you feel like being bilingual and bicultural has given you a richer identity? Can you speak to both questions?

I: [15:12] I think that by learning English, I lost some of how-- I lost a little bit of how comfortable I felt speaking Portuguese, because I was suddenly surrounded all by English most of my day in school. And while it really helped me learn English and made my English better, I also lost some of my Portuguese. Which is okay because, I mean, at home I still speak Portuguese and I still speak Portuguese with my family, but I think that by learning another language, it took a little bit away from the language that I-- from my native language. And then I think that by being bilingual, it has just-- or you said given me a richer identity. Yeah I think it just has shaped me. Helped shape me for-- or it has shaped my interests in learning new languages and working with people who also need to have things translated and stuff.

A: [16:45] So are you still interested in studying Portuguese and fostering those language skills?

I: [16:51] Yes, so I want to learn-- So I want to continue learning Portuguese and become really, really fluent so that I'm not always asking, "how do you this," or "how do you say that?" But then I also want to learn other languages like Spanish and become fluent in French also.

A: [17:13] So how do you feel in your conversations that you have with other native speakers of Portuguese?

I: [17:19] When it's people that I'm pretty comfortable around with, like my family and stuff, I don't-- I mean, I love speaking Portuguese-- When I'm around people I'm more comfortable with, then I'm more comfortable speaking, especially if I mess up and stuff. But sometimes when-- Like if I go to Brazil, sometimes I get more nervous when I'm speaking because I don't wanna mess up, because I don't know, I just-- In a way I kind of feel a little bit ashamed if I mess up when I'm speaking Portuguese in Brazil, because that's my native language and I don't wanna be the person that goes, "oh, how do you say this," or "what is that word," or "what does that mean?" So when I'm in Brazil with some of my childhood friends or anything like that, I get a little bit more nervous when I'm speaking and I try to think of how I would say things sometimes.

A: [18:24] Interesting. Is that just with the content of your speech? Do you feel like your accent is pretty native?

I: [18:31] Yeah. I think for some words sometimes my English accent may come in a little bit because if I don't know a word in Portuguese I may use a similar word that I know in English and try to make it sound Portuguese-ish. But my-- I don't really have an accent when I speak Portuguese. Also my tone of voice completely changes.

A: [18:57] Mhm, it does.

I: [18:59] Completely changes.

A: [19:02] So moving back to the topic of ESL, English as a Second Language, could you tell me a little bit more about the structure of your ESL classes? I know you mentioned already that you went to a separate room to take the classes, but could you tell me a little bit more about that?

I: [19:18] Yeah, so in third grade they would take us out of-- I think it was whenever they did English, because I would stay in my regular class when they did math. But they would take us out whenever they learned English, and they would take us into a different room. And it was me and only two other girls. It was this really nice little old teacher who would have all these little flashcards and candy and stuff, and explain to us and teach us English. So my ESL class was very small, but other ESL classes, like the ESL classes they have at my high school, they're very large and it's many students. And I feel that those students are kind of separated from the rest of the school, which I don't think is very good, because then that prevents them from getting better at their English. Because if they're only surrounded by people who speak Spanish or, you know, maybe whatever language they speak, then they're not gonna be motivated to learn English. Which I think was a big factor for me, because I was only in ESL for a certain part of the day, and the rest I was thrown into a big classroom where everything they spoke was English and the only classroom I stayed in was math. So I think that being surrounded by others who speak English motivates you to want to learn English and communicate with others.

A: [21:06] So what else did you like or dislike about the structure of the ESL classes that you were in? What was helpful, what was unhelpful?

I: [21:16] I think I liked having a small class, because it felt more personal and I could learn better and stuff. I didn't like that whenever we took a standardized testing, I had to go to a different room with other ESL children. I didn't like that, because I didn't like being separated from my peers even though we took the same test. But I wish that-- I guess for some people it's helpful, but I never understood, because they never read anything out loud to me or anything like that, so I didn't understand why I had to go to a separate room. So I didn't like that part, being separated from my peers. But I liked the ESL classes. I think they're more helpful when they're small, because you can focus more attention on the students and make sure they're understanding everything that's going on.

A: [22:19] Was there ever any point where you felt thrust into a school setting and you didn't really know what was going on, or you felt like things weren't explained to you very well?

I: [22:31] First day of school. I had no idea what was going on. I sort of knew how to ask how to go to the bathroom, but I didn't really know. So the first day of school I had no idea what was going on. It took me a couple weeks to understand that snack time was a thing. We didn't have snack time in Brazil. I was the only kid who didn't bring snacks for the first two weeks of school, because I didn't know that was a thing. Cafeteria lunch was so gross, I didn't know it would be that bad. So it took awhile for me to start bringing my own food, and then I became the girl who brought home-cooked meals instead of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. So almost all of my third grade year was a very new experience for me and I was just very thrown into a environment that I was not familiar with at all. And it was really hard at first. I didn't like it in the beginning. I really wanted to go back, but my mom said no. But it got better as things went on. Oh, and also my ESL teacher tried to explain to me what a fire drill was, and I did not understand it and then those alarms went off and I had no idea what was going on. I think that all of my third grade year was just a very new experience where I was just thrown into a new environment and I was adapting to the changing situations.

A: [24:18] Who were the, kind of, key players in your third grade year? Trying to make sure that you knew what was going on and that you knew where you needed to be and what you were supposed to be doing. Who made you feel the most comfortable?

I: [24:29] I loved my ESL teacher. She was really nice and she was very helpful. My main third grade teacher, she was also very nice. I don't remember her name, but she was really, really nice. I remember what she looks like, though. And then there was a girl who tried to be my friend on the first day of school. She-- I don't remember her name, but she introduced herself. She was my first friend of my third grade year. She tried to be friends with me and it was really nice. And then definitely my mom and some of my family members who helped me with my English and reading.

A: [25:21] That's really nice. Did your ESL teacher speak any Portuguese?

I: [25:26] No. I don't even remember-- I think she knew some Spanish words, but I don't think she was fluent in Spanish at all. I think she mainly only spoke English. She was a very nice old white lady.

A: [25:43] So how does that work in an ESL classroom, with so many people coming from different language backgrounds and an ESL teacher that might not speak any of those languages? How do you communicate and what is that dynamic like?

I: [25:54] It's very hard. I guess, mainly it's just-- It would be more helpful if the teacher spoke, you know, either Spanish or, you know, some language that would help most of her students understand, because it's hard understanding everything in English. I still don't know why we would use a certain word here and not a certain word there. So it's very hard explaining everything in English when you don't know how to say anything in English. It would definitely be more helpful if the teacher spoke Spanish and they could explain, you know, why this happens or why this happens in Spanish instead of English where you're not gonna understand it very well. So it’s definitely hard, but I think in the end, it can be helpful, because then the students get used to learning English a little quicker because they have to understand what you're saying. And then they also use-- Well with me at least, they used a lot of pictures and-- Like when we were learning up and down, she used a chair, and she would put things above the chair and below the chair and things like that. So you know, imagery and doing little scenarios and stuff definitely helps.

A: [27:26] Do you think that kind of learning style for a language was more helpful for you to remember those things rather than having them just simply translated from Portuguese?

I: [27:36] Yes. I mean definitely having the English words translated into Portuguese was helpful. It still is today. But definitely having--seeing something being done or having a picture of it is more helpful-- is very helpful also. Because you know, you're not always gonna be able to translate a certain word into Portuguese. There's not always a perfect translation. So if you could see a picture of it or you could see it being done, that's definitely helpful for it to stick in your brain and for you to remember it.

A: [28:15] Interesting. So would you have changed anything about your ESL experience?

I: [28:22] I think I just wish that there would have been more kids in my ESL class. I liked it being very small, but then I also didn't feel like there were many people I could connect with in there since it was only two girls and they were twins and they spoke Spanish and I had a hard time communicating with them. So I think that maybe if there had been two more children, three more children in there, that would have made it a little better. But yeah.

A: [29:00] Do you think you would have had a much different experience if there had been maybe just one other kid who spoke Portuguese?

I: [29:08] Yeah, I think I would have-- I think if there was another kid who spoke Portuguese, I wouldn't have felt so excluded or left out. I think I would have been able to have that one friend who you could talk to, but I don't know. I don't think it would have affected my ability to learn English at all.

A: [29:37] Interesting, so you would have felt just as motivated?

I: [29:39] Yes, I think so. Because I would still have been surrounded by hundreds of other kids who spoke English.

A: [29:49] Interesting. So how do you feel, or how did you feel then and how do you feel now speaking one language at home and a different language at school and at work and in public situations?

I: [30:03] I like it. I mean, it's part of my norm. But sometimes I get mixed up if-- Sometimes I'm at school and I wanna say something in Portuguese. Or sometimes I'm at home and I have to say it in English, because I forgot how to say it in Portuguese. So I like it, but my brain can get a little crazy sometimes. But it's fun. I like being able to talk in a different language with my mom or my family members and not everyone can understand it. And I love when I go to stores and I hear other people speaking Portuguese, because I can pick it up instantly. I can hear it in people's accents when they speak English. And then whenever I hear it, I go, "Mom, they're Brazilian. They're speaking Portuguese."

A: [30:56] Can you tell the difference-- I mean, you probably-- Yes, the answer is yes-- between Brazilian Portuguese and Portugal Portuguese instantly?

I: [31:02] Yes. The accent, some of the vocabulary words they use-- We used to have friends who were from Portugal and sometimes I had a hard time understanding what they were saying, because their words would mean different things and their accent is very different than ours.

A: [31:20] So do you ever remember being monolingual? I know that was kind of a while ago, but--

I: [31:26] I just remember being-- When I still lived in Brazil, just speaking Portuguese all the time. And then when I was here, but then as soon as I came here, I started going to school. That was when I started learning English, but I definitely remember my time-- the years I spent in Brazil and Portuguese was the only thing I spoke.

A: [31:54] Does that feel really different to you?

I: [31:55] Yes. It feels weird, because, almost half of my life that I've lived until now, I have been speaking two languages. So it's weird to think that for the other half of my life, I only spoke one language, when now I speak two all of the time. So it's weird.

A: [32:24] Interesting. So do you have a language preference? Is there one you feel more comfortable in? And has that answer changed over time?

I: [32:32] Yes. So I used to feel a lot more comfortable in-- whenever I spoke Portuguese, but I think it's kind of-- I think it's a little bit more comfortable in English, just because I use it more often. So I think just because-- I think it's because I use it more often so I'm more comfortable speaking it, even though sometimes I'll get nervous, or I don't know how to pronounce things right, or my accent comes in a little bit, but I think I'm still more comfortable with English. With Portuguese, I'm still comfortable, but I have a harder time saying words sometimes than I do in English, just because I may not know it or I forgot it. But I'm still comfortable when I speak Portuguese.

A: [33:33] So if you're having a really deep conversation with a friend, you would rather it be in English than in Portuguese? Assuming that that person speaks both languages equally well.

I: [33:44] I think so. Because a lot of my cousins, they both speak Portuguese and English, and our dialogue is mostly in English. So I think I would rather have it be in English.

A: [33:57] What is that dynamic like with all of your bilingual family?

I: [34:01] It's funny, because I have to speak Portuguese with my mom and my dad and my sister and my aunt, but then I speak English with my cousins, with some of my cousins. With some of my other cousins, I only speak Portuguese. And then even the bilingual ones. And then my little cousins, I mostly speak English with them, because their English is better than their Portuguese. But then my aunt yells at us to speak Portuguese, so it's just a whole cycle of me speaking English and then getting yelled at for speaking English [34:44] speak Portuguese. But yeah, it's-- If you go to my house and my family is around, you'll hear Portuguese and English at the same time. And we'll speak a sentence that has Portuguese and English in the same sentence.

A: [35:04] Wrapping up, do you have any final thoughts on the ESL system in public schools? Maybe in North Carolina or really anywhere else? Can you draw from your own experience a little bit or maybe experiences that your friends have had?

I: [35:19] I think it definitely could be improved. Especially the one at Jordan High School where I go to school. I have a cousin who goes to-- who is in the ESL program at Jordan High School, and she's a sophomore. She was in it as a freshman and a sophomore, and her telling me, you know, of her experiences and me seeing other kids who are in ESL, I think it can definitely be improved. I think that they're too separated from the school environment. I mean, obviously you're gonna wanna sit with people, you know, who speak the same language so that you can communicate with them, but I think that their classes are too separated. I mean, obviously they're gonna go to ESL class so they can learn English, but then the other classes they go to, like math, it's ESL students. It's all ESL students. Regular English, all ESL students. Science, all ESL students. So I think that they could do a better job of integrating these ESL students into classes with regular students, because at the end, you're learning the same material. But if you're in a class with all ESL students and you have ten other kids in the class who speak Spanish, it's gonna be very hard to teach everyone the material when those kids are constantly distracted by their peers and stuff. So I think that the school could do a better job of integrating those ESL students into the school society and regular classes. And it could also raise awareness of all of the ESL students we have in the school. Jordan High School has over 2,000 students, and we have a lot of ESL students and refugees. So it could definitely raise awareness of the students that are in our school. And that can go for other schools, too. I'm not fully aware of how it is in other high schools and middle schools in North Carolina, but I think that integrating the ESL students more into the school society with regular classes and providing more information for the parents of how the school system works and registering for classes and everything like that.

A: [38:03] So would you say that the ESL classes at Jordan High School might be hidden on purpose, or is it just a lack of awareness kind of by accident, or lack of trying to get it out there?

I: [38:15] I think that it just has to do with-- Maybe initially whenever the ESL program at Jordan started, it might have been to keep them separated, and I don't think that if that was the goal-- I don't think it's the goal now, but we haven't done anything to change that. I think that now it's just an accidental thing where it keeps them separated, but it's also-- There's no one doing anything to try and change that situation. And then I also think there should be tutoring sessions available for ESL students so that they can get their English better.

A: [39:13] Going back to your cousin who's in ESL currently, does she-- Are there any other students in her-- female?

I: [39:22] Mhm.

A: [39:23} Okay. Are there any other students in her ESL classes that speak Portuguese, or is she the only Portuguese speaker?

I: [39:28] So there was one other girl who spoke Portuguese who had moved here from Brazil last year also, but that girl is not currently in ESL anymore, because her mom went into the school and-- or her stepmom went into the school and basically said a bunch of stuff and got her out of ESL, because they thought that she was okay going into regular classes and regular English and classes that she wanted to take, and not having to take ESL one more time.

A: [40:06] So do you think your cousin-- I know you can't really speak on her behalf, but has she mentioned anything about how she feels about being the only Portuguese speaker in high school versus elementary school as you were?

I: [40:23] I think that in the-- So she had the-- sort of the same feeling that I had whenever I talked to her. She told me that she felt very motivated to learn English so she could communicate with people around her, so we had sort of the same motivation. I think that she didn't feel, I think, as left out as I did, because she was better able to talk Spanish to the other students around her. So she was able to make some friends who did speak Spanish, so she had more friends to talk to. And then she had learned a little bit of English the summer before school started with us, and she had gotten-- Her, I think her aunt got a tutor for her so she could learn a little bit of English before school started so she could communicate a little bit. But yeah.

A: [41:32] That's cool. So would you say that in ESL, she has also learned Spanish?

I: [41:37] Yes. Definitely. She definitely knows Spanish. More Spanish than I do, probably.

A: [41:42] That's really cool. So do you have any final thoughts on anything that we've talked about in the last 41 minutes?

I: [41:52] No. I think I said everything. Definitely making the ESL system better, integrating more of the ESL students into the main school society and presenting them with more options. Like my cousin, she wanted to take biology honors, and they didn't allow her. They forced her to take a different science class. They forced her to take physical science with the other ESL students, which is an easier class, but-- I think that ESL is necessary if you don't learn English, but I think it could be better improved, and really in an-- I think also by-- If you integrate the ESL students into the school society, then they can better learn-- they're more motivated to learn English and can better learn it and we can help get rid of an accent that they might have, because they're talking more and more.

A: [43:11] Okay, well thank you for everything.

I: [43:14] Yes.

A: [43:15] That's it for now.
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