Fractional Language Learning
All ideas expressed in Thor's Stories and The Passionate Skeptic are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influence, proselytize or persuade others to a point of view. He is pleased if his writing generates reflection in readers, either for or against the sentiment of the argument.

Asian EFL Journal Quarterly Vol. 9, No.4, December 2007

Fractional Language Learning

Thor May
South Korea


Abstract : Many users of a second language, especially English, have little productive mastery of the language. Rather, some requirement in their life forces them to use limited subroutines (maybe quite small and formulaic) which are effectively encapsulated as special elements within L1.

This paper proposes that fractional language learning is a valid objective for large numbers of users, and briefly examines some of the contexts in which it has a pragmatic application. It notes that much fractional language learning occurs outside of formal educational environments, and then goes on to consider how both the classroom teaching and evaluation can be adapted to give proper recognition to student achievements on a fractional scale. The paper suggests that this kind of graduated recognition is in fact likely to enhance outcomes across the full spectrum of language teaching, and can be consciously incorporated into curriculum design.

A paradigm shift to teacher acceptance (and community acceptance) of fractional language learning has strong implications for assessment practices. Most current measures of language assessment offer little or no recognition to the achievements of learners in the pre-production phase of acquisition. Attempts at language use in this phase are routinely punished by existing assessment tools. Partly as a result of this discouragement, large numbers of students never progress to independent language production. Fractional language objectives are one remedy for this deep flaw in language teaching outcomes.


Questions and Propositions


This paper is a set of questions and propositions rather than a report of achieved activity. The reader may disagree with the propositions, or may want to change them. The purpose here is to provoke debate.


1. What is fractional language learning?


FLL occurs where only a subset or fragment of a language is learned. This is a matter of degree of course. Even as a mature native English speaker, I am still learning English. However, the FLL label will be used in this paper to indicate an extremely narrow range of language competence.


2. How does FLL differ from the odd words or phrases that we sometimes remember from studying French or Spanish in high school?


2.1 FLL may indeed be a collection of remembered fragments from a supposedly comprehensive program. The emphasis in the FLL discussed in this paper is on putting language fragments to work, whatever their source.

2.2 FLL may also be a deliberately selected and limited subset of L2. In this case, the FLL is usually designed to be sufficiently self-sufficient to have some practical application. Slightly different is the idea of teaching a reduced form of the language. This has a long history going back at least to Charles Ogden’s Basic English in 1930.


3. What is the relationship between L1 and an L2 FLL set ?

3.1 Applied FLL is typically embedded in L1 to achieve some particular purpose. This kind of FLL is often used quite fluently. Depending upon user knowledge, the languages familiar to all participants, the social context and the actual topic, one language will typically act as a "matrix" into which fragments of L2 are inserted.

A matrix language (defined and described at length in Myers-Scotton 1993) is a morphosyntactic frame builder in bilingual speech into which islands from the embedded language are inserted (Myers-Scotton 1998: 290; quoted from Wertheim 2003)

3.2 FLL is sometimes used without reference to L1 . As tourists or visitors, we may use isolated foreign phrases to make ourselves understood. This kind of isolated monolingual FLL is often used without much confidence, and can be quite experimental.


4. What kind of roles or tasks can FLL accomplish?


4.1 Minimally, FLL can be just a word or phrase. Many languages in the world now have large numbers of these foreign words and phrases in circulation. Some may be confined to a profession or group. For example, I have seen Korean surgeons reports with many medical English phases structured within a Korean form.

4.2 The individual learner's collection of FLL expressions is usually assumed to mirror some school curriculum. This is rarely the reality. . Long lists of words memorized for academic grades are rarely useable or retained unless they become a part of an integrated process of genuine interest to the user, such as extensive reading ( Nation 2005). In fact, private FLL will be normally consist of fragments for which the learner has found some personal use in his L1 environment. It may be relatively unsystematic, or linked to a particular interest such as computer gaming.

4.3 Individuals may resurrect and elaborate on earlier fragments of language learned in formal schooling. An example might be the Korean shipping clerk who has to perform certain limited functions on English language waybills from visiting ships. He has learned to recognize elements of the form and write appropriate responses. He would probably be incapable of either writing a letter or holding a telephone conversation in English. This kind of situation is very, very common. Another example might be the Korean receptionist who has learned to meet and greet in English, but is quite unable to answer questions or give unscripted information. Again, this is very common.

4.4 Sometimes FLL can be a fairly complex and systematic closed set used in an occupational role, such as the language of airline pilots talking to control towers around the world. The Arabic that American occupation forces are taught to make contact with Iraqi citizens and checkpoints would be another example, though perhaps somewhat more flexible.


5. What is planned FLL ?


5.1 There is a branch of English teaching called "English for Specific Purposes". We could call this "planned FLL". Ten to twenty years ago it seemed to have a bright future, and special text books were written for a whole variety of professional specializations. I myself have taught various kinds of English for engineering courses. Specialist English courses have survived quite commonly in so-called "business English", "tourism English", and sometimes "medical English".

5.2 For a variety of reasons, the ESP field has not met its initial promise. Firstly, it seemed that there was a core of supposedly basic English that could be easily adapted to most professional needs with a little extra vocabulary. Secondly, English teachers as a group tend to have poor skills or aptitudes in specialized technical areas like engineering, so once employed in such positions, largely tended to teach what they had always taught.

5.3 The classroom assumption behind most kinds of planned ESP courses are that i) the L2 language learned will be embedded as a routine in L1; and ii) the embedded language will retain its code purity as an L2 routine.

5.4 The actual mechanism of embedding L2 into an L1 context is almost never thought about by teachers. The assumption of code purity enables teachers to proceed with the accepted wisdom that this is the only effective way to learn a language.

5.5 In contrast to teacher attitudes, linguistic and anthropological studies of code mixing show it to be a thoroughly integrated and patterned feature of successful bilingual speech behaviour (Wertheim 2003, Thordardottir 2006, González 2006).

5.6 If so-called English for Special Purposes (ESP) is to achieve its proper potential, educators will need to do a lot of careful, empirical research on how L2 can be effectively integrated or blended with L1 in both the classroom and the workplace.


6. Why is unplanned FLL unplanned ?


6.1 Relatively few people set out to learn "a part of a language". Someone may say, "I'm learning Chinese". They will not often say "I am learning to speak a fragment of Chinese", although that may be their private expectation.

6.2 Administrations may advertise a course in "elementary Chinese" but they never advertise that 95% of the people who undertake the course will not achieve anything like even the limited competence planned for in the curriculum. Indeed, if it is a credit based course, they will "pass" the largest part of that 95% of students who fail to achieve limited real competence.

6.3 Language courses would probably not be funded if the evaluation were genuinely tied to achieving the stated goals of most language courses. Nevertheless, some level of practical competence is the stated aim, and often the guarantee, of typical language courses. Is this a trivial contradiction? I think not. James Asher (2003) has made a widely advertised estimate that 95% of people who undertake a foreign language course in America never achieve any functional competence in it.

What percentage of Korean students achieve useful functional competence in English? At the moment we have no clear idea about how to answer that question because their is little consensus on the meaning of "useful functional competence in English".

6.4 I want to suggest here that "unplanned FLL" is a resource too, and that as teachers we should be making conscious use of it. In order to do that, we have to start out with a clear understanding of the fractional language resources in the speech community, plan how to use them productively, and develop realistic goals to nourish those resources within a mass educational context.

7. How common is unplanned FLL ?


7.1 Unplanned FLL is the most common outcome of foreign language programs in mass education settings everywhere. By formal evaluation standards, it could be called failure. In those terms, using the Asher criterion, language teaching is a failed profession (also see Murakami 2001; Cook 2001: chapter 7). ). Of course, the whole enterprise of applied linguistics is largely built around the proposition that “instructed language learning” (Ellis 2005) can be significantly improved. For a host of reasons ranging from politics to the cultures of administrators to the sources and training of teachers worldwide, the scope for overall improvement in mass education outcomes may be very limited.

7.2 Note that foreign language teaching in formal mass education programs, as well as mass learning failure, are rather recent phenomena. Foreign language learning by private individuals has occurred successfully since the beginning of time. Historically also, most people on the planet have been bi- or multilingual, but not as a result of mass education. This is still true today. The biggest change has been that the status of a language now directly relates to the likelihood of it being formally taught to whole populations, as opposed to being merely “picked up” ( Groff 2003).

Sometimes modern students, immigrants or workers find themselves in the position of learning a local language in the street informally while simultaneously learning an international language formally in classrooms. This makes for an interesting comparison of methods and outcomes (Alptekin 2005).


8. What is the classroom starting point for foreign language teachers promoting FLL?


The whole issue of the interface of pedagogy with language teaching has been much discussed but little resolved (e.g. Urr n.d.). Many of the conflicts have been less about students than about turf wars between disciplines (Miyagawa 1995). This paper is concerned with only one aspect: fractional language learning. Explicitly treating FLL in the classroom is a very complex and mostly unexplored dimension. Here I will offer a few initial comments.

8.1 If language teachers wish to make effective use of FLL as a philosophy and goal for instruction, they face the rather difficult task of establishing the existing FLL achievement of each student. Formal test results that students bring to a course are unlikely to be of much help in this process.

8.2 The scope and nature of L2 that students have some grasp of is not something that they can articulate themselves, especially in the pre-production stage of learning (which defines most L2 students in mass teaching institutions).

8.3 Frequent in-course diagnostic testing and evaluation before deciding what to teach is not is widely practiced in classrooms in many countries . In fact, it would not occur to whole categories of teachers or administrations, both of whom assume that some text book is roughly suitable for the "class level". On the other hand, where professional judgement does outrank the formal curriculum, constant fine-tuning can make an "impossible" teaching situation workable :

Teacher D: We have twenty six languages represented here. Some of our children come from South India. They don't even know Hindi. Some boys and girls have two years of preschool. Others have no preschool. They may come from the rural areas. I watch to learn what they need. You can see why we revise and repeat. Sometimes I can't follow my lesson plan to the end. (Indian primary school teacher, as quoted by Piller and Skillings 2005).

8.4 No wonder students are widely alienated! The individual with a medical or legal problem expects personal attention to their need, not a generic solution for all people of their age and cultural type. Such personal attention is assumed to be almost precluded by definition in mass language teaching.


9. How does FLL differ between the classroom and self-directed study?


9.1 There is ample evidence that second language learning is an achievable goal for students at every level of intelligence and academic aptitude. In all societies, every individual can talk, and in truly multilingual societies, large numbers of individuals can talk in more than one language. That evidence of success however is mostly not found in mass education programs. It is found in more or less informal language acquisition by individuals in traditional societies worldwide. Even today, 95% of the world's languages are exclusively oral, with grammars that are undocumented as far as the users are concerned.

9.2 The challenge which this paper poses is how to translate the traditional informal language learning procedures and attitudes into success with mass teaching procedures.

9.3 Individual learning is like selective eating by the individual to satisfy personal needs and appetites. As with eating, it is regulated by the individual himself. Both the food and the language are chosen as a matter of personal taste. The situation of the moment controls what is taken in. Mass teaching on the other hand tries to be the equivalent of forced feeding (Greenberg. n.d.). You can more or less force feed battery chickens to fatten them up, but in language learning the evidence is overwhelming that force feeding brains a fixed diet of information is hugely unproductive. The individual still struggles to regulate his intake in a mass education context, though the process is often subconscious.

9.4 If the individual believes, rightly or wrongly, that the input offered cannot be actively related to his present need and state of knowledge, than that input will be rejected. Since mass education is always an imposed simulation rather than "real life", the decision to reject is more common than the decision to accept.


10. How can classsroom activities be adapted to emphasise a focus on successful FLL ?


10.1 The first step in this process is to link classroom activity with real world challenges on a micro-scale. Students, teachers and administrations all know that the classroom is a simulation. What, however, is it simulating? Is it a shadowy assumption of "life", which nobody can really specify for a roomful of different individuals? Is it a pseudo reality of "jobs" or "university study" which in the end remain unreal to the student? So-called competency curriculums seem to make the reality link, but widely fail to persuade students of the fact. A genuine real world challenge is an activity which seems, to the student, immediate and significant. This might be surviving an attack of mutant zombies for a game player, or explaining medical symptoms to a doctor for an immigrant factory worker.

10.2 Educators have much to learn from the advertising industry, which has made an art of persuading citizens of needs and urgent desires which they never knew they had. In other words, an effective language teacher is going to be more than a mere instructor. He is going to going to have a constant dialogue with his students at a very personal level, and be an expert in directing their tastes, ambitions and secret wishes into channels which nourish second language use.

10.3 I think - and this is a personal view - that to truly nourish second language use for most people must imply a blending of languages, both in the classroom and out of it, and especially in the early stages of learning a new code. If it is socially expected and normal for speakers to switch languages, many will explore and develop the new avenues of expression. This what happens in traditional societies. This is what has happened spontaneously to the mobile phone generation with their obsessive new language of texting (Green and Oldham 2006).


11. Does code blending and code mixing interfere with L2 acquisition?


11.1 Many of that minority who successfully learn a second language in schools say that interpreting, translating or generally having L1 around interferes with their thinking in L2. We have to respect that. A hundred years of teaching orthodoxy has also mostly insisted that the "direct method" (i.e. excluding L1) is superior. Very conveniently this has also led to a belief that native language teachers are automatically superior to teachers who have learned the target language in later life. Happily, some non-native teachers of English are now challenging this (Murakami 2001).

We are not going to resolve this debate here. However, it is worth making a few points.

11.2 The majority of the world's multilingual populations have achieved that status in code blending environments.

11.3 Human brains differ greatly in their toleration of "foreign matter". Political preferences are an obvious outcome of this, but it affects all kinds of learning. Some people do adapt happily to a shock immersion into the icy water of a new code. Others like to adapt gradually, with just a taste of the new and plenty of the familiar language at least up to intermediate level.

11.4 Learners' needs change with their skill level. What is workable for an advanced student is often not workable for a beginner, especially the large majority who historically have never become advanced language students.

11.5 Even a classroom situation, the use of L2 between students tends to be unnatural and forced (Viney n.d.). This is true even with advanced students. Hence to difficulty of getting students to "discuss" or "do conversation". Where meaning is the prime concern, it is natural to use the language of greatest facility, L1, if the other interlocutor shares it. One solution to this is to deliberately have students interpret and translate (Yagi 2000). For example, one student can whisper L1 into the second speaker's ear, while the second student does a simultaneous interpretation. This gives a functional role to both languages, and the skills acquired are genuinely useful. The process can be a little tricky for a monolingual teacher to monitor, but I get around that by using a bilingual text.

11.6 The human brain is a very plastic medium (Hoiland 2007; Chapman 2000). Students who learn in classrooms with an ideology of language purity are hardly likely to develop mental pathways that make switching and blending easy for them. Those who adopt blending from the outset are likely to develop a much more fluid mental relationship between the languages they wish to use.


12. What are the rewards and punishments for FLL ?


12.1 The measure of success in informal language learning is immediate social, or sometimes employment survival. The individual knows very clearly from moment to moment what he needs to learn. For example, I spent a part of my last vacation in at a conference in Cambodia where a surprising number of young people from peasant villages have learned to make contact with foreign tourists, and persuade those tourists to accept their services. Their motivation to learn was reinforced concretely on a daily basis. Their communicative success was measured in instant cash. That's pretty powerful.

12.2 Language teachers don't usually have cash bonuses to hand out to learners. However, they can dispense criticism very cheaply, which is a big disincentive, and they can waste students' time with classroom and text book "busy work", which is even more devastating to the will to learn. Many experienced teachers realize the importance of short daily goals and quick feedback (Ryan 2001), but are still unable to offer goals and feedback which individual students find significant.

12.3 Somehow language teachers need to get classroom language learners into a similar state of mind to that experienced by successful informal language learners. They especially need to establish credible and if possible tangible rewards for immediate achievement.

13. What advantages do informal language learners have over classroom language learners?


13.1 Informal learners decide what is relevant for themselves.


13.2 If informal learners study from books or other media privately, they choose the material themselves. They mix and match, they abandon unproductive resources, or perhaps pick them up again at a different stage of learning.

13.3 In real communicative situations, informal learners make use of whatever resources are available. They will use bad grammar, half forgotten words or terrible pronunciation if necessary. They guess shamelessly from the context, and use body language.

13.4 Where the other speaker shares some L1, informal learners often code switch and code mix without embarrassment, especially in those cultures which do not stigmatize this (i.e. most multilingual communities).

13.5 Informal learners get genuine satisfaction, sometimes even instant monetary reward, from successful communication. In the very least, they work on immediate personal or employment problems.


14. What advantages do classroom language learners seem to have over informal language learners?


14.1 Classroom language learners are offered an off-the-shelf learning package which they presume has been chosen by experts.

14.2 Classroom language learners are under the constant care and guidance of a teacher they presume to be a language teaching expert.

14.3 Classroom language learners experience the advantages and disadvantages that come from doing things in a group. They can be motivated by peer support, or sometimes discouraged by peer and teacher disapproval when the going gets tough.

14.4 They have ready made partners at a similar standard for language practice.

14.5 Time is formally set aside for language study.

14.6 Students are under pressure to conform to a regular program of classes and other practice. In essentially monolingual societies, this organized language study pressure may be a necessary discipline for many individuals, especially the young.

14.7 Their progress is evaluated, students believe, by language teaching experts.


15. Do the advantages of classroom language learning outweigh the advantages of informal language learning?


15.1 For a motivated and self-directed learners, informal language learning seems to work better. Some such learners may also opt for a certain amount of tutoring.

15.2 Where the culture as a whole is multilingual, the daily environment tends to be sympathetic to informal language learners and gives them ample opportunity to practice, mix languages and make errors along the path to practical competence. Historically, this has worked for large populations, both literate and illiterate. The Internet now appears to be creating transnational cultures in discussion forums, chat rooms etc. which are very open to multilingual experiment.

15.3 Where the culture is predominantly monolingual and intolerant of second language usage in daily communication, only a minority who are highly motivated, who have specialized needs, or who have an unusual aptitude for language learning usually succeed at a level practical for effective communication. That is, classroom language learning fails the majority.


16. Will language teaching ever be efficient for the majority in mass education systems ?


16.1 Large classes running at one speed are a shocking waste of time and money for learning any language. Korean public primary, secondary and tertiary classes often contain forty or more poorly motivated and poorly taught low level learners. They may even be called "conversation classes".

16.2 Almost by definition, crowd members are discouraged from thinking individually. The are vulnerable to propaganda, but have little space for personal adaptation and growth. The only way mass language education will ever succeed is to shatter the mass into small or individual learning cells, working at their own pace and enjoying immediate validation and reward.

16.3 Attempts to re-mould mass foreign language education into a more natural process have a long history, going back to Tracy Terrell's Natural approach in the 1970s, James Asher's TPR also from the 1970s, Stephen Krashen's and others' long campaign to allow students a great deal of listening before they are required to speak, and many researchers since (Buxton 2002). These efforts have all grown out of the manifest failure of mass language education for huge numbers of students, and the educationally stupid public regimentation and private cognitive fragmentation implicit in typical classroom procedures. These reform efforts have generally failed in institutions because they have been overridden by ignorance, administrative requirements and the daily management imperatives of controlling large numbers of mostly young and often reluctant students. It is unlikely that this pattern will change while language education is based on an industrial production line model. There are some attempts to change the general mass education paradigm (e.g. Miner 2005) but it is an enormous task.

16.4 The individuation of language teaching poses major classroom management problems. The intelligent use of emerging technologies offers some hope in this, but there will have to be a revolution in the thinking of both teachers and administrators (May 2005).

16.5 Both teachers and administrations need to develop methods of evaluation that contribute to language learning success, not language learning failure. This would include the lesson by lesson recognition of fractional learning achievements in practical contexts, as distinct from academic busy work such as answering multiple choice questions (Shaaban 2001). The reliable evaluation of anything like global competence requires detailed individual observation of naturalistic language behaviour and, one study estimated, at least six thirty minute observation sessions (Gomez et al 1996). That is not a sensible proposition under normal classroom conditions. However, measuring cumulative fractional language task achievements does have potential as a metric of progress.

16.6 Between humans, money is probably the most universal and powerful medium of exchange. It may be possible to use it creatively in language teaching as a reward, but the judgement mechanisms would have to be absolutely objective to avoid serious conflict. Gaming environments (electronic and physical) are a possible option here. For example, course enrolment could involve a cash deposit (from the student, or by scholarship), which could be recovered daily in micropayments for achieving particular fractional language tasks.

16.7 Online virtual worlds make very effective use of virtual reward systems. Examples would be the creation of avatars who strive for status and achievement, usually without threatening the identity of their real world owner. The owner is nevertheless motivated to promote the avatar. Rewards include access rights to various privileges, rank, peer status, winning contests, skill levels permitting the creation of virtual environments or machines, and virtual-world money. All of these have the potential to drive true language learning. They would however require teachers and consultants with the right skills, time and resources to manage such scenarios. The American military is now investing significant funds in this kind of simulation (Tactical Language Training LLC 2007).

16.8 Language is a tool. Most people achieve the skilled use of any tool by focusing on using it to do tasks which they find significant. On the whole they are not much interested in tool-making. They want to use footballs, not know how they are made. They want to use mobile phones and MP3 players, not understand the technology behind them. Similarly, they are motivated to use language, not understand the mechanisms of its mental construction. Teachers of course, and their behind the scenes lesson plans, should demonstrate some understanding of the mechanisms. (See Winborne 2002 for an example of such preparation). As with most complex tools, with involvement comes an interest in technique to maximize skill mastery. Thus, on the whole language learning and teaching is about finding credible and motivating language uses at each skill level. Virtual world creation is one option just discussed, but it can be project work, or sports, or medical practice, or stock broking, and so on. The challenge is for the teacher is to design and manage these environments in ways that do progressively teach, enhance and reward language learning. The whole domain of electronic language coaching is especially challenging with young children, who have quite different levels of cognitive development and patterns of attention from adults ( Milton & Garbi 2000). Much existing “educational software” is based on a fallacy that simple or childish interfaces need only be backed by trivial activities.

17. Since South Korean culture is not sympathetic to multilingual usage amongst Koreans, what can be done?

17.1 Teachers should be actively educating the public and administrations about the practical limits of foreign language learning when code switching is stigmatized.

17.2 Teachers should be actively educating the public and administrations about the nature of language change. Korean absorbed Chinese influence for 2000 years without losing its distinctive character. Undoubtedly it did change, like all healthy languages do, including English. Koreans need to understand and accept that Korean itself will inevitably absorb English influence, but that it will still be Korean (Lee 2004).

17.3 Teachers need to seek out and identify domains where English (or another desired second language) can be actively used. In fact, this matter should be in open, public discussion through the media and other forums. The Internet and electronic media are themselves major vehicles for such domains.

17.4 Teachers need to seek out and identify situations where fragments of L2 (e.g. English) are routinely embedded in L1 (Korean). This embedding may be in writing or in speech. It needs to be discussed as a practical matter, not stigmatized as "Konglish" (Kent 1999; Lovmo 1999).

17.5 Teachers need to identify and discuss with students the fractional L2 skills that they have. There is a need to work together to find uses for these skills without any risk of academic or social penalty.

17.6 The whole multilingual scene in South Korea needs to lighten up. When playing around with language, including Korean, is seen as fun and interesting, the learning process becomes far easier.


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Asian EFL Journal Quarterly Vol. 9, No.4, December 2007; presentation : Global Congress English International Language Conference, Korea University, Seoul, May 26, 2007


Bio: Thor May has a PhD in language teaching productivity. He has been teaching English to non-native speakers, and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. At the the time of writing he was teaching at Chungju National University, South Korea. Many of his papers, essays and stories may be seen on his website at ; e-mail .

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Doubt well, do what you can, then let it be. Presidents, priests, wage slaves, hustlers, men and women, kids, we all live by the grace of those we love to despise...

I don't care what you believe in, so long as you don't believe in it too strongly. A belief is a weapon in the armoury of your heart, and its razor edge will murder the innocent. The ice, the fire of your passion will seduce mundane men and women. Your clarity will excite respect. And the first demagogue who comes along with a key to your heart's armoury will wrest the weapon from your moral grasp. The first cause which wears the colours of your belief will enlist you as a soldier in ravaging crusades. Peace friend. Keep your passion to doubt with. Our civilization is a simple matter of live and let live, of giving dreams a go, but stepping back with a wry smile when we get it wrong. Let the fundamentalists perish in their own pillars of fire. Spare a dollar for the living, and have a nice day. 

Thor @1 November 1991

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