How to Learn A Language by Reading and Listening

In my first two articles outlining my methods for studying languages, I mentioned that I rely on reading both to learn new languages and to maintain the ones I already speak. However, I wanted to explain what I do in more detail, because my strategy differs from the more usual ones found in language books and classrooms. Generally, we’re told that we should just start reading, look up the words we don’t know and just slough through the book despite the difficulties. In the same vein, we’re advised to watch foreign films and listen to music.

The problem with this approach is that it takes a long time to learn a language in such a passive way. Of course, we should plunge into books we want to read as soon as we feel that we have enough of the basics and we should watch films and songs. The latter is especially important to get used to the rhythm and melodies of the language you’re learning and to create your own language bubble. (Watching films with subtitles, by the way, is not particularly effective, since our brains use the path of least resistance and effectively tune out the incomprehensible by focusing on the familiar.) I often tune into German, Portuguese or Japanese radio stations and listen to them as I cook or edit photos.  However, if your goal is to learn to speak the language, then you have to follow a different strategy when reading and listening.

I apply the method I learned from my comparative literature professor at university. The idea is to work with the text intensively and actively. Select the text you want to read, preferably something at your current level. It can be a book you’ve read already in your native language, and sometimes it’s interesting to see how differently a novel you know well sounds in another tongue.

Read the paragraph (or a small section of the text) and underline every word you don’t know. Then write these words in a separate notebook and look up their meanings in a dictionary. Write them down. Even if you’re reading on a Kindle, don’t be tempted just to look up the words with a built-in online dictionary and move on. You have to write them down.

Then think about what you’ve read and try to summarize it in your own words. If you’re lacking the vocabulary to do so in your target language, do in your native one. Write it down. Then try to do your best to translate what you’ve written.

Let me use this excerpt from a story by Nikolai Gogol, A May Night, to illustrate my point. Let’s imagine that I’m studying Russian, and I’ve read it in the original.

The Russian original:

“Звонкая песня лилась рекою по улицам села***. Было то время, когда утомленные дневными трудами и заботами парубки и девушки шумно собирались в кружок, в блеске чистого вечера, выливать свое веселье в звуки, всегда неразлучные с уныньем. И задумавшийся вечер мечтательно обнимал синее небо, превращая все в неопределенность и даль. Уже и сумерки; а песни все не утихали.

The English translation:

“Songs were echoing in the village street. It was just the time when the young men and girls, tired with the work and cares of the day, were in the habit of assembling for the dance. In the mild evening light, cheerful songs blended with mild melodies. A mysterious twilight obscured the blue sky and made everything seem indistinct and distant. It was growing dark, but the songs were not hushed.”

I read the text, look up the new words and try to summarize it. I write down, “it is a mild, balmy evening in a small village. Although it’s already dusk, the young people of the village are gathering to dance. The songs are heard through the village.” Then I translate it. If I don’t know some words, I look them up. If I can’t translate something close enough, I approximate. So, for the purposes of this exercise, it’s OK to make the translation simpler, such as “the evening is warm. It’s getting dark. Boys and girls are singing and dancing.”

The next step is to take another look at the paragraph and think about your reaction to the text. What does it make you think about? It can be anything at all. For instance, “the scene seems tender, peaceful and nostalgic. It makes me think of old paintings. It describes a cheerful scene, but not one of mindless revelry.” So, in Russian, I write down “nostalgia, distant times, life in a small village.”

Or my reaction could have been more prosaic, “If Gogol were writing about a typical Ukrainian village today, he would say, ‘the sounds of Russian pop rocked the village on an otherwise peaceful spring evening.'”  I might write down, “I hate Russian pop,” because well, I do.

The point here is not to produce a piece of lit criticism, but to engage with the text. Make yourself think about what you’ve read and prompt yourself to reflect out loud in the language you’re learning. At first, it might be difficult, but it gets easier to recall words and form sentences.

If you’re listening to an audio version of the book, then you should take a similar approach. Listen to an excerpt and try to repeat the text. Did you understand most of it? How many words did you catch? What did you miss? Rewind and listen again. Repeat the phrases as you hear them. If you haven’t understood the meaning after a few tries or if some words keep eluding you, then open the book and read the excerpt. Play the audio and repeat along with it. If there are any words you don’t know, you should write them down and look up them. Then summarize the text in your own words and your reaction to it.

And do articulate the summary and reaction parts out loud in your target language before writing them down. I mentioned it above, but it’s worth highlighting it again.

What do you do with the words you’ve written down? Do you study them? Do you make flashcards? In the end, it depends on the words themselves and on your goals. I find that authors have their favorite vocabulary, and if I’m reading a long book, I might look over the words time to time to refresh my memory. If I see among my list words that are particularly useful to me, then I make another “Victoria’s lexicon” list and learn them thoroughly. But if the list contains many words that I’m not likely to use, then I don’t focus on them more than I need to in order to understand the text.

If you’re working with a tutor, you can ask them to correct your summary and reaction sentences. This way, you’ll get to practice writing.

I won’t say that this is an easy method, but then again, I’m always wary of anyone proposing “effortless ways to learning a language.” My approach takes a lot of mental effort, because it engages you on many levels. It’s so effective that even with a couple of hours of this exercise a week, I guarantee that you’ll see results in your reading comprehension, writing skills and in your speaking ability.

This exercise aside, I also read in the more conventional manner, sometimes with a dictionary and sometimes simply by figuring out the meaning of the words from the context. Reading is one of the pleasures studying a new language, so why not partake more of it?

How I Learn Languages 1

How I Learn Languages 2

As always, please share what works for you.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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53 Comments

  • Annie: This is motivating me to start learning French again. I just don’t know what to pick, a novel, a short story, a text from a textbook to do your exercise. April 15, 2019 at 8:27am Reply

    • Victoria: Anything at all, Annie! Just pick a text you would like to read. I mentioned in my article working with a text at your level, but I should say that one shouldn’t be afraid of difficult texts. It’s more rewarding to read something that interests you, even if looking up words takes time than to sail through a boring, easy text.

      Short stories can be great, because finishing them will take less time than to finish a novel, and the sense of accomplishment is an additional boost. April 15, 2019 at 10:27am Reply

      • Annie: Thank you! April 15, 2019 at 11:38am Reply

        • Victoria: Do let me know what you end up picking. 🙂 April 16, 2019 at 1:54am Reply

          • Annie: I’ve chosen Le Petit Prince, because I used to like it. Sorry, my comment disappeared. I’m not sure what happened. April 17, 2019 at 3:06am Reply

            • Victoria: A great choice! 🙂

              Oh, it was my fault, as I was working on updating the site. You probably must have commented at that same moment. April 17, 2019 at 5:04am Reply

            • Karen A: Too funny, I was going to suggest it as I’ve started French class after a very long break. It’s such a beautiful book and a joy to read. April 18, 2019 at 6:04am Reply

  • Elena Wood: I love to read your posts with a cup of coffee, but today you almost made me spit it out on my laptop! I have been studying Russian, and had tried to listen to some playlists on Spotify to immerse myself further, but I agree with you, Я ненавижу pусский поп!

    I think your methods are much better at creating fluency than mine, though I am ok with that as I really just like to goof around for fun, but one thing that you hadn’t mentioned that helps me learn words and that I enjoy quite a bit is to look up the etymology of certain words. To use a very basic example, the Swedish word for turtle is sköldpadda, which means “shield toad”. Now I find it very easy to remember! (And if one were to take it a step further and sing to oneself “teenage mutant sköldpaddor” to the tune of the old cartoon, one would remember the Swedish word for turtles forever!) I use it for words I have a hard time rote memorizing. For one reason or another, the Russian word for brown wouldn’t stick, but when I looked it up, and found that it came from cinammon, I found it easier to remember somehow. More tethers in the brain, or something? Thanks for your wonderful posts! April 15, 2019 at 9:24am Reply

    • Victoria: What I detest even more is “Russian chanson.” I don’t know why these songs about life of crime and life in jail are called by a French word, but if you see “шансон” anywhere, beware! 🙂

      Your tip to look up the etymology is fantastic. And it’s fascinating, because you can see how there are many invisible roots tying languages together. For instance, from the Persian word “khub” means good. So, if you wish someone in Bulgarian “khubav den,” you hope that they have a nice day. April 15, 2019 at 10:25am Reply

  • Bela: I learned English at school and university, of course, and, back in the ’60s, by listening to Frank Sinatra and reading American movie magazines, without looking up any words — ever. I had a much bigger vocabulary than my school mates.

    As a literary translator, I only ever use a dictionary to remind myself of possible different meanings that may not come readily to mind. Time is often of the essence and it’s quicker to look up a word or phrase than think.

    There’s a school in Canada where all the lessons are in foreign languages. Kids learn about geography, say, in Italian, without having Italian lessons. I believe the best way to learn a language is to study a subject you’re interested in in that language. April 15, 2019 at 9:35am Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, absolutely. It’s important to engage your interests in whatever language you’re studying. That always gives the best results. April 15, 2019 at 10:19am Reply

  • Sandra: Dear Victoria-
    This is so timely, I was just talking about your blog yesterday at lunch with some friends. They were asking how I picked italki to learn Italian and I mentioned your blog posts. And just like that, today you have written some more!

    why do you think its important to hand write the words down on paper?

    This may sound silly compared to your Gogol reading, but I kept a pamphlet that came with my bottle of Omnia perfume. My online tutor listens to me read a small paragraph that is written about the fragrance and then she sends me a recording of herself reading and pronounces slowly the words that I had trouble saying myself. It may sound silly at first, but some notes in Omnia are beautiful sounding Italian words, like “zafferano” and “freschezza”.

    For me the most useful have been the online flash cards. Because I am at a beginner level and I need basics to memorize.

    I have noticed some things that have come up in my personality that have contributed to maybe why in the past I haven’t been able to really hold on to learning a language. One is, I think it maybe too hard and that creates road blocks and slows me down. Sometimes the amount of information is over whelming for me and I can’t handle it. In the past I have been shy about talking in the language I am learning and I think the person whom I speaking to thinking to themselves “oh my this is like torture” as I am slowly trying to find the words I want to say.

    For birthday a few weeks ago my neighbor who knows I am studying Italian got me this sweet book called In Other Words. One one side of the page there is Italian and on the other is English. April 15, 2019 at 9:57am Reply

    • Victoria: Actually, I was going to mention perfume pamphlets as I was about to reply to Annie above. One of the first books I’ve read in French years ago was a catalogue of Guerlain perfume bottles, with their short descriptions and stories about the perfumes they contained. The point is to read anything at all that captures your interest.

      I think that writing down is important to create a list of words you can refer to again and again. Plus, for those who visual memory, writing is often an excellent way to memorize words. The more you engage your different studying methods, the better the results. April 15, 2019 at 10:16am Reply

    • Victoria: Oh, and look! I’ve reviewed In Other Words a couple of years ago. In fact, I’ve just downloaded Lahiri’s Italian novel Dove Mi Trovo.

      https://boisdejasmin.com/2016/05/in-other-words-jhumpa-lahiris-italian-peregrinations.html April 15, 2019 at 10:28am Reply

      • Sandra: What a beautiful review!
        I haven’t started to read the book yet, but I love the opening quote:

        “..avevo bisogno di una lingua differente:una lingua che fosse un luogo di affetto e di riflessione.”

        So beautiful ! April 15, 2019 at 10:48am Reply

        • Victoria: I liked her premise of studying Italian to see a place of refuge, as it were, a quiet place. I think that Persian had a similar function for me, especially since I started studying it during a particularly trying period of my life, and I felt that escaping into that world helped me regain my footing in my day-to-day life.

          By the way, I don’t know how much you enjoy cooking, but lately I’ve been watching Giallo Zafferano’s channel (which was a recommendation with another reader):
          https://www.youtube.com/user/GialloZafferanoTV/videos?app=desktop
          They have a mix of classical and modern recipes, and they’re well-explained and well-narrated. April 15, 2019 at 11:01am Reply

          • Sandra: I do like to cook, and I have two toddlers who love to help out in the kitchen

            By the way, last night I finished Family Lexicon, the book you recommended in the last Language blog you wrote. I loved it! The father is such a character. His name calling! Hysterical. I don’t think I ever read a book where the dialogue had so many explanation points. April 15, 2019 at 1:28pm Reply

            • Victoria: I like how she doesn’t varnish the least-appealing traits of her father. Her sense of irony is one of my favorite aspects of her writing. April 16, 2019 at 1:56am Reply

      • Sandra: I have started in other words, and I am trying this technique without looking at the English translation on the other side. I look up the words I don’t know (which is a lot) and write them down and find the translation. April 18, 2019 at 8:37am Reply

        • Victoria: Oh, great work! You can then select the words you’re likely to use often and make Anki cards with them (or just regular flashcards). Or a list, whatever you prefer. April 18, 2019 at 8:59am Reply

  • Filomena: Thank you for the tips Victoria. I use a lot of the same methods as you, except you have given me a few more that I haven’t tried. April 15, 2019 at 10:16am Reply

    • Victoria: I am so happy to hear this! Do let me know how these tips work for you. April 15, 2019 at 10:17am Reply

  • Lillian: Thank you for these fabulous ideas. I’m definitely going to start applying them. I’ve felt my Italian stalling this year. Although I’m learning more of the the finer points of grammar in the classes I take, I’m losing my confidence in speaking – yet speaking is the whole point of learning a language! I’m sure your method is going to help! April 15, 2019 at 1:50pm Reply

    • Victoria: I always think that with the grammar, there is a fine balance. Too much can becomes too overwhelming, and in fact, hinder your ability to speak, because you start thinking of all of the possible ways you could say the sentence you have in mind using all of the grammar rules you’ve learned. At least, that’s what happens to me. For me it works best to complement grammar with speaking practice. It’s hard to generalize about learning grammar, however, since it depends on the language, but if I do an hour of grammar, then I would need 4x as much hours of speaking practice to make sure that I internalize it completely. Maybe more, if a particular rule is complicated.

      At any rate, the beauty of the exercise I’ve outlined is that you can do it anywhere. With a smartphone/Kindle, it’s even easier, since you can add your notes directly into the text. April 16, 2019 at 3:10am Reply

      • Lillian: That’s a very interesting point you make about needing to compensate grammar with speaking. It makes me realize that I’m just learning rules passively and it’s sapping my confidence. Yet when I began learning Italian my sentences may have been simple, but I spoke with confidence and joy. Your method makes me realize that I have to take matters into my own hands and be very much my own teacher. April 16, 2019 at 3:33am Reply

        • Victoria: Exactly! So, pick a grammar concept for the week (or even a month, since with grammar there is no point in rushing it) and focus on it. For instance, you’re learning “tempo passato prossimo” and so when you read a text you’ve selected for your reading exercise, try to use this past tense in describing the events happening.

          If you’re pressed for time and since your focus for the time being is on speaking, then you can do the reading exercise without writing it down. You’ll see results very fast this way too. April 16, 2019 at 4:01am Reply

  • Becky D.: The timing of this article is perfect. Now, I can approach my first Russian text with a game plan. Thank you!

    As for other tips, I like to write lists in Russian, such as my shopping list. I was thrilled when my husband offered to go grocery shopping a few days ago, and I was even more thrilled when I said, “Wait, I have to translate the list back to English.” April 15, 2019 at 7:34pm Reply

    • Victoria: Wow! Congrats on getting so far. Creating a language environment is important, because it makes the new language more natural to you and your day-to-day life.
      The English translation of Gogol’s text leaves so much to be desired, by the way. It completely misses the dark undercurrent that’s the trademark of Gogol. If you need any help with reading the original, please let me know. April 16, 2019 at 3:14am Reply

      • Becky D.: Спасибо! April 16, 2019 at 12:49pm Reply

  • OnWingsofSaffron: Yes, I find these sometimes archaic meanings fascinating too! I then also like to look at the same words in neighbouring languages. So the „shield toad“ you mentioned is exactly the same in my native language German: Schildkröte (Kröte being toad). And in Dutch: schildpad. April 16, 2019 at 1:49am Reply

    • OnWingsofSaffron: Sorry, this was meant as an answer to Elena Woods comment! April 16, 2019 at 1:51am Reply

    • Victoria: Interesting! In Ukrainian, turtle is cherepaxa, черепаха, and the root of the word means things like “a piece of clay pottery, tile.” April 16, 2019 at 3:22am Reply

      • OnWingsofSaffron: That‘s wonderful! Could be a word creation from Homer‘s Iliad! April 16, 2019 at 11:32am Reply

        • Victoria: And in Russian, cherep, the root of the word for turtle (also cherepakha, as in Ukrainian), means “skull.” April 17, 2019 at 5:05am Reply

  • Katerina: Hi Victoria,

    thank you for these posts on languages – and for the blog more generally. This is the first time I’m posting although I have been following you for some time.

    I recently managed to muster the courage to read a whole novel in German – Die Hauptstadt, by Robert Menasse, and it’s going much better/quicker than I thought, despite all the looking up of words, writing then down and often having to re-read and literally parse whole chunks of text before I can move on. But that’s half the pleasure of it 🙂

    I fully agree with you that reading something that interests you is essential – the risk with that of course is that you (I) don’t spend enough time digesting what you learn (new vocabulary, structures etc) as you can’t wait to move on with the text. I’m not sure I could do what you suggest (summarising/paraphrasing/translating bits of of text etc) for that reason alone! Having said that, I may well try your technique at some point with a short story or at least with a language I speak/read better.

    Thanks again for this blog! April 17, 2019 at 6:22am Reply

    • Laura: These posts also inspired me to comment for the first time. I should’ve done it sooner, since I love this blog. April 17, 2019 at 10:33am Reply

      • Victoria: Once again, thank you both. April 18, 2019 at 5:25am Reply

    • Victoria: You don’t have to try this exercise with the whole book, and sometimes I also can’t wait to read further to find out what happened. If I’m reading on the train, metro, airplane, etc., I often just articulate my summary/reaction inside my head and move on. Even this abbreviated exercise is effective.

      Anyway, I’m very happy to hear that you liked the post and thank you for your comment. April 18, 2019 at 5:24am Reply

  • Laura: This is my first comment, but I’ve been your reader for many years. I just wanted to let you know that your language learning posts inspired me and gave me motivation to learn French. I’m going to try your reading tips, too. Thank you for all you do here! April 17, 2019 at 6:45am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Laura, and welcome to BdJ! 🙂 I wish you best of luck with your studies. Bonne chance! April 18, 2019 at 5:24am Reply

  • Karen A: Really helpful ideas Victoria, thank you so much! Although my attendance has been a bit spotty due to travel and life, I recently started French class after many (many!) years. It feels so good to be learning it again. April 18, 2019 at 6:10am Reply

    • Victoria: Congratulations! It’s always such an exhilarating feeling to start–or even restart–learning a language. It’s like you’re opening a door into another world.

      I’m learning Uzbek now. The other day I went to the Turkish supermarket and I actually could understand what people were saying. Uzbek is different enough, of course, but being also a Turkic language, it shares a lot with Turkish. So, maybe Turkish might be the next language I’ll learn when my schedule allows it. I’ve always wanted to study it. April 18, 2019 at 6:27am Reply

      • Karen A: I think since they are both Turkic languages there are lots of common points. I’ve tried so many times to learn Turkish! I’ve put it on the back burner for now and went back to French.

        After learning that Josephine Powell – an incredible photographer and ethnographer who lived in Turkey and recognized the beauty of kilims and household Weavings when everyone was focusing on carpets – didn’t speak it I don’t feel quite so bad! (She’s on my Amazing Incredible Women list)

        Have fun with Uzbek, Samarkand and Bokhara are on my travel list – are you planning a trip??? April 18, 2019 at 6:46am Reply

        • Victoria: I read about Josephine Powell after you mentioned her in one of the comments, and she’s indeed incredible and inspiring. Turkic languages are tricky to learn, because they have a tendency to stick lots of information about the words and verbs into the suffixes, post-positions, etc. So, it’s as if you have to rewire your brain to speak them. Uzbek is interesting, because it has so many Persian loanwords, in comparison to Turkish.

          Yes, I am. 🙂

          By the way, in Ukrainian, we also say kilim for a carpet. April 18, 2019 at 6:57am Reply

          • Karen A: Rewiring my brain sounds like just what I need! It’s feeling a bit frayed…. April 18, 2019 at 7:28am Reply

            • Victoria: I think that you’re fine! 🙂 Either way, your current language lessons will certainly make for a great brain workout. April 18, 2019 at 8:13am Reply

  • David: I really enjoy your language-learning articles. My spouse is fluent in English and Portuguese (native language) and speaks Japanese and Spanish well. He told me he feels English is the easiest to learn to speak because there is less chance of offending people, that you rarely hear native English speakers say “Your mistakes are hurting my ears.” I’m not sure if I agree, but I remember being so scared when I studied French years ago and not using the “tu” and “vous” forms correctly, or in the wrong situation. When I lived in Japan with my partner, we were told by some Japanese friends not to bother learning keigo because it sounds fake when foreigners use it too much. When my partner and I went to Miami, people would respond to my partner in Spanish when he spoke Spanish, but with me, they would answer in English….I thought we had just about the same level of Spanish, but he looks “latino.”
    Have you ever experienced these linguistic “attitudes?” (for lack of a better word). I don’t let them stop me, but I have noticed things like this (but also I have many stories of people appreciating my attempts in their language.) April 18, 2019 at 12:15pm Reply

    • Victoria: I definitely agree with your partner. My theory is that the English speakers are so used to hearing their language spoken by people from different countries, and they just accept that foreigners use it and sometimes incorrectly, and that’s ok. In Asia, there are often these ingrained beliefs that foreigners can’t learn Asian languages. In Japan, the whole Japanese language education for foreigners is predicated on the idea that they can’t learn the language anyway. Which is why I finally started speaking and reading Japanese when I began learning it following my own method. But I didn’t find such attitudes in Japan speaking Japanese; on the contrary, I find Japanese to be essential for my travels and work there.

      Once when I was in Indonesia and met up with a local friend, he kept interrupting my conversations in Indonesian with other people to translate for me! I knew that he was trying to be helpful, but my Indonesian was fluent, so I had to ask him to stop. Politely, of course.

      Years ago I was told by a linguist friend to start any conversation with confidence and continue speaking with confidence, even if you’re aware that you’re making mistakes. Even if you’re aware that your accent is off and your syntax is shaky. Make sure that you polish the basic phrases that start the conversation. Then people generally assume that you’re fluent. If they do indeed switch to English, just continue speaking Spanish. Generally people will get the point that you want to speak their language. And the most important thing is not to take such things personally. People’s received ideas, preconceived notions, etc. come out so clearly in such seemingly innocent situation. Most of the time it has nothing to do with your level of language. April 18, 2019 at 1:40pm Reply

  • David: Thank you for your reply! Your theory about English rings true for me. And what your linguist friend told you is very logical…
    I love studying Japanese. I had very good experiences when I lived in Tokyo, despite what some native Japanese speakers said about foreigners using keigo. On a good day, I was probably intermediate level. One of my Japanese friends told me that I sounded earnest when speaking Japanese, that people knew I really was doing my best, so people loved to speak to me (I never experienced that situation some foreigners have where they speak Japanese, yet they are answered with “Eigo wakaranai.” )
    I’m currently living in Brazil and Brazilians are very, very tolerant of mistakes. Sometimes I’m amazed that people understand me, but they just seem to understand, despite all my many mistakes. My partner says it’s because Brazilians themselves make so many grammatical mistakes….language learning is definitely a wild ride! Who knows what the reaction will be. April 18, 2019 at 4:02pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’ve also never had such reactions in Japan. If your accent and intonation are good, it shouldn’t happen. Since the Japanese aren’t used to hearing foreign accents, it can be hard for them. In English, we’re so used to the most outrageous mispronunciations, so things like that don’t matter much.

      I love the Portuguese Brazilian accent. Even the Google translate audio function retains its characteristic flair. I learned the European Portuguese, however, since I was planning to travel to Lisbon. April 19, 2019 at 3:11am Reply

  • Aurora: Thank you very much for describing that interesting method, Victoria. When I wasn’t fluent in English I did read familiar books and that in itself was already very effective. Also watching films over and over again was entertaining and useful. April 19, 2019 at 4:04am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s definitely very useful to read familiar books, because you can learn to see patterns. And seeing patterns is one of the most important things for understanding the way a language functions. Obviously, you can learn a lot by reading. listening to songs and watching films, without doing my exercise, and one should absolutely do that. But since I’m talking about efficiency and a kind of intensive way to really progress quickly, this exercise is valuable. April 19, 2019 at 5:09am Reply

  • Inma: I love the idea of feeling engaged with the new language – or any other learning – so you really keep the effort it takes making something a part of you and your life.

    Thank you! April 23, 2019 at 8:39am Reply

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