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Autonomy in language teaching and learning: How to do it

Phil Benson
Macquarie University

If you are in doubt, think it out by yourself. Do not depend on others for explanations. Suppose there was
no one you could ask, should you stop learning? - Zhu Xi 朱熹 1130-1200
You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him find it within himself. - Galileo Galilei 1564-1642

This paper is largely based on ideas developed in Benson (2011), which discusses the
theory and practice of autonomy in language teaching and learning at length. But it is also
intended to address a specific concern that that is not directly addressed there, but has
often been raised by teachers when I have presented my ideas on autonomy in different
parts of the world. In question time at the end of one presentation a teacher stood up and
commented that autonomy is a very good idea in theory, but it would not work in the
country that she lived in. How, she asked me, could she make autonomy work there?
Because I knew very little about the education system in her country, I could not answer
her question right away, so I asked her to tell me more. It turned out that in her country
education was rather strictly controlled by the government, at least in the secondary
sector in which she worked as a teacher educator. Language teaching and learning were
examination-driven; teachers were required to teach from a textbook and follow the
instructions of their superiors; and if they deviated from the plan, the students themselves
might be the first to complain. Autonomy might work well where there was more
freedom in the education system, but it would not work well in the system that prevailed
in her country.
As it happened, this description of an education system in which teachers find it
difficult to apply the idea of autonomy in the classroom because their own autonomy is
constrained was familiar to me because it describes more than one education system in
which I have worked. I knew how to answer this teacher educator’s question, I thought,
but not in the few minutes that were available. I did the best I could, but resolved that in
future I would begin my presentation from her question, rather than wait until it was
raised at the end. In this paper, therefore, I want to tackle the question of how we can

This paper is based on presentations at several conferences. It was first published in its current form,
under the author’s copyright, in the Program Book of the 21st International Symposium on English
Language Teaching, Taipei, November 2012. This version of the paper is released to the public domain.
While public domain implies that that the work can be used by anyone for any purpose, academic writers
should note that proper attribution of the source may be required in order to avoid plagiarism. To cite this
work, please use the following form:

Benson, P. (2013). Autonomy in language teaching and learning: How to do it ‘here’. Unpublished paper.  

make the theory of autonomy work ‘here’: ‘here’ being wherever you or I live and work.
In order to do this, I will begin by outlining some relevant aspects of theory, then discuss
the idea of ‘constraints’ on teacher autonomy, and conclude with some practical
suggestions for what I call ‘pedagogical strategies for autonomy’. The main point that I
want to get across that the theory of autonomy is not a comprehensive blueprint for the
practice of teaching and learning. Instead, it works best as a kind of conceptual toolkit to
be used at various levels of educational decision-making, including the individual
teacher’s. The important question is not whether we are capable of ‘producing’
autonomous language learners or not (a task that is beyond the capacities of any
individual teacher or course), but of the factors that we take account of when we make
the decisions that we make. First, we need a way of talking about the theory of autonomy
in language teaching and learning that allows us to work towards this way of thinking
about practice.

Defining autonomy
Autonomy is first of all a philosophical concept concerned with the relationship of
the individual to society. Its origins lie in an Ancient Greek word that referred to the right
of conquered cities to maintain their own laws. Many centuries later, the German
philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) adopted this word and developed the idea of the
development of personal autonomy as a principle of an ideal society of self-governing
individuals, which would treat individuals as an ‘end’, and never as a ‘means’ towards
other ends. In the 19th century, the British philosopher John Stuart Mill’s (1806-1873)
also discussed the social ideal of mutual respect for individual sovereignty. His ideal
society was based on the single principle that individuals should be free to do as they
choose provided they cause no harm to others. These two principles underlie modern
conceptions of personal autonomy.
The fundamental idea of autonomy in learning is both older than this, as the
quotations from Zhu Xi and Galileo at the beginning of this paper suggest, and more
modern, as the term dates back no earlier than the 1960s. In its modern form, the idea of
autonomy in learning has developed from a number of sources, including education
reformers such as John Dewey, Paolo Freire, Ivan Illich and Carl Rogers, work on
self-directed learning in adult education, and constructivist theories of learning, which
hold that knowledge is not simply transmitted and acquired, but involves the active
construction of meaning by individual learners in social interaction with others (for more
detailed discussion of these sources, see Benson, 2011: Chapter 2; Gremmo and Riley
1995; Little 1991). These sources contribute much to what we might call the ‘normative’
character of the theory of autonomy as a theory of learning, which begins from the
assumption that ‘learning’ is not the same thing as ‘being taught’. Teaching clearly
contributes to learning, but ultimately individuals are the agents of their own learning.
The more involved they are in the process of teaching and learning, the more effective
their learning. As Little (1994: 431) expresses this, ‘all genuinely successful learning is in
the end autonomous’.
Although it is often said that there are many different ways of defining autonomy in
learning, I believe that there is a good deal of consensus in the literature on two points.

First, that learner autonomy is an attribute or capacity of the learner – analogous to, and
possibly a component of, personal autonomy (Benson 2008) – that must be developed
and sustained over time through the conscious efforts of the learner. Second, as a capacity,
learner autonomy is concerned with the exercise of ‘control’ over learning, or as others
have put it, taking ‘charge of’ (Holec 1981) or ‘responsibility for’ (Scharle and Szabó 2000)
For this reason, I have proposed that autonomy can be best defined as a capacity to
control one’s own learning (Benson 2011: 58). The problem with this definition is that it
does not tell us exactly what autonomy in learning involves. This is a problem of
description rather than definition, however, and it is acknowledged that autonomy is not
‘a single, easily described behaviour’ (Little 1990: 7). The problem arises because there
are many different ways of exercising control over one’s learning: autonomy ‘can take
numerous different forms’ and ‘manifest itself in very different ways’ (Little 1991: 4).
This means that different definitions of autonomy often turn out to be different
descriptions of autonomy, in which particular ways of being autonomous take over the
definition of the broader concept. The approach to addressing the problem of
definition/description that I have adopted, therefore, is to try to identify potential
components and dimensions of autonomy in language learning, which involves
interrogating and breaking down the two key concepts the definition: ‘capacity’ and
‘control’. This is an important conceptual strategy in the context of the argument that I
want to develop in this paper, because it underpins the idea that teachers can work upon
the individual ‘parts’ of autonomy without necessarily trying to construct the ‘whole’ (a
hypothetical task that is, in any case, impossible, because it is likely that no individual is
capable of possessing all the potential attributes of the autonomous learner).

What is a capacity?
A capacity specifies what a person is capable of doing, or has the potential to do,
rather than what they actually do. When we say that autonomy is a capacity, therefore, we
are saying that it describes a potential within individuals, and not a set of learning
behaviours (for which we might use the term ‘autonomous learning’ – i.e. learning in
which a capacity to control learning is displayed or required). Holec (1988: 8) explains
this in the following way:
…the autonomous learner is not automatically obliged to self-direct his learning
either totally or even partially. The learner will make use of his ability to do this
only if he so wishes and if he is permitted to do so by the material, social and
psychological constraints to which he is subjected. (my italics)
In this quotation, I have italicized what I see as the three main components of a capacity
to control learning, which are represented in Figure 1 as overlapping circles of ability,
desire and freedom.
Ability, in Figure 1, refers to skills and knowledge in two broad domains: study and
language. A capacity to control language learning implies the possession of certain study
skills (which are usually represented as being concerned with planning, monitoring and
evaluation – Holec, 1981) and knowledge of the target language that is adequate to

controlling the learning task in hand. The component of ability has also been represented
in terms of the more technical categories of ‘metacognitive’ and ‘metalinguistic’
knowledge and skills (Wenden 1998; Little 1997). Desire refers here to the learner’s
intention, or ‘wish’ to learn a language or carry out a particular learning task and it is
assumed to be informed by particular purposes (a notion that is not quite the same of that
of ‘motivation’, which I see as a more complex construct). Freedom consists in the
degree to which learners are ‘permitted’ to control their learning, either by specific agents
in the learning process or, more generally, by the learning situations in which they find

Figure 1: What is a capacity?

The idea behind Figure 1 is that autonomy develops most in the space where the
three circles of ability, desire and freedom overlap. This space appears to be a relatively
small one, but as teachers we have an influence over all three circles. Teachers can
influence learners’ study skills and language knowledge; their desire to learn a language,
and the degree of freedom that they have to control their learning. An increase in the size
of one circle will also increase the size of the area where all three circles overlap
(although we should also bear in mind that we are capable of reducing the size of the
circles, as well as increasing them). At the same time, we can only influence the
components of a capacity for autonomy. Other factors also play a part and it is ultimately
through the learner’s own agency that a capacity for autonomy develops. Figure 1, thus,
provides us with a way of thinking about teaching and autonomy in terms of influence, an
influence that can both help or inhibit the development of the various components that
make up a capacity for autonomy.

What is control?
Control means having the power to make choices and decisions and acting on them,
but what exactly do learners control when they control their learning? Benson (2011)
tackles this question in a chapter in which I attempted to identify the different ways that
learners control learning ‘naturally’, or independently of teachers’ efforts to help them do
so. The result of this was a model of dimensions of control over learning, which again
uses three overlapping circles to represent the dimensions of learning management,
cognitive processes and learning content (Figure 2). As there are many possible ways of
controlling learning within each dimension, I will give only one or two examples of each
to clarify what I mean by learning management, cognitive processes and learning content.

Figure 2: Controlling what?

Learning management, in Figure 2, refers to the day-to-day practices that make up

language learning – the ‘where’, ‘when’ and ‘how’ of learning. Making a study plan is a
relatively straightforward example of control over learning management; students who do
not plan may manage their learning in other ways, for example by making a habit of
putting themselves in situations where they need to use the target language. Cognitive
processing is probably the least well-understood dimension of autonomy. It also involves
control over the ‘how’ of language learning, but in a cognitive, rather than behavioural,
sense. There is an area of second language acquisition research concerned with ‘noticing’
and ‘attention’ to language input, in which the term ‘control’ is often used (Bialystok
1994; Wickens, 2007). Briefly, in learning units of language, we need to control
attentional processes so that we notice and attend to them and process them so that they

are learned. Other aspects of control over cognition in language learning that I have
discussed are the exercise of megacognition and reflection. Learning content is concerned
with ‘what’ and ‘how much’ of a language is learned, which is linked to the ‘why’ of
language learning. As a foreign language is not a pre-defined or fixed body of knowledge,
decisions have to be made about what to learn. Control over learning content, therefore,
implies a match between what is learned and the learners’ purposes. Learners control
learning content by choosing what they want to learn, but they can also control learning
content in a negative way by failing to ‘pay attention’ in class (which is often interpreted
as ‘lack of motivation’ to learn the language as a whole).
As in Figure 1, the idea behind Figure 2 is that autonomy develops most in the
relatively small area where the circles of learning management, cognitive processing and
learning content overlap. Again, teachers can influence any of the dimensions of control
and an increase in the size of one circle will expand the size of the area where the three
circles overlap. And, again, this influence can be a matter of both helping and inhibiting
the development of autonomy, of increasing or decreasing the degree to which learners
are capable of controlling their learning.

Personal relevance
My approach so far has been to try to ‘break down’ the concept of autonomy so that
it becomes, in a sense, more ‘approachable’, more amenable to influence. Yet there
seems to be a risk in this strategy of both ‘breaking down’ and ‘watering down’. In
Benson (2011: 62-64), I discuss how this question has led to a concern with the
emergence of different ‘versions’ of autonomy in the literature – ‘proactive’ and
‘reactive’ (Littlewood 1999), ‘broad’ and ‘narrow’ (Kumaravadivelu 2003), ‘divergent’
and ‘convergent’ (Ribé 2003), ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ (Smith 2003), ‘radical’ and
‘gradualist’ (Allford and Pachler 2007). In each case, the stronger versions seem to
involve attention to more of the components of the capacity for autonomy, more of the
dimensions of autonomy. The stronger versions, it seems, work more in the central
regions of Figures 1 and 2, maintaining a focus on the area where the three circles
overlap, while the weaker versions appear to tinker away, perhaps ineffectually, at the
margins. The notion of ‘influence’ on the development of learner autonomy that I am
proposing here attempts to cut across these dichotomies, which I find unhelpful because
they imply choices that are quite different than those that teachers actually face in their
day-to-day working lives. In practice, approaches to autonomy in the classroom tend to
be opportunist – a matter of doing what we can or, perhaps, what we get away with, given
the constraints under which we work. We should also acknowledge that approaches
should be judged ‘strong’ or ‘weak’, not only in relation to the theory of autonomy, but
more importantly in relation to the contexts in which they are adopted. A
‘strong/radical/proactive/broad/divergent’ approach in my classroom may be a
‘weak/gradualist/reactive/narrow/convergent’ approach in your classroom, and vice
But in spite of this strategy of ‘breaking down’ autonomy, does autonomy still imply
a particular overarching goal – a goal that is not the production of a ‘fully autonomous’
learner, but nevertheless ties different approaches to autonomy together, a goal that helps

us to understand whether we are actually helping students become more autonomous or
not? I would argue that there is such a goal and that it lies in the area of the personal
relevance of learning.
Some time ago, Nunan (1988) made the point that it is impossible to teach learners
everything they need to know of a language in class. In spite of the best efforts of
syllabus and textbook writers, a foreign language is simply too big an object of learning
to fit into a language course. Choices have to be made, and for Nunan, it is a basic
principle of the ‘learner-centred’ classroom that class time should be used to teach ‘those
aspects of the language which the learners themselves deem to be the most urgently
required’ (p. 3). Macaro (2008: 59-60) develops this point in the context of a discussion
of choices in language learning:
‘Having a choice in their own language learning means the language learner or
user taking control not only of the language being learnt, but also of the goal and
purpose of that learning…. Autonomy resides in being able to say what you want
to say rather than producing the language of others….’
What we are offered here, in effect, is a principle that cuts across and unifies the various
components of a capacity for autonomy and the various dimensions of control over
learning. A capacity to ‘control’ learning implies a capacity to make learning personally
relevant, to bring it into line with needs and purposes that the learners have themselves
identified or, through some process of negotiation, have voluntarily agreed to identify
with. The ability that is in question in autonomy is, primarily, an ability to make informed
choices and act upon them so that learning becomes personally relevant, and the desire
and freedom are the desire and freedom to learn something that has this personal
relevance. Control of learning management, cognitive processing and learning content,
can also be seen as different ways of bringing the processes of language learning into line
with personal relevance. From this perspective, autonomy in the language classroom is
less about how teaching and learning are organized and more about helping students
develop an ongoing sense of their own autonomy in a particular context of learning, a
sense that their learning is relevant to needs and purpose that they have identified or
identify with that will eventually a sense of ownership of the language they have learned.

Autonomy in practice
All of this points to the conclusion that autonomy is not something that can be
‘taught’. As an alternative, we have come up with the idea of ‘fostering autonomy’ – a
rather quaint term that has never been fully explained, but suggests that the goal is to
bring something ‘out’ of students, rather than put something ‘in’. The term that I have
begun to favour is ‘helping’ students to become more autonomous, partly because the
word ‘help’ implies that there must be some impetus from the students themselves. In
order for us to get anywhere at all with autonomy in language learning, there must be at
least some latent desire to learn the target language on which the personal relevance of
different ways of learning it can be developed. From this perspective, the practice of
autonomy can be said to consist in creating conditions that help learners to: (1) develop
mental and behavioural capacities to control their learning (developing ability); (2)
develop positive attitudes towards learning and control over learning (arousing and

sustaining desire), and (3) make choices and decisions about their learning (creating
freedom). It also consists in helping to develop this capacity to control learning along the
dimensions of learning management, cognitive processing, and learning control -
although the specific areas of control may well vary from situation to situation, learner to
learner, teacher to teacher.
In many situations, however, this is a tall order for teachers, due to prevailing
constraints on both learner and teacher autonomy. These are situations – that we often
find ‘here’ – in which we are apt to feel that there is little or nothing at all that we can do
in the way of autonomy. Focusing more on successful attempts to launch comprehensive
teaching and learning programmes for autonomy, the literature on autonomy has arguably
done less than it might have done to explore exactly how these situations constrain
teachers and how these constraints might be confronted. These are, it should be
emphasized, not simply situations in which it is unrealistic to expect teachers to design
and carry out a comprehensive programme oriented towards autonomy, but situations in
which everything seems to militate against any effort at all on the part of teachers to
influence their students’ autonomy. Here, I want to approach this problem in two ways:
first, by developing an understanding of the ways in which constraints on learner
autonomy are mediated by constraints on teacher autonomy and, second, by proposing a
number of pedagogical strategies for autonomy that may be feasible in even the most
difficult situations.

Constraints on autonomy
When teachers say that there is little that they can do to help their students become
autonomous, they imply several things: first, that their students’ capacity to exercise
autonomy is constrained by factors in the educational system in which they are learning;
second, that this system is not open to changes that would favour the development of
autonomy, and, third, that teachers’ are unable to deviate from the norms and practices of
the system. This means, in effect, that there are constraints on both learner and teacher
autonomy. Figure 3 is an attempt to model these constraints as they appear to operate in
the context of secondary school English language teaching in Hong Kong. The model is
specific to this context, although I believe that many teachers around the world will see a
model of their own teaching and learning context in it.
In Figure 3, teaching and learning is represented as an ongoing interaction between
teachers and students in the classroom (an over-simplification which does not take
account of teaching and learning outside the classroom). This interaction takes place in a
context, which is represented in terms of nested layers at various degrees of distance from
the classroom itself: classroom and school rules and conventions, curricula and schemes
of work, public examinations, educational policies and conceptions of what counts as
language teaching and learning within the system and the broader societal and global
discourses. The arrows in Figure 3 point inwards towards the classroom, suggesting lines
of force. Each layer weighs upon the layer below it, such that the weight of constraint
increases as we move towards the classroom. Figure 3 is also meant to suggest that
teachers are positioned uncomfortably between their students and the layers of constraint
that weigh upon the classroom. Looking ‘upwards’, teachers’ see multiple layers of

constraint upon their autonomy as teachers. From the students’ perspective, however,
teachers are both part of the context that constrains their autonomy and the most
immediate agents of these constraints. It is not simply that the system constrains teacher
and learner autonomy equally, because the system’s constraints on teacher autonomy
consist partly in a requirement that teachers act as mediators of the constraints that it
imposes on learners and learning.

Figure 3. Constraints on autonomy

In such systems, teachers who want to help their students become more autonomous
often find themselves in a dilemma, because their view of what counts as good teaching
and learning is likely to conflict with the systemic view that they are expected to mediate
to their students. Teachers who persist in their efforts to implement autonomy are liable
to find that their authority is undermined as the system as a whole begins to question
whether they are, in fact, ‘teaching’ at all. Where the educational system as a whole does
not favour autonomy, therefore, helping students to become autonomous is often a matter
of teachers helping themselves and each other to reconstruct a sense of authority around
the idea of autonomy. In this context, teacher autonomy becomes a struggle to develop a
self-critical view of one’s own role as a mediator of constraints on learner autonomy and
to create spaces within these constraints for students to take more control of their
This is, again, a tall order for many teachers, although in my own work, I have
observed that secondary school English teachers in Hong Kong do succeed in creating
spaces for teacher autonomy in their day-to-work (Benson 2010). This study described a
system of English teaching, in which school-based supervisory and surveillance systems
work to ensure that teachers follow schemes of work that reflect territory-wide
constraints on teaching content and methods. Although learner autonomy is, in fact,

supported by broader educational policies, constraints at other levels of the system pack
timetable with prescribed tasks and leave little room for teachers to encourage student
control over learning. Nevertheless, teachers do create spaces within the system,
sometimes by finishing prescribed tasks quickly so that they can include activities that
they believe are more interesting or valuable than those specified in the scheme work. In
some schools, teachers also simply ignore constraints on their autonomy and, individually
or collectively, develop alternatives to the established curriculum. Educational systems
are neither totalitarian nor monolithic and the challenge for teachers who favour
autonomy is to open up spaces within them for their own autonomy and share them with
their students. This is, admittedly, no easy task and the support of networks colleagues,
friends and teacher educators is clearly a help. Research on autonomy could also do much
more to investigate how teachers succeed in helping students become more autonomous
in difficult circumstances.

Pedagogical strategies for autonomy

A feeling that there is little that can be done to encourage autonomy may also arise
from a sense that this is dependent upon certain structural changes in the ways that
language teaching is organized – changes that go beyond the capacity of a single teacher
and necessarily involve the complicity of higher authorities. In my experience, such
changes can have an important impact, but they are often less important that the
pedagogical styles and strategies of the teacher in the classroom. Crabbe (1993: 444), for
example, has highlighted the importance of ‘the minute-by-minute classroom practice’
and whether or not it ‘fosters or discourages’ autonomy by challenging or reinforcing
learners expectations of their roles, opening or closing choices within the curriculum.
Along the same lines, I want to conclude this paper by highlighting a number of
pedagogical strategies that I believe contribute to the development of learner autonomy,
principally by actively involving students in their learning and heightening its personal
relevance. These include,
• Encouraging student preparation. Students are more actively involved in teaching
and learning if they know what is going to happen in class and have prepared
some contribution to it.
• Drawing on out-of-class experience. This allows students to contribute to learning
content by bringing in personally-relevant material.
• Using ‘authentic’ materials and ‘real’ language. Again, this heightens
involvement and personal relevance, especially if the students play a part in
selecting materials.
• Independent inquiry. Asking students to find out things for themselves (rather
than teaching them) is a basic strategy for student involvement. It can also allow
students to pursue their own interests.
• Involve students in task design. Students can often contribute to the design of
tasks by, for example, selecting reading or listening texts, writing comprehension
questions for each other to answer or discuss.

• Encouraging student-student interaction. This heightens involvement and the
more students talk to each other, the more personally relevant the content of
• Peer teaching. Students teach each other aspects of the learning content, which
can be an extension of student preparation for class, independent inquiry, and
involvement in task design. As a more formal way of encouraging student-student
interaction, it has similar benefits.
• Encouraging divergent student outcomes. Tasks that produce individual outcomes
from each student in the class heighten involvement and personal relevance.
Divergent outcomes can be a natural consequence of tasks based on out-of-class
experience and independent inquiry, and students can be encouraged to read or
listen to each other’s work.
• Self- and peer-assessment. Encourage a sense that learning is being carried out for
the students’ own benefit, as well as a sense of responsibility and involvement.
• Encourage reflection. Short reflection sessions, in which students talk or write
about what they have learned, what they will do next or the direction of their
learning, can play an important role in heightening student involvement.

These strategies are not especially new or radical and many teachers incorporate
them into their teaching as a matter of course, without necessarily thinking of them as
strategies for autonomy. I often use them simply because they make classes more
interesting for everyone concerned. What I want to highlight, however, is that they are
strategies that heighten student involvement and the personal relevance of learning and,
consequently, have the potential to help students take more control over various aspects
of their learning. They are also strategies for autonomy that can be introduced into more
or less any classroom, however discouraging the overall educational climate may appear
to be. For the most part, they are not revolutionary and will not bring the educational
systems crashing down about our ears. They may, however, call for some willingness on
the teachers’ part to go against the grain in creating spaces for their own autonomy. This
is also not really a matter of pursuing a ‘weak’, ‘gradualist’, as opposed to a ‘strong’,
‘all-or-nothing’ approach (Nunan 1997). In my view, helping students develop autonomy
is more a matter of pursuing a consistent set of pedagogical strategies, but possibly with
different levels of intensity in different educational environments.

In this paper, I tried to make the long journey from theory to classroom practice in
order to answer the question: how do we do autonomy ‘here’, where everything seems to
weigh against us? The answer to this question, I believe, lies in a particular way of
thinking about autonomy, not in terms of the comprehensive programmes that we often
read about in the literature (which, in fact, tend to fail as often as they succeed), but in
terms of our teachers’ ‘influence’ on student learning. In general, our choices and
decisions, whatever we do in the classroom has an impact, however small, on the

development of our students’ autonomy. Put simply, it either helps or hinders this
development. It is this sense that I argue that the theory of autonomy may best serve as a
conceptual toolkit to be used at various levels of educational decision-making. At the
level of lesson planning and day-to-day teaching, we may ask whether our choices and
decisions as teachers help students develop the ability, desire and freedom to control
areas of their learning that are important to them. Looking back at the pedagogical
strategies that I have mentioned above, for example, we might think about the
implications for autonomy of using them as against the implications of not using them.
Which is the better choice from the perspective of autonomy? How will our pedagogical
decisions differ if factor autonomy into them or leave it out of account? In this sense the
teacher’s role in learner autonomy is not directly a matter of ‘producing’ autonomous
learners or bringing about a ‘measurable increase’ in autonomy by the end of the course,
but of making the kinds of choices and decisions that are more likely than others to have
those effects over the course of time and, perhaps, without our knowledge.

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