Foreign language learning occurs in the formal situation of a classroom, and the learner has hardly any access to the target language beyond the classroom door (Brown 2001). And in this formal situation, he/she receives instruction and practises in the items entirely related to the basic skills of the target language– listening, speaking, reading and writing. That is, the items taught and learned are linguistically related to and considered at different levels– phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics and pragmatics. While learning the foreign language, the learner usually encounters varied linguistic problems that evidently handicap and hamper his/her learning and eventually negatively affect his/her general proficiency as well. This phenomenon is also found in the learning of English as a foreign language (EFL) by the Bengali speaking learner.
Both as a learner and a teacher-researcher of EFL, I have had first-hand experience and the opportunity to observe that the Bengali speaking learner confronts difficulty in learning English pronunciation including sounds, stress and intonation related to the phonetic and phonological level. He/she often finds English word formation and sentence construction, respectively concerned with the morphological and syntactic level, quite problematic. Moreover, the learner suffers problems in learning vocabulary items and to convey meanings through and/or receive meanings of words, phrases, clauses, sentences/utterances, discourse, and so forth related to the semantic and pragmatic level. Such problems obviously seriously retard the learning of EFL by the Bengali speaking learner.
Therefore, it seems reasonable to take account of and identify what linguistic problems the Bengali speaking EFL learner encounters and why. The consideration and interpretation of the issue in question are completely based on my practical experience as a learner and on my observation as a teacher-researcher of EFL. Finally, a number of suggestions have been made so as to address and lessen the problems, on the one hand, and ensure the smooth and optimal learning of EFL on the other.
Phonetic and phonological problems
Since English is a non-phonetic language and there is no one-to-one correspondence between the graphemes (the letters of the alphabet) and the sounds actually produced and realized, at the phonetic and phonological level, the Bengali speaking EFL learner usually faces difficulties in, firstly, ‘speech production’ encompassing which articulator(s) to use how to pronounce which speech sound and how to pattern speech sounds to convey meaning and, secondly, in ‘speech perception’ covering how to receive which speech sound(s) to perceive meaning. It is commonly found in the elementary learner that he/she endeavours to learn pronunciations of words by looking at their spellings, and consequently learns mispronunciations of many of them, for example, adjective, adjustment, future, knee, knowledge, lamb, comb, lieutenant, calm, palm, pneumonia, psychology, Wednesday, etc. This mainly happens due to faults in teaching, indifference of the teacher to how the learner learns pronunciations of difficult words/expressions and the teacher’s lack of training. Let us now identify the problems that the Bengali speaking EFL learner confronts at the phonetic and phonological level and explain the causes of the problems under some sub-headings.
Monophthongs and diphthongs
The Bengali speaking EFL learner generally finds the five long monophthongs /¡: u: a: ?: ?/ of the English language seriously problematic since these simple vowels are not available in his/her mother tongue and he/she is not accustomed to differentiating between short and long monophthongs. To emphasize a point or express various emotional effects, Bengali vowels are lengthened to some degree. But vowel length in the Bengali language is phonetic, not phonological. Besides, the Bengali speaker cannot easily and authentically pronounce schwa /?/ since this phoneme is absent from their first language. Moreover, he/she can hardly differentiate between /e/ and /æ/ as in ‘men’ and ‘man’ respectively because this differentiation is not that much exercised in Bengali. In addition, the Bengali speaking learner is used to nasalization of vowels without any nasal consonant in his/her mother tongue, for instance, the first vowel in the word ‘kada’ /k?nð?/(weeping) or the only vowel in the word ‘chad’ /??nd/ (moon) being clearly nasalized. This factor occasionally affects his/her pronunciation of English vowels devoid of nasalization.
The learner also suffers difficulty in pronouncing English diphthongs due to his/her mother tongue interference. The English language has eight diphthongs, each of which is a combination of two monophthongs one gliding into the other and naturally longer than a pure vowel. On the other hand, the Bengali language possesses eighteen regular diphthongs which are characteristically different from and shorter than English ones. As a consequence, the Bengali speaking learner pronounces only the first part of a diphthong and makes it identical with a monophthong, for example, ‘late’ being pronounced like ‘let’. Hasan (2000: 66) rightly holds –
They mispronounce most of the English diphthongs; they fail to give these sounds their due length as they often pronounce only the first element of the sound and pay no heed to the second, thus the English diphthongs cease to be gliding sounds in their pronunciation, e.g. for English /e?/ and /?U/, they generally use the Bangla pure vowels /e/ and /?/ respectively.
This type of replacement of phonemes in the English language certainly results in huge confusion and misunderstanding.
The problems that the Bengali speaking EFL learner confronts in the pronunciation of English monophthongs and diphthongs evidently affect his/her auditory and perceptive ability and hence reduce his/her capability of listening.
As the Bengali speaking learner is naturally trained to articulate Bengali consonants and as there are a lot of differences between Bengali and English consonants, he/she finds the pronunciations of a number of English consonants difficult in both production and perception.
Firstly, while the Bengali language has as many as twenty plosives, the English language possesses six /p b t d k g/. The Bengali speaking learner is used to using both aspirated and unaspirated sounds in his/her mother tongue as it has separate aspirated and unaspirated phonemes producing meaning difference. Unlike Bengali, the English language has no corresponding aspirated plosives, and the voiceless plosives /p t k/are aspirated in the initial position of the stressed syllable but unaspirated in other positions. As a result, the Bengali speaking learner cannot exactly pronounce the aspirated allophones of English voiceless plosives /p t k/.
Secondly, the Bengali speaking EFL learner cannot exactly articulate and even perceive English inter-dental fricatives /? ð/ since there is no inter-dental fricatives in the Bengali language. Rather, he/she uses Bengali dental stops instead of English inter-dental fricatives. Likewise, he/she generally uses Bengali aspirated bilabial stops /ph/ and /bh/ in place of English labio-dental fricatives /f/ and /v/ respectively because the Bengali language lacks labio-dental fricatives.
Thirdly, the learner is usually unable to differentiate between English voiced alveolar fricative /z/, voiced palato-alveolar affricate /d? / and voiced palato-alveolar fricative /? / since these sounds are not available in the Bengali language. Consequently, on the one hand, his/her pronunciation appears to be non-English, and on the other, he/she often fails to understand a speaker producing the sounds correctly.
Fourthly, the Bengali speaking learner is generally found to pronounce Bengali alveolar retroflex stops in place of English alveolar plosives /t /and /d/. This happens owing to the absence of alveolar plosives like English /t /and /d/in his/her first language.
Fifthly, the English approximants /w/ and /j / are problematic to the Bengali speaking EFL learner. He/she cannot correctly articulate them as they are not present in his/her first language.
Thus the English consonants which are absent from the Bengali language are difficult to the Bengali speaking learner and substantially negatively affect his/her pronunciation as well as perception.
Stress and intonation
Stress and intonation are two essential aspects of the pronunciation of English words and utterances. Stress means prominence in pronunciation usually resulting from four factors? loudness, length, pitch and quality operating individually or in combination (Roach 2000). English words in isolation or in connected speech receive stress that results in intonation. Intonation is used to carry information over and above that which is expressed by the words in the utterance. Hence, English is a stress-timed language possessing a speech rhythm in which the stressed syllables recur at equal intervals of time (Richards et al. 1985). On the contrary, the Bengali language is a syllable-timed language having a speech rhythm in which all the syllables recur at equal intervals of time. This difference between the two languages causes many a problem to the Bengali speaking EFL learner.
The Bengali speaking learner faces difficulties in the stress placement in English words because, on the one hand, English stress placement varies according to grammatical categories, for example, ‘abstract, conduct, contract, contrast, import, incline, insult, perfect, present, produce, rebel, etc’ as verbs receiving stress on the second syllables and as nouns on the first, and on the other, he/she is used to assigning stress almost invariably on the first syllable of every word in his/her first language.
Unlike the Bengali language, the English language has strong and weak forms, such as articles, pronouns, auxiliaries, prepositions, etc which are usually unstressed in connected speech. The Bengali speaking learner can hardly use them appropriately because he/she is not accustomed to the practice in his/her mother tongue.
Intonation basically resulting from the rising and falling of the tone accompanied by relatively greater degree of loudness and length plays varied unavoidable functions in the English language, such as attitudinal, accentual, grammatical and discourse functions which have limited importance in the Bengali language. Due to mother tongue interference and inadequate training, the Bengali speaking learner of EFL can hardly master English intonation, and his/her speech therefore sounds unnatural and even unintelligible.
Morphological and syntactic problems
An English word may consist of one or more morphemes, each of which is defined as the smallest, meaningful and indivisible syntactic unit (of a given language) and bears no partial phonetic-semantic resemblance to any other form (Palmer 1983). On the other hand, an English sentence, the basic syntactic unit, is composed of one or more words belonging to different parts of speech, such as nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions and interjections, and governed by varied grammatical categories/rules, such as tenses, aspects, persons, numbers, voice, mood, and so on. However, Bengali speaking learners generally face problems with different types of morpheme, especially grammatical morphemes, inflectional morphemes and derivational morphemes in forming words to be used as well as with different grammatical categories and rules needed to frame sentences/utterances.
The Bengali speaking EFL learner, particularly one at elementary and intermediate level finds affixation, especially the addition of prefixes and suffixes problematic, and this hampers his/her learning to a considerable extent. Firstly, he/she struggles to learn the use of prefixes which are affixed before stems, for example, whether to affix ‘in’- or ‘un-‘ before the stem ‘complete’, ‘in-‘, ‘un-‘ or ‘im-‘ before ‘perfect’ to make adjectives with a negative property. Secondly, the derivational suffixes, such as ‘-ment’, ‘-able’, ‘-less’, ‘-ful’, and so forth that allow further affixation cause a lot of difficulties to the learners. Thirdly, the inflectional suffixes, such as ‘-s’, ‘-es’, ‘-er’, ‘-est’, and others which are terminal and do not allow further affixation are also difficult to the learners. For example, to pluralize nouns, the learner often gets confused about whether to add ‘-s’ or ‘-es’ to the end of nouns. Though the Bengali speaking learner is naturally used to using such morphemes in his/her mother tongue, he/she has to consciously learn the uses of English morphemes in the classroom situation. But inappropriate treatment of and inadequate emphasis on the functions and uses of the morphemes in the teaching result in problems to the learner and thus hinder his/her learning.
Likewise, English syntax causes serious difficulty to the Bengali speaking EFL learner due to two major factors? (a) differences between the L1 and the L2, and (b) problems in teaching material, method and syllabus, and consequently negatively affects his/her learning.
Firstly, while the basic sentence structure in the English language is ‘subject plus verb plus object’ (SVO), for example, ‘I learn English.’, that in the Bengali language is ‘subject plus object plus verb’ (SOV), for example, ‘Aami ingregi shikhi.’. This difference between the basic sentence structures creates problems for the Bengali speaking learner, especially the beginner because of his/her mother tongue interference. That is, the learner often thinks of things and forms ideas in his/her mother tongue, and then translates the ideas into the target language words sometimes arranged according to the structures in his/her first language. Further, literal translations do not always help convey or receive the intended information.
Secondly, the Bengali speaking learner faces difficulty with the forms, functions and uses of different parts of speech and their interchange according to the demand of the sentence, for instance, where to use an adverb or an adjective why in a sentence, how to change a noun into an adjective, and the like. Besides, an English word can function as different parts of speech in different positions in the sentence according to the context. For example, the word ‘round’ functions as five different parts of speech? adjective, adverb, preposition, noun and verb in five environments ( Hornby 2000); the stray word ‘university’ functions as a noun but in the sentence ‘She is a university student.’ as an adjective; the adjective ‘loud’ has two adverbs? ‘loud’ and ‘loudly’, and so on. Moreover, the Bengali speaking learner is used to using normally one word for one meaning, whereas in the English language a word can give more than one meaning, for instance, the word ‘father’ meaning a male parent, a person’s ancestor, the first person to introduce a new way of thinking about/doing something, God to Christians, to become the father of a child by making its mother pregnant, or to create new ideas/ a new way of doing something, the word ‘sun’ meaning the star that shines in the sky during the day and gives the earth heat and light, the light and heat from the sun, any star around which planets move, or to lie or sit in a place where the sun shines, and the like ( Hornby 2000). These problems evidently result from the differences between the L1 and the L2 as well as the syllabus, and the teaching method and material which hardly consider what the learner lacks and needs, how he/she will better receive and/or react to what is taught how, and so forth.
Thirdly, the construction of wh-questions, e.g. ‘Why do you learn English?’ and compound and complex sentences, e. g. ‘He needs to learn English, but does not learn.’ and ‘Though he needs to learn English, he does not learn.’ respectively poses difficulty and retards EFL learning by the Bengali speaking learner because these structures are neither the same in the learner’s mother tongue nor taught in the manner suitable and useful for the learner.
Fourthly, the uses and functions of English determiners, particularly fractions? two-thirds, one-fifth, multipliers? double, two times, articles? a, an the, demonstratives? this, these, that, those, genitives? Rafit’s, girls’ Socrates’, quantifiers? any, some, few, little, either, neither, much, several, and general ordinals? next, further, etc are difficult to the learner and certainly hamper his/her learning since these items are not properly taken into consideration in the appropriate and effective teaching material, method and classroom activity.
Fifthly, the functions and uses of English modals? shall, will, may, might, must, can, could, should, ought to, would, need, dare, have to, be to, etc in different tenses and different situations often pose difficulty to the Bengali speaking EFL learner as the learner’s mother tongue does not possess them and the teaching is not optimally helpful.
Sixthly, different types of verbs, such as transitive, intransitive, causative, linking, dynamic, state, etc as well as the tenses are often problematic to the Bengali speaking learner due to the differences between the L1 and the L2, and the ineffective teaching as well.
Seventhly, the use of prepositions, particularly after nouns, e.g. complaint against, confidence in, interest in, exception to, doubt about, etc, after verbs, e.g. aim at, believe in, arrive at/in, congratulate on, conform to, etc and after adjectives, e.g. angry with/at, afraid of, confident of, proud of, related to, deprived of, dependent on/upon/for, etc is a great problem to the Bengali speaking learner since he/she simply gets them by heart and hardly practises in authentic situations.
Eighthly, the Bengali speaking EFL learner suffers a lot of problems with subject-verb agreement, for example, in ‘Shoilee as well as her parents is/(are) going to London to spend the vacation.’ which receives inadequate treatment in the teaching.
Ninthly, the formation and use of passive sentences, e.g. ‘My pen is lost.’ and reported speeches ‘She said she would learn Bengali’ are difficult to the Bengali speaking learner as he/she is neither adequately and properly exposed to the rules nor offered opportunity of taking practice in some authentic situations.
To be brief, the learner confronts problems with almost all the grammatical categories of the English language since he/she is actually taught about the items, but not the items themselves (Richards and Rodgers 1986) in the way these are used in real life situations. Moreover, the difficulty of English sentence structures to Bengali speaking EFL learners can also considerably be attributed to the differences between the L1 and the L2.
Semantic and pragmatic problems
To perceive meanings of and to produce meanings by using English words/phrases and utterances/sentences in isolation or with reference to the context of situation often pose serious problems to the Bengali speaking EFL learner since he/she has to mostly depend on his/her mechanical memorization of meanings of isolated words as they are mainly non-contextually and unscientifically designed in the lesson and presented by the teacher in the classroom.
In other words, the learner evidently encounters semantic and pragmatic difficulty in learning vocabulary items and using them for effective communication in the real life situation. In the Bangladeshi classroom, the learner is usually instructed to learn English words/phrases including synonyms, antonyms, hyponyms, homonyms, etc and their meanings mainly through non-contextualized ways, such as memorizing isolated words/phrases and their meanings, translating from the mother tongue to the target language, and vice versa. As a result, his/her stock of words/phrases is very limited, on the one hand, and on the other, he/she cannot effectively and efficiently use even the limited number of words/phrases that he/she retains in his/her day-to-day life communication.
Moreover, English phrasal verbs being constituted of ‘verb plus particle’, e.g. carryout, get into, lay by, look up, make up with, put up, set forth, take after, etc and idiomatic expressions, e.g. by the by, on the whole, cats and dogs, blue blood, a storm in a tea pot, etc having special meanings and functions often pose serious problems to the learner and substantially hamper his/her learning. In this connection, Roza (2005: 95) maintains –
Words that are different in form and represent meanings that are ‘strange’ to speakers of a particular native language, that is, meanings that represent a different grasp of reality, are classified as difficult. In English, ‘first floor’ is different in form from Bengali ‘prothom tala’ because European houses have an extra floor in the ground.
The difficulty in learning and using these items can be mainly attributed to their characteristic peculiarities as well as the learner’s entire dependence on his/her memorization and the non-contextualized reproduction. Besides, the consideration of literal meanings of these items may cause confusion and misunderstanding. For example, if an office peon is ordered to ‘put up’ (meaning ‘display’) a notice and he/she considers the literal meaning of ‘put and up’, he/she will simply put the notice in a higher position where others cannot easily reach and see the notice.
In short, semantic and pragmatic problems seriously hamper the learning of the target language by Bengali speaking EFL learner since he/she is exposed to a limited number of isolated words/phrases and utterances/sentences and not made accustomed to using them in performing actual speech acts in real life situations.
Conclusions and possible solutions
The foregoing explication, exemplification, analysis and interpretation have made it clear that the Bengali speaking EFL learner encounters phonetic, phonological, morphological, syntactic, semantic and pragmatic problems due to two fundamental causes? one resulting from the differences between the mother tongue and the target language and the other from the teaching process basically constituted of the syllabus, the teacher, the teaching method, material, equipment and testing. To address and lessen the problems, on the one hand, and to ensure the smooth and optimal learning of EFL on the other, proper measures have to be taken to reduce the causes to a substantial extent.
The difficulties created by the differences between the first language and the target language and/or by the mother tongue interference are natural and can be mitigated by only appropriately treating them in the teaching process which explicitly deals with linguistic elements. The learner’s needs and wants therefore have a conspicuously direct relation to syllabus construction, the teacher’s qualification and training, materials development, use of equipment and the testing instrument as Haque and Maniruzzaman (1994: 79) contend –
…the learners’ needs and wants tremendously control the whole package of teaching materials, aids and equipment and the application of teaching techniques and strategies, the employment of classroom activities and most importantly, the method of teaching and the construction of the syllabus.
That is, the teaching process has to take into account of what linguistic items the learner needs to learn when and why, how he/she can easily learn what he/she wants to learn, and how he/she can be used to using what he/she has learned in his/her real life situations.
It is inevitable that the syllabus has to contain the linguistic items the learner lacks and wants in the sequence in which he/she will best learn and internalize them in order to use them correctly, appropriately and spontaneously in his/her real life communication. Corder (1973: 296) postulates –
A finished syllabus is the overall plan for the learning process. It, too, must specify what components, or learning items, must be available, or learned by a certain time; what is the most efficient sequence in which they are learned; what items can be learned “simultaneously”; what items are available from stock, i.e. already known; and the whole process is determined by considerations of how long it takes to produce or learn a component or item. The process is under continual scrutiny by means of stock checks, or tests and examinations.
In other words, the syllabus first specifies the linguistic items according to the learner’s needs and wants. It then orders the items as per their difficulty level and priorities in communication. It is specially recommended that the items which pose serious problems to the learner should be given more emphasis and sufficient treatment in the syllabus.
The learner him/herself cannot automatically take the responsibility of the learning task. The teacher is then the right person to equip the learner with the capability of taking the responsibility of his/her own learning. And to do that, the teacher has to have adequate qualification coupled with proper and perfect training. More specifically, the teacher has to have a thorough knowledge of the linguistic elements and a solid command of all the skills of the target language, on the one hand, and adequate expertise in and experience of contrastive analysis, needs analysis, syllabus design, material construction, adaptation and adoption, teaching methods, use of equipment and testing on the other. To specify the teacher’s competence and role, Maniruzzaman (1998: 98) propounds –
Therefore, the teacher has to be appropriately and adequately trained in psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics, pedagogy and the target language in order to meet what the individual learner demands in the classroom.
Thus the teacher has to have sufficient knowledge of his/her area as well as the learner’s psychological, socio-cultural and pragmatic factors and act as a facilitator of learning through his/her skills, methods, instruction, strategies, materials, equipment, and so on.
The materials to be constructed, adapted and/or adopted so as to teach the necessary and problematic aspects of EFL have to conform to the learner’s level, needs and interest. Firstly, they should be relevant and useful, and help the learner to feel at ease and develop confidence. Secondly, they should be friendly and related to the learner’s culture and real life activities. Thirdly, they should achieve impact through novelty of topics, illustrations and activities, variety of activities and sources, attractive presentation and appealing content, and thus have a noticeable effect on the learner (Tomlinson 1998). Fourthly, they should consider the learner’s individual factors, such as age, aptitude, attitude, motivation, personality, learning style, intelligence, and so forth. Fifthly, they should maximize learning potential by encouraging intellectual, aesthetic and emotional involvement that stimulates both right and left brain activities. Sixthly, they should require and facilitate learner self-investment, and provide the learner with opportunities to use the target language to achieve communicative purposes. And the learner should be provided with and exposed to the materials by exploiting attractive and useful means and equipment, such as well-written books, colourful posters, charts and handouts, audio-visual aids, OHP, and the like in a congenial and democratic classroom atmosphere.
The learner should be taught in the manner in which he/she best learns what he/she has to learn. Hence is the importance of choosing and employing the right teaching method encompassing relevant materials, proper teaching techniques and exciting classroom activities. Having come to the realization that each learner has his/her own style, personality, needs, and so forth, it follows that a single teaching method might not be appropriate and adequate for all the learners in the classroom. As a consequence, the recent tendency has been towards eclecticism, choosing materials, techniques and classroom activities from various sources (Maniruzzaman 1998).
With a view to achieving the end, both controlled practice and communicative practice as being complementary (Maniruzzaman 2004) can be exploited in the classroom. To conduct controlled practice in teaching the linguistic elements, such as phonemes, word formation, sentence construction, etc, activities can be organized rulewise and implemented in a process possessing different stages. For example, to teach some particular phonemes, first of all, we have to exhibit the phonemes and explain how are articulated by which speech organs. To give the explanation up to the learner’s satisfaction, we can even judiciously use the learner’s mother tongue (Maniruzzaman 2003) as Tang (2002: 41) puts forward –
… that limited and judicious use of the mother tongue in the English classroom does not reduce students’ exposure to English, but rather can assist in the teaching and learning processes.
Afterwards, interesting and appropriate drills (as in Baker 1981) can be exploited for helping the learner take sufficient practice. However, as controlled practice having mechanical drills may sometimes be boring and as this type of practice cannot ensure the learner’s communicative ability, we should involve the learner in some meaningful, purposive and communicative activities, such as role-play, pair work, group work, etc to make learning interesting and motivating.
Different aspects of the language teaching programme including the learner’s level and progress, the teacher’s efficiency, the effectiveness of the material and method, etc are assessed and determined by employing testing tools possessing reliability, validity and practicality. This is why, the testing instrument has to be constructed and employed in such a way that the learner will neither lose motivation nor suffer any phobia, and the purpose will be served satisfactorily. Before the commencement of the EFL teaching programme, a placement test can be given to sort out and put the learners into some homogeneous groups, or to place them at the stage of the teaching programme most appropriate to their abilities (Hughes 1989). Then achievement tests can be administered to accumulate evidence during, or at the end of, the programme in order to determine whether and where progress has been made in terms of the goals of learning (McNamara 2000). In addition, diagnostic tests can be used during the programme so as to review the progress of learning, efficiency of teaching and effectiveness of the materials and equipment, and hence to identify their strengths and weaknesses and bring modification to them if needed. Finally, a general proficiency test has to be given to ascertain how far the learner is able to use what he/she has learned to communicate in his/her real life situations.
Last but not least, syllabus designers, materials developers and test constructors play a vital role in the successful implementation of a second/foreign language teaching programme. Notwithstanding, to teach EFL especially at the primary, secondary and higher secondary levels in our country, foreign experts are often invited and appointed as syllabus designers, materials developers, and the like, but the outcome is usually disappointing for the policy makers, the teachers, the students and for the nation as a whole. This is because the experts have little experience of the learner’s needs, psychological factors, socio-economic condition and cultural aspects; and, as a result, while designing the syllabus, developing the material or constructing the test, they fail to meet the learner’s needs as well as the national demand. Therefore, it would be better to appoint local experts, members of the learner’s speech community and culture, as syllabus designers, materials developers and test constructors.
I am profoundly grateful to Professor Abu Taher Mojumder, my learned colleague and Chairman of the Department of English at BUBT, who gave generously of his time, experience and expertise whenever I needed. He proved again to me how helpful it is for a writer to have friends who listen, read, and give suggestions.
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