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Challenges and Potential Solutions to Communication Problems Faced by International Students at Arkansas State University
There is a globally accepted fact that North American universities possess the state-of-the art facilities like fully equipped libraries, classrooms, and labs for their students in higher education. Consequently, they have grown into international hubs fostering strong dreams among the youths of the world who intend to build successful careers and serve their country. According to Devon Haynie (2014), the United States enrolled a record-breaking number (886,052) of international graduate and undergraduate students during the 2013-2014 school year in colleges and universities throughout the country, which is a net growth of 72% since 2000. This huge number comprises students from around the world but China occupies the highest (31%) of all with the rest belonging to Saudi Arabia, Gulf, Asia, Africa, Europe and Australia.
When one sees the huge numbers of students in attendance in American universities, the question arises are they doing well in regards to the differences in education, lifestyle, language and cultures? The universal fact is that human beings can be distinguished in terms of origin, religion, race, language, culture, rituals, and norms, besides geographical and socioeconomic backgrounds. These differences represent their unique identities wherever they move on earth. However, the fast growing processes of globalization is gradually narrowing these differences by providing common ground for educational and socioeconomic exchange.
The education system between international students’ homeland and that of U.S. universities/colleges in terms of medium of teaching style, presentation and lectures are often very different. Back in one’s home country international students completed their studies in the local languages with few, if any, courses taught in the English language. The spoken language definitely will be their mother tongue, thus speaking the English language is not mandatory. So, while having obtained their degrees abroad they have to face some language barriers while communicating with fellow students in class, lecturers or even with friends in a society different from their homeland.
Every international student must have some English skills to gain admission to American universities. They must show their skills through Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or International English Language Testing System (IELTS) exams before being admitted to American universities. Some international students pass the exam with good marks, some with average while some struggle. It is mandatory by American universities for international students to fulfil the English language requirement to be admitted in their universities. Some students fulfill the requirement at the time of application while those that don’t have to study English language in American universities before being admitted to a degree program.
Dr. Glauco Ortolano, director of The International Center for English (TICE) at Arkansas State University, Jonesboro talks about English as Second Language (ESL) classes and how international students are doing. He said that the ASU ESL Center provides English language training skills for international students who didn’t meet the minimum English efficiency requirement in TOEFL/IELTS for admission to undergraduate or graduate degree programs. International students have to master five levels of ESL study, which will help international students to develop and strengthen skills necessary for academic and social success. Every international student doesn’t necessary have to complete all five levels, though, it depends on the students existing English skills both in writing and speaking. They are tested to determine their starting level. According to Dr. Ortolano, Japanese students are typically very good and competitive compared to other international students; they typically start their ESL classes at Level 4 or 5. An international student from India, China, Bangladesh or Nepal is usually more average and starts their ESL training at Level 3. Students from Saudi Arab or Arab countries have to struggle because of a lower ability with English. Generally they start from Level 1. Around 35% of students who begin the program at ASU can’t pass the ESL exams; either they continue their ESL work and graduate from level 5 or drop out and return home.
English language ability helps international students to communicate with friends, professors at Arkansas State University and society. The two-way communication in academics is also a major tool to strengthen teacher-student relationships, secure good scores, participate in all activities, and enables students to continue their further education with high spirit. This creates an atmosphere of normalcy by diminishing cultural and communication barriers. Also it minimizes their hesitation to articulate and participate effectively in interactions that take place during teaching-learning processes and co-curricular activities.
Many international students find themselves in the horn of dilemma in terms of communication in their first year. It is hard for them to adopt universal methods of acculturation in order to overcome underlying hassles. International students who have studied English as a second language in their home countries are weak in aspects of accents, vocabulary, grammar, idiomatic usage, fluent conversation, and listening. On the whole, they are poor in written and spoken English and thus struggle in their studies.
For international students, the mother tongue and cultural features remain dominant; it is really hard to easily assimilate with both a new culture and a new academic environment. These features can be a hurdle at communicating one’s opinions in classrooms with professors, new friends, culture and society. International students face many problems as they begin work in a new environment communicating, traveling, lifestyle, official system, and food. It is also important to study and search the consequences influenced by these variable in terms of progress at study and adjustment with social life.
Most international students are not fully prepared for their new lifestyle and education in the United States. Most international students do not begin thinking about the possibility of further undergraduate or graduate studies in America until they are in their final year of school abroad. Even though they might have some basic ideas about American lifestyle and its education system through Hollywood movies or hearing from friends and families abroad, they are so busy with their daily schedule back in their home countries that they don’t have sufficient time to fully prepare themselves for a new environment.
The infrastructures for students are state-of-the-art in the U.S. academic fields. American universities have big libraries with more resources like books, e-books, Internet facilities, printing facilities and professors are more competent and more experienced in their field that will help international students to learn more. Most universities have student unions where national, international students can interact with each other to get more exposure about other cultures. Thus all students equally but especially international students who have hardly seen such facilities in their home countries must learn to take advantages of such facilities. Many American universities have established special facilities and programs for international students so that they can benefit and overcome their fears of communication and culture.
In other words one can say a university in America is now a multicultural gathering place, where students come from different parts of the world to get an education. A spontaneous question comes forward to know the status of communication, whether everyone is good to exchange! Because the mother tongue is a dominant agent to slow the process of communicating in a second language, it requires great efforts to twist the tongue to create new original sounds. The concern of international students in this regard is both cultural and lingual. These features are vital for them to proceed comfortably and to feel free to communicate with their professors (teachers), classmates, staffs, and concerned people outside academia, which is necessary to improve and use both written and spoken English. This issue needs to be examined in terms of their communication performances and to build confidence that they are good enough to keep pace with native English speakers.
Multicultural groups (international students) from around the world must join a new environment and a new group under one roof addressing new social systems and behaviors which will not be unanimous and integrative to assimilate comfortably. It can take time to be interactive, fluent to exchange their opinions, understand speakers and much more. But, the main point is how long, few days, few months, or few years?
The importance of good communication skills is reflected in tests/examinations and to demonstrate personality traits as a sign of potential future employment. Obviously, this issue is vital on the part of academic management and students themselves. In other words, communication is not a negligible issue to be ignored, it is essential to see what efforts are made on the parts of international students in their homeland while making the decision to come to the United States and what is being done to improve communication skills after joining their respective classes. The purpose of the study is to identify the underlying difficulties and limitations of international students. Such as, language barriers and cultural differences international students’ face while they are in Unites States to further their education. The researcher will interview international students at Arkansas State University to (1) identify cultural and linguistic differences that they face, (2) to see how their countries assisted, (3) to identify what they have done to enhancement academic performances and (4) to find probable solutions to gain language proficiency and overcome underlying hurdles in most practicable ways.
Thousands of international students come to the USA every year with the dream of a better education in undergraduate, graduate, and Ph.D. degrees, besides postdoctoral research in some specialized disciplines. Kim’s (2012) study on the international student population shows that there is a remarkable high percentage of Asian students, around 62% in American universities. This number reflects an obvious landmark that Asian students are not satisfied with educational standards in their country and that is why this unprecedented academic migration takes place.
Cultural and linguistic diversity in higher education in American colleges and universities has both good and bad consequences in that there are chances to lose one’s cultural values and get assimilated into anothers, or there are chances to learn anothers without diminishing one’s ethnic characteristics (Altbach, 2004; Carroll & Ryan, 2005; Kim, 2012). In regard to cultural values and physical environment, two scholars opine that international students in the United States often encounter discomfort in a new cultural environment. This happens because of different worldviews, different cultural features, and linguistic, and academic backgrounds. Al-Sharideh and Goe, (1989). Arkoudis (2006) and Kim (2012) put stress on academic ability, educational experience, and English language proficiency as primary hurdles that create communication problems.
Many international students experience cultural and linguistic challenges different from those of domestic students (Arkoudis, 2006). Beaven, Calderisi, and Tantral (1998) and Lin and Yi, (1997) very relevant in regard to the problems with international students; They said that these students have to face problems like understanding subject matter (content), and speech used by teachers in classes during or beside lecture hours and conversation between friends.
Levi (1991); Zhu and Flaitz (2005) distinguished that international students have different writing styles, logical thinking, and express themselves appropriately while formulating thoughts than that of native students. In respect to cultural background, it is known that Asian instructors impose their authoritative language or they are not to be challenged by students (Ariza, 2010) which is just the opposite to that in the United States where there is a more democratic environment in higher education. It is good to mention that Asian students are brainy typically, rote learners, and disciplined in Western Universities (Marton, Watkins, & Tang, 1997).
Ballard (1997) even states that the first quarter of classes may be academic sojourn as it takes time to learn to exchange their views. He expresses concern that this leads towards high levels of anxiety in a new environment and students have to bear this stressful time which may be a basis for explosive situations.
Katy (2012) mentioned six new challenges for international students in colleges: 1. assignments, 2. professors, 3. subjects, 4. friends, 5. food, and 6. culture. However, they are not prolonged challenges that hinder the teaching-learning process. What students need is to come forward, admit weaknesses and try to overcome these barriers. They have to do it to succeed.
Melody and Edna (2013) produce the same aspects as other researchers in regard to language, they opine that language causes international students to linger behind in academics; mainly for undergraduates. They have to struggle hard to meet academic standards and often receive low scores even though effort is made.
There are volumes of research works on this topic published at various times by different organizations or scholars. Their findings are more or less similar in regard to suggestions which are more effective in mitigating language communication problems. However, socio-psychological background plays a dominant role in youths lives which over the course of time end or diminishes.
An effective communication skill is a tool to express one’s feelings and opinions with other individuals or groups of people. The sphere of communication can be diversified depending on an individual’s cultural background and mother tongue that creates problems when tied to feelings and opinions. If the audience cannot follow the speaker, it is meaningless and the essence of communication is ineffective.
This section of the literature review briefly incorporates research papers, opinions, and book reviews found relevant and important to communication problems for one whose mother tongue is not English. A few research articles are cited more in detail for being substantial and relevant.
Brooks (1970) provided a spark to begin developing the Language Expectancy Theory. He developed a scale of expectations about what a source might or might not say in persuasive messages. Burgoon, Jones and Stewart (1975) added the impact of linguistic strategies. They claimed that strategic linguistic choices can be significant predictors of persuasive success. In 1995 Burgoon provided a detailed version of the formulation of the Language Expectancy Theory.
Burgoon created the Language Expectancy Theory assuming that language is a rule-governed system and people develop expectations concerning the language or message strategies employed by others in persuasive attempts (Burgoon, 1995). Expectations are a function of cultural and sociological norms and preferences arising from cultural values and societal standards or ideals for competent communication. Here is a clear message that first language that obstructs to articulate American tone and style has a close tie with culture. At the time of fast globalization, migrants must learn the process of acculturation extending social, educational, and organizational relation to comfort themselves in others culture and value.
Scholars consider communication problems among international students as a cultural and academic issue. The problem of boycotting native culture and adopting a new one can be associated with the acculturation process.
Smith and Khawaja (2011) in the International Journal of Intercultural Relations give their thoughts on acculturation and its importance specially for international students, “pertaining to salient variables from acculturation models was explored including acculturative stressors encountered frequently by international students (e.g., language barriers, educational difficulties, loneliness, discrimination, and practical problems associated with changing environments). Additionally, prominent acculturation models portray the host society as an important factor influencing international students’ acculturation, which suggests the need for future intervention”.
Acculturation is a process in which members of one cultural group adopt the beliefs and behaviors of another group. Although acculturation is usually in the direction of a minority group adopting habits and language patterns of the dominant group, acculturation can be reciprocal–that is, the dominant group also adopts patterns typical of the minority group. Changes in language preference, adoption of common attitudes and values, members modish in common social groups and institutions, and loss of separate political or ethnic identification may evidence assimilation of one cultural group into another.
Language and immersion can be one of the most important parts of the acculturation process. In fact, social theorist John Schumann (2003) proposed that language is the largest factor in successfully acculturating. For example, if you were a Hispanic or South American native, and you moved to the United States, you would have to learn to speak English in order to fully understand and even feel comfortable living and communicating in the American culture.
Karen Risager (2006) presents a new theory of the relationship between language and culture in a transnational and global perspective. The fundamental view is that languages spread across cultures, and cultures spread across languages, or in other words, that linguistic and cultural practices flow through social networks in the world along partially different paths and across national structures and communities. Although the author has not addressed international students issue at American universities, the process and knowledge she has attempted to disseminate is significant for the students to simplify their communication problem and get out of woods as early as they can.
Culture in Language Learning – Hanne Leth Andersen, Lund, and Risager, Aarhus University Press (2006) – Foreign Language Study have shed light on this problem related to various cultures and foreign language studies that have great concern with American accommodation. They view this issue as follows: Classical and modern foreign language studies no longer have a well-defined subject area, and language and culture can no longer be defined according to nations and national identities. New approaches are being developed with theoretical and methodological points of departure in new areas of research: for example, culture studies, anthropology, sociology, pragmatics and conversation analyses. The aim of modern language studies must therefore be redefined, and be more open for variation and diversity, both in culture and communication.
Michael Byram and Karen Risager (1999) in their book “Language Teachers, Politics, and Cultures” describes that foreign language teaching is a social interaction, subject to the influences and forces of the societies in which it takes place. This text argues that geo-political changes have an effect on language teachers in their beliefs about their work and in the everyday methods they use in their classrooms. Based on empirical research in Denmark and England, the book explores the effects of major contemporary changes as they are perceived and understood by language teachers.
The above scholars have associated this issue with politics, culture and teachers. Indirectly, proactive culture and political background may play adverse role to accept others’ thinking pattern and dogmas.
Richard Young (2009), in his book “Discursive Practice in Language Learning and Teaching” expresses his views like this “… linguistic and socio-cultural characteristics of recurring episodes of face-to-face interaction; episodes that have social and cultural significance to a community of speakers. This book examines the discursive practice approach to language-in-interaction, explicating the consequences of grounding language use and language learning in a view of social realities as discursively constructed, of meanings as negotiated through interaction, of the context-bound nature of discourse, and of discourse as social action. The book also addresses how participants’ abilities in a specific discursive practice may be learned, taught, and assessed”.
Intercultural Analysis of Communication Anxieties Encountered by International Students in the United States
Song Wang, Xiujie Sun, and Changyuan Liu (2010) in their work “Academic Adjustment of International Students” has seen international student’s communication problem like this – “The new cultural and educational system with different expectations and requirements poses new and difficult challenges for international students. In this sense, international students have to experience a broader range of adjustment and transition than their fellow U.S. classmates”.
Huang (1997) and Qian (2002) find all research work on international student adjustment identifies the fact that language is the initial overriding concern for international students who study English as a foreign or second language. International students often lack the English language skills necessary for functioning effectively in their new academic and social environment (Huntley, 1993). In the process of academic adjustment, language takes up a considerable portion of the international students’ time and effort. International students consider the lack of English proficiency to affect their academic performance negatively (Pruitt, 1978), decrease their interaction with U. S. nationals (Penn & Durham, 1978), and usually lead to feelings of dissatisfaction (Scanlon, 1990), as well as anxiety and depression (Cho, 1988). Many studies on international students show that they perceive their limited English language ability as problematic (Holmes, 2005). Inadequate English and associated lack of confidence in self-expression result in international students requiring more time than their host counterparts to accomplish learning tasks (Antanaitis, 1990), difficulty in class participation (Beaver & Tuck, 1998), fear that people would make fun of their attempts at communication and fear that they might not be able to understand teachers and classmates (Holmes, 2000), (pp218.19).
The above scholars and researchers have hit the core of international students’ grass root problems that seems never ending. To end this problem, most abandon their dreams and study in their own countries.
Students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds commonly have problems with clearly communicating and correctly understanding English. In particular, first year international students who are still developing their language skills and becoming acquainted with the Australian university environment and adjusting to listening to a range of accents may experience difficulties. This section provides some best practice strategies for tackling communication and language barriers in the classroom environment. Common difficulties faced by international students are difficulty in understanding lecture content and whatever has been expressed here in this portal, apparently, problem of communication among multicultural groups is universal whether it is America, Australia or Great Britain.
“Everyday aspect of our everyday lives is affected by our communication with others…” (Littlejohn W. Stephen, Foss A. Karen, 2008). ‘One cannot not communicate’, who can disagree with this? For Fernandez German Dario (2010), the common search for understanding enables people from different fields and social sectors to communicate and cooperate. For him understanding is a public matter and understanding others is the practical aim of any member of a group and not an intellectual’s or a researcher’s privilege. Nevertheless, in order to communicate, someone must know and understand a number of codes and rules. The use of well-known or anonymous rules is necessary in the act of communication, to understand and react in a ‘logical’ way. Then, an institutional context in which other members recognize the specific rule is also needed. The authors suggest that communication becomes meaningful if it is delivered with full understanding of relevant field and public matter, which is not intellectual property. If it is delivered in a right of the codes and rules that are implacable rather than emphasized and could be expected logical comments and cooperation.
McIntyre, (2007) describes that Asian students face a variety of adaptation challenges when studying in the United States, including overlapping linguistic, academic, sociocultural, and psychological challenges. When they arrive, some of these students have had the opportunity to study in a program within their country’s that systematically prepares them for their overseas long-term study by providing them with ideas about how to meet these challenges. However, many students simply arrive in the U.S. without such specific preparation.
The underlying challenges are described by dozens of researchers and scholars focusing on Asian students’ language and acculturation problems is really exciting. That is why a lengthy section has been added to this literature review. This is found most relevant as well as substantial to my research topic and useful for future researchers and stakeholders.
Researchers have provided an understanding of the kinds of challenges Asian students have while adapting to university life in the United States, and one of the most discussed is academic language challenges. Researchers have reported that students often have difficulty comprehending the various accents of professors, test constructions, articulating their knowledge on essay exams, reading text books in a timely fashion (Lin & Yi, 1997), taking lecture notes (Huang, 2006), and giving oral presentations, asking the professor questions and interacting in seminar discussions (Coward, 2003; Gebhard, 2010; Han, 2007; Liu, 2001). Coward (2003), for example, studied interaction between Americans and students from China, Korea, and Taiwan during graduate seminar discussions and concludes that these students were continuously trying to understand what was going on in class, when they could talk, and what role they should employ. Likewise, Han (2007) discovered that students across an American university’s graduate programs had trouble participating in whole class seminar discussions because of anxiety and insufficient content knowledge.
In a different kind of study, Lee & Carrasquillo (2006) analyzed the perceptions of professors on the linguistic/cultural characteristics that contribute to academic difficulties of Korean college students in the United States. They found that professors tended to identify Korean students as: viewing the professor as having absolute authority, having trouble openly expressing critical thoughts, having difficulty answering negative questions, and being uncomfortable with speaking in class. Another challenge for many students is a lack of familiarity with American intricate social rules for interacting (Barratt & Huba, 1994; Ingman, 2003; Lee, Kang, & Yum, 2005; Rose-Redwood, 2010; Swagler & Ellis, 2003). For example, Americans tend to use a lot of compliments during conversation. However, Japanese tend not to do this; possibly believing that too many compliments diminishes the value of a compliment when it is made (Wolfson, 1986). Similarly, many Americans tend to use direct communication to turn down invitations, complain, or ask for clarification. However, some Asians, depending on the cultural context, will use more indirect ways (DeCapua & Wintergerst, 2004).
Based on the research above and concern about the challenges for international students’ in communication problems and difficulties while communicating with fellow American friends in university, the current study addressed the following research questions:
- Why is there communication problem with international students in American Universities and Colleges?
- What strategies were used by participants in dealing with cultural and linguistic challenges experienced through their university programs?
- What recommendations would these participants make to the university or specific programs that would help all international graduate students?
This study examined the communication problems and challenges faced by international students, participating with English language ability at Arkansas State University and what they are doing to overcome these problems. Convenience sampling method will be used to address the research questions. Convenience sampling is a statistical method of drawing representative data by selecting people because of the ease of their volunteering or selecting units because of their availability or easy access. The advantages of this type of sampling are the availability and the quickness with which data can be gathered. The disadvantages are the risk that the sample might not represent the population as a whole, and it might be biased by volunteers (businessdictionary.com).
Researcher will ask thirteen open-ended questions to selected international students at Arkansas State University, Jonesboro through face-to-face interview in Spring 2015. To examinethe research questions researcher will conduct-in-depth interviews with at least 30-40 international students. According to the ASU Fact book 2014-2015, there are a total 518 international undergraduate students and 228 international graduate students studying at ASU in fall 2014. The largest numbers of students are from China (243), Saudi Arabia (125), Japan (84), and India (79). Because of privacy, the ASU International studies office couldn’t provide international students name and contacts to the researcher, so the convenience sampling method will be used to select the sample of students. Researcher will try to collect the data from students from many different countries as much a possible. Researcher might know some of the interviewers but researcher will make sure no biasness will play while interviewing or while transcribing the data.
To eliminate the biasness in the interview, researcher will collect the data from the international students who are willing to volunteer to give interview. Miss Lynda Franco, ESL instructor and Curriculum Instructor at ESL at ASU will ask students from ESL to volunteer for the interview. Beside that, International Student Union and International Student Association will also ask International students who are members to volunteer for the interview. Researcher will also put the posters asking international students to volunteer for interview with information relating the research topic, his name and phone number in ESL building, Student Union Building and Library Area.
The interview will be conduct within the ASU area. Major areas will be Dean B. Ellis library 5th floor and conference rooms in Reng Student Union. There are cabins in the library area where the researcher can take the interview in a relatively quiet and peaceful environment. Whereas, in Reng Student Union researcher will take interview in the 3rd floor at conference or activities rooms.
Interview should last from 15-30 minutes according the interviewer answers. The conversations will be recorded (audio-taped) for reliability and quality purpose with the respondent’s permission.
While talking to Miss Lynda Franco, she explained that some students might not express their thoughts clearly because of language communication problem. To minimize this problems, the researcher will ask he/she to answer the research questions on writing instead, of through the interview process. If the volunteer can’t speak or write in English and if he/she needs the translator, the researcher will allow the translator to be present in the room for the translation purpose. The translator may be a friend of a volunteer or the researcher will ask to help from ESL office to find one translator.
Researcher will collect demographic information first from the informants based on the important characteristic under study, such as where they are from, what they are studying, or specific cultural knowledge. Unlike most quantitative studies, researcher will interview selective informants in order to explore issues in-depth. These will be international students at ASU, Jonesboro. Within the area of research, international students who may be studying ESL, undergraduate, graduate or Ph.D. at ASU will be sampled and interviewed. For the convenience of respondents there will be thirteen questions to answer.
Researcher will administered the set of questions among the interviewees through a scheduled time frame. Researcher might have face-to-face interview in a friendly and relaxed environment. The interviews will be recorded with student’s permission.
All of the participants will be treated in accordance with the ethical guidelines of the American Psychological Association (APA) and the Arkansas State University Institutional Review Board (IRB). Although there are no identifiable risks for participating in this study, a couple of considerations will be kept in mind when dealing with international students. First, selective students will be interviewed and talked about their experiences at ASU and society. Secondly, there is the possibility that students may feel uncomfortable discussing their experiences or talk about personal information. All these considerations will be incorporated during the research design stage. Every caution will be taken to ensure that the all students felt safe, comfortable, and had the freedom to withdraw from the study if they felt the need to.
Researcher will download the recorded file from the respondents and transcribe it. Every question will be analyzed thoroughly. After transcribing the collected data, researcher will create a theme according to the answer of each question. The purpose of the interview is to find detail information regarding the topic and their experience at ASU and society.
To find the answer for research questions, researcher will focus on the following points which will help to find answers.
Researcher will try to find the communication problems faced by international students from the period they are in United States till the date of interview. It will help to understand the different communication problems they are facing in day-to-day basis.
Researcher will try to find the strategies international students are using to overcome the communication language problems. Different students might be using different strategies to tackle the problems and how it is helping them to solve the problems. Are they satisfied with their strategies or they are thinking using more new strategies?
So, what recommendations international students want to give to new international students and who are planning to come for their higher education in United States regarding the communication challenges will be the key point for researcher.
- Why did you choose an American universities for your further education and why ASU?
- Did you research about the culture, language, lifestyle before coming to U.S.?
- What is your experience of communication problem with your American friends at ASU?
- What kinds of academic problems have you had?
- What do you do when the professor asks you to participate during in-class discussions with Americans?
- What kinds of problems do you have with listening and writing in the classroom?
- Can you describe the nature of problems encountered in the classrooms and outside?
- Do you think your mother tongue plays negative role? If yes, how?
- Do you think it is because of accent/slang used by American people make you hard to understand them?
- Can you share some inconvenient situations of conversation with your American friends and professors?
- What are your techniques to solve communication hassles?
- Are you taking any English classes like ESL at ASU to solve your problem and in order to improve language skills?
- What advice do you give to other international students to mitigate this problem?
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