Learning to Read and Write in Thai
Thai has a distinctive alphabetic script that shares some common characteristics with Indic writing systems, due to common origins. It has syllabic characteristics as it has inherent vowels for some consonants. Furthermore, it has a non-linear configuration in that consonants are written in a linear order, but vowels can be written above, below, or to either side of the consonant as full letters or diacritics, and commonly combine across the syllable to produce a single vowel or diphthong. Notably, Thai is also a tonal language and does not normally have interword spaces. Hence, when one reads in Thai, words have to be segmented using cues other than spaces. There is a high level of consistency of mapping between phonemes and graphemes but there are multi-grapheme to phoneme correspondences. Consequently, spelling development lags behind reading in Thai. The particular challenges this distinctive orthography poses to beginning readers and writers of Thai is discussed. First, the characteristics of the Thai language and its orthography are outlined. Secondly, relevant background literature is reviewed prior to examining some research conducted on learning to read and write in Thai. Finally, some future research directions on reading and spelling in Thai are presented.
KeywordsChildren Interword spaces Orthography Reading Spelling Thai Tonal language Writing
Many of the scripts of South and Southeast Asia share features and characteristics as they are historically-related and descendants of the ancient Brahmi script. They have been termed ‘alphasyllabaries’ as they have hybrid characteristics of both alphabetic and syllabic scripts. The term ‘alphasyllabary’ has also been used to refer to writing systems in which vowels are denoted by symbols that are subsidiary to consonants and that do not necessarily adhere to a linear temporal order of pronunciation (Bright 2000; Daniels & Bright, 1996). A common feature of many Indian scripts is akshara, which is basically an orthographic unit that represents sound at the level of the syllable, as well as marking constituent phonemes (see Bhuvaneshwari & Padakannaya, 2014; Joshi, 2014; Sircar & Nag, 2014). These historically-related scripts are very diverse in terms of their characteristics and the languages that they map onto.
Thai shares some common characteristics with Indic writing systems, due to these common origins. It has syllabic characteristics as it has inherent vowels for some consonants. Furthermore, it has a non-linear configuration in that consonants are written in a linear order, but vowels can be written above, below, or to either side of the consonant as full letters or diacritics, and commonly combine across the syllable to produce a single vowel or diphthong. Thai does not have ligatures connecting adjacent consonants (a characteristic of scripts such as Devanagari), similar in this respect to scripts such as Tamil. Notably, Thai is also a tonal language, which is a characteristic it shares with other regional languages (e.g., Chinese, Burmese and Vietnamese). Interestingly, this characteristic is also shared with Punjabi, which has three tones: high falling, low rising and level. Punjabi can be written either in Gurmukhi (ਗੁਰਮੁਖੀ) script or in a version of the Urdu script known as Shahmukhi (مکھی شاہ). Furthermore, Thai script does not normally have interword spaces. Hence when one reads in Thai, words have to be segmented using cues other than spaces. Thai shares this feature with regional neighbours, including Lao, Khmer and Myanmar, as well as Chinese and Japanese. Notably, Thai also represents lexical tone orthographically, which is a shared characteristic with the scripts of Lao, Vietnamese and Myanmar.
The particular challenges this distinctive orthography poses to beginning readers and writers of Thai are discussed below. First, the characteristics of the Thai language and its orthography are outlined. Secondly, relevant background literature will be reviewed prior to examining some research conducted on learning to read and write in Thai. Finally, in the concluding paragraph, future research directions will be proposed.
Characteristics of the Thai Language and Its Orthography
Thai is a predominantly monosyllabic, analytic (or isolating) language. That is, the word forms do not change, similar in this respect to many other languages in the Southeast Asian region. Thai, consequently, does not have complicated inflectional morphology; instead affixation, compounding, elaboration and concatenation (strings of verbs juxtaposed around a head verb to form complex verb phrases) are used. Aspect, not tense, is the primary inflectional category for verbs (Matisoff, 1983). Thai verbs have no inflection for time or number. Instead, context, added time expressions or preverbs generally specify the tense. Subject-Verb-Object contributes the most favoured word order. Thai also has a noun classifier system. When a verb is reduplicated, the action indicated by the verb is generally intensified. Thai is a topic-prominent language, which has “a surface coding for the topic, but not necessarily for the subject” (Li & Thompson, 1976, p. 466) whereas English is a subject-focused language and requires overt subjects. Another characteristic of Thai, similar to other languages in the region, is that many word forms have multiple functions, which change depending on their position in a clause or sentence (e.g., /paj01/ ‘go’, /ma:0/ ‘come’, or /da:j2/ ‘can’). Thai shares many of these features with other regional neighbours such as Chinese due to areal diffusion.
Thai initial consonants (IPA symbols are in parentheses)
Consonants are written in a linear order, but vowels are nonlinear in their configuration. In addition, there is a high level of consistency of mapping between phonemes and graphemes but there are multi-grapheme to phoneme correspondences. For example, there are multi-grapheme to phoneme correspondences for some consonants (e.g. for /ph/, /th/, /kh/, /s/, /tɕh/, refer to Table 1). In addition, there is a change in grapheme-phoneme correspondences of consonants when they occur in final position. Thai has only nine final consonant phonemes, /p/, /t/, /k/, /ʔ/, /m/, /n/, /ŋ/, /j/ and /w/, and other consonants occurring in final position have to take one of these sounds (e.g., อาหาร < ʔa:ha:r > ‘food’ becomes /ʔa:ha:n/). In addition, Thai is predominantly a monosyllabic language with words with very similar spellings; words often vary by just one letter or the tone of the syllable, which adds to the challenges of learning this particular orthography.
There are 15 initial consonant clusters, which all start with stop consonants and are followed by laterals, trills, or bilabials; กร /kr/, กล /kl/, กว /kw/, ขร /khr/, ขล /khl/, ขว /khw/, คร /khr/, คล /khl/, คว /khw/, ตร /tr/, ปร /pr/, ปล /pl/, ผล or พล /phl/, พร /phr/. Thai does have irregularities, which include silent consonants and vowels that are not pronounced (e.g., the final consonant ‘ย’ in อาทิตย์ ‘week’ is not expressed and in this case is explicitly marked by the diacritic Open image in new window ) (for more details see Winskel, 2014, Winskel & Iemwanthong, 2010).
Thai vowel expressions classified in terms of vowel combination types
(1) Single vowel expressions
(i) Preceding the consonant vowels:
(ii) Following the consonant vowels:
(iii) Upper vowels occurring above the consonant:
(iv) Vowels occurring below the consonant:
(2) Simple vowel combinations (combination of 2 vowel letters)
(i) Preceding vowel plus following vowel:
(ii) Vowel above plus following vowel:
(3) Complex vowel combinations (combination of more than 2 vowel letters)
(i) Preceding plus two following vowels:
(ii) Preceding, upper plus following vowels
(iii) Preceding, upper plus two following vowels:
(iv) Upper plus two following vowels:
Tone forms an integral element of the syllable in Thai, and serves an essential function in distinguishing meanings of syllables and words with identical phonological structure. There are five tones in Thai conceptualised as high, mid, falling, rising, and low, but only four tone markers; ma:j3 ʔe:k1 Open image in new window , ma:j3 tho:0 Open image in new window , ma:j3 tri:0 Open image in new window and ma:j3 tɕhat1ta1wa:0 Open image in new window , which occur above the initial consonant in the syllable or word. The tone determination of a syllable is complex, as it is influenced by a combination of the class of initial consonant, the type of syllable (open or closed), the final consonant in the syllable, the length of the vowel and the tone marker. There are three classes of consonants (11 high, 9 middle, 24 low), which reflects old voicing distinctions that have been neutralized in modern Thai (Gandour, 2013; Hudak, 1990). These particular classifications of the initial consonant (high, middle, low) in conjunction with the other factors contribute to phonological tone realisation in written Thai. In addition, there are two silent orthographic class-change consonants, ห (high class) or อ (middle class), which are used to differentially change the class of consonant to a high or middle class expression with a corresponding change in tone, for example, นาว /na:w0/ with ‘ห’ becomes หนาว /na:w4/ ‘cold’ or ยาก /ja:k2/ with ‘อ’ becomes อยาก /ja:k1/ ‘want’.
The Thai Education System and the Teaching of Reading and Writing
Thai children typically begin school in Grade 1 when they are 6 or 7 years of age. Prior to that, the majority of children attend Kindergarten where they are taught the letters of the alphabet; the consonants and single vowel letters are taught first. Initially, they are taught how to read real words or syllables composed of a consonant and simple vowel (e.g. มา /ma:0/ come) without final consonants; then, easy words with final consonants are introduced. At the next stage, both monosyllabic and bisyllabic words are typically presented to the children. Gradually, children are taught to read words with more complex combinations of vowels. Simple sentences are subsequently introduced to the children. When children begin to learn to read Thai, they are given spaced text, but then unspaced text is introduced in Grade 2 (around 7 or 8 years of age).
According to the Basic Education Core Curriculum 2008 (Bureau of Academic Affairs and Educational Standards, 2008), children in Grade 1 should be able to read at least 600 basic, everyday words, which are words with and without tone markers, with both regular and irregular final consonants, and with initial consonant clusters and silent orthographic class-change consonants. They learn to read and spell by practicing reading sets of similar words. By the third grade, children should master at least 2,600 words, including words with silent graphemes and those with more irregular spellings. They are taught words with orthographic irregularities as well as spelling rules, for example, rules concerning consonant classes and tones. Teaching reading and spelling is further elaborated in Grade 4 and children learn more about the principles of the Thai language, characteristics of syllables in Thai, and types of syllables.
Relevant Background Literature
The psycholinguistic grain size theory (Ziegler & Goswami, 2005) asserts that the way the phonology of a language is represented by its orthography affects the psycholinguistic grain size that is primarily accessed by children beginning to learn to read. In regular or transparent alphabetic orthographies (e.g., German, Indonesian or Finnish), acquisition occurs relatively fast and children appear to be able to access small grain size units, grapheme-phoneme correspondences, whereas in other less consistent orthographies such as English, which is notoriously irregular, children can take several years to gain a similar level of competence, and appear to use a mixed or flexible grain size strategy (Goswami, 2000, 2003; Goswami, Ziegler, Dalton, & Schneider, 2003; Seymour, Aro, & Erskine, 2003).
Research on European alphabetic orthographies has found that phoneme awareness is a robust predictor of reading and spelling (Bradley & Bryant, 1983; Byrne & Fielding-Barnsley, 1993; Caravolas & Bruck, 1993; Caravolas, Hulme, & Snowling, 2001; Cardoso-Martins, 1995; Goswami, 2002; Hulme et al., 2002; Maclean, Bryant, & Bradley, 1987). However, research on reading in Asian languages has drawn attention to the syllable as an important processing unit and de-emphasised the degree of prominence of the phoneme. It appears that due to the hybrid characteristics of these scripts, children may be less aware of phonemes than readers of European languages (e.g., Nag, Caravolas, & Snow, 2011; Vaid & Gupta, 2002; Vaid & Padakannaya, 2004). For example, the syllable is the optimal unit for children acquiring Kannada, although more proficient readers and spellers can also manipulate phonemes (Padakannaya, Rekha, Vaid, & Joshi, 2002).
As stated previously, a common characteristic in Brahmi-derived scripts is that vowels can be written prior to the consonant but follow it in speech (e.g., the written word “odg” would be spoken as /dog/). In an innovative study, Vaid and Gupta (2002) used this feature to investigate the relative prominence of the phoneme in relation to the syllable when reading and writing Devanagari. In Devanagari, the short /i/ vowel produces an incongruency between the spoken and written order. For example, the word /tilak/ is written with the vowel placed before the /t/, resulting in what could be read as /itlak/. There are also more severely non-aligned vowels where the vowel is phonologically realized in the subsequent syllable. For example, medial /i/ occurs in the second syllable of a word, in which case the vowel is actually written to the left of the consonant in the first syllable (e.g., /masjid/ is written as <misj[a]d>). The researchers used a rapid naming task to compare responses to the aligned and non-aligned words. They found that the aligned control words were named significantly faster than both types of non-aligned words, in particular the more severely non-aligned words. Moreover, children incorrectly placed the vowel /i/ after the first consonant rather than before the second consonant. For example, they read /masijad/ for /masjid/. This reveals that children tend to favour the spatial placement rather than temporal order of the vowels. Moreover, when writing the words, Hindi speakers initially wrote the consonant and then the preceding nonaligned vowel. Vaid and Gupta (2002) argued that this indicates that the initial short vowel /i/ is segmented at the phoneme rather than syllable level. These results were interpreted as supporting a phonemic and syllabic level of processing in Hindi readers/writers.
In contrast to these results on Devanagari, a somewhat different pattern of results was found for Thai; a greater emphasis on segmenting at the syllable level was found (Winskel, 2009). Similar to Devanagari, Thai has words with non-aligned vowels whereby vowels can precede the consonant in writing but follow it in speech. These types of vowels can operate within the syllable (e.g., แมว < ɛ:mw > is spoken as /mɛ:w0/ ‘cat’) or across the following syllable in a more severely non-aligned example (e.g., the word แมลง /ɛ:mlŋ/ ‘insect’ is spoken as /m[a]lɛ:ŋ0/ where [a] represents an inherent vowel). In this study, eye movements of adults reading words with and without non-aligned vowels in sentences were recorded using the EyeLink II tracking system. The participants read sentences with pairs of aligned and non-aligned vowel words matched for length and frequency embedded in same sentence frames. Similar to Vaid and Gupta (2002), rapid naming data was also collected from adults and children aged 6;6–8;6 years old. The children also were asked to spell comparable words. Results indicated that there was a processing cost associated with reading and spelling the more severely non-aligned words where the vowel operates across the syllable, but not in general for the non-aligned words where the vowel operates within the syllable in both adults and children. In fact, results for the non-aligned words (where the vowel operates within the syllable) were not significantly different from the aligned control words. Furthermore, in contrast to what occurred in Hindi writers, Thais typically adhered to the written order and wrote the vowel first, and then the consonant, in the non-aligned vowel words. This disparity in results for the Thai and Devanagari readers, is likely due to orthography-specific differences. Thai has five commonly-used vowels that precede the consonant but phonologically occur after the consonant, whereas in Devanagari there is only one short vowel /i/ that occurs prior to the consonant (Vaid & Gupta, 2002). Thai vowels also commonly combine with other vowels and diacritics across the syllable to produce a single vowel or diphthong. This characteristic does not occur in Devanagari. Another consideration is that the representation of lexical tone occurs at the syllable level in Thai. These orthography-specific characteristics appear to underlie the processing differences observed in these related writing systems, with segmentation at the syllable level playing a more prominent role in Thai than Devanagari.
In a more recent study, the development of reading and spelling of Thai words and nonwords was investigated in children from Grade(s) 1–3 (from 7 years to approximately 9 years) (Winskel & Iemwanthong, 2010). Non-words were created by changing the first consonant of the corresponding monosyllabic word, for example the word เดือน /dɯan0/ ‘month’ became the nonword เกือน /kɯan0/. In Grade 1 after 4 months of school, the children achieved 42% correct for reading words and 24% for reading the corresponding non-words, and 32% correct for word spelling and only 17% for non-word spelling. In grades 2 and 3, children scored about 86% correct for reading and spelling words. However, notably, they still lagged behind in non-word reading and spelling with only approximately 60% correct. These results are more comparable with results found for children learning to read relatively irregular alphabetic orthographies such as English, rather than the more regular orthographies such as German.
This lexicality effect, that is, the better performance on reading and spelling of words than non-words, suggests that a larger grain size (lexical or syllabic) is being utilised when reading and spelling Thai. Furthermore, there were more lexical than phonological errors for both reading words (lexical: 59%, phonological 41%) and non-words (lexical: 53%, phonological: 47%) in this study; such results are in accord with this view. These effects were more pronounced in the Grade 1 children as they had 61% lexical errors and 39% phonological errors for word reading, with 56% lexical errors and 44% phonological errors for non-word reading. The relatively high proportion of lexical errors, in conjunction with the relatively poor performance on non-word reading, suggests that Thai children, particularly the youngest Grade 1 children, were predominantly using a larger grain size (syllabic or lexical) to decode both words and non-words.
The degree of balance between the mapping of phonemes and graphemes in different orthographies can also affect reading and spelling development. When there is consistent mapping between phonemes and graphemes but there are multi-grapheme to phoneme correspondences, as occurs in Thai, then spelling development generally lags behind reading (e.g., French, Hebrew, Portuguese, and Persian; Geva, Wade-Woolley, & Shany, 1993; Pinheiro, 1995; Rahbari, Sénéchal, & Arab-Moghaddam, 2007; Sprenger-Charolles, Siegel, & Bonnett, 1998). Congruent with these findings, the youngest Grade 1 Thai children lagged substantially behind in word spelling in comparison with word reading ability, but by Grade 2 this disparity had largely been overcome (Winskel, 2009; Winskel & Iemwanthong, 2010).
In this study, the reading and spelling errors of the children were also analysed. The youngest Grade 1 children made a high proportion of unrelated and initial consonant errors, which is similar to what has been found for children learning to read other alphabetic orthographies. This reflects their poorly developed phonological and orthographic skills, as well as their inability at this stage to fully decode or encode words and non-words. Other errors found were related to vowel length and to visually similar vowels, a result which concurs with results found in Hindi (Gupta, 2004). Children also tended to make errors on words with consonant clusters. When reading, they either tended to not pronounce the second consonant in the cluster or segment the word incorrectly, or, when spelling, they tended to drop the second consonant in the cluster. Similar difficulties with consonant clusters have been found in other studies (Sprenger-Charolles & Siegel, 1997; Stuart, 2005; Treiman, 1997; Treiman & Weatherston, 1992). Specific to Thai, the younger children had difficulty with the orthographic class-change clusters, in which the first consonant of the cluster, ห or อ, is silent. Children tended to pronounce the silent consonant and segment the word inappropriately when reading, (e.g. เหงา /ŋaw4/ was pronounced as เห–งา /he:4-ŋa:0/) and when spelling, children often omitted the silent class-change consonants.
In Thai, vowels are relatively more consistent than consonants in terms of phoneme-grapheme correspondences. In line with this, it was found that fewer errors were made spelling vowels than consonants (Winskel, 2010). In addition, spoken language affected the spelling errors made by the children. In central Thai dialect, the /r/ is often pronounced as /l/, which was reflected in the children’s spelling errors. This also concurs with what has been found in other orthographies (Alcock & Ngorosho, 2003; Joshi, Hoien, Xiwu-Feng, Chengappa, Boulware-Gooden, 2005; Treiman, 1993). The most persistent errors made by the older children involved the incorrect selection of homophonous consonants and incorrect expression of lexical tone. The older children typically made minus-one errors (Sprenger-Charolles, Siegel, & Bonnett, 1998; Fernandes, Ventura, Querido, & Morais, 2008), with correct vowel expression but with the incorrect consonant and/or tone. The tone rules for Thai are complex and irregular, and consequently, errors were still being made by the older children.
Regular words with a one-to-one correspondence between phonemes and graphemes acted as a comparison with the other word spellings.
Inherent vowel words. In these types of words, the vowel is not orthographically represented (e.g., ฝน <fn> /f[o]n4/ ‘rain’ or สนุก <snuk> /s[a]nuk1/ ‘fun’, the inherent vowel is represented by the letter in brackets). These types of spellings are a core characteristic of these types of scripts. However, there are alternative ways of spelling these types of words orthographically using explicit vowels or diacritics in Thai such as _ะ /a/ or _◌ั /a/. For example, สนุก <snuk> /s[a]nuk1/ ‘fun’ could be written as สะนุก <sanuk> and ฝน <fn> /f[o]n4/ ‘rain’ could be written as โฝ็น <ofn> /fon/ or โฝน < o:fn> /fo:n4/ with a longer vowel, although this usage would not be common. We found that these types of errors were infrequent (only two children from Grade 1 made this type of error) and by the end of Grade 1, accuracy rate was comparably high for both regular words (91%) and inherent vowel words (88%). These results reflect the fact that inherent vowels are a common and core feature of this script.
Silent class-change consonants. These are two silent orthographic consonants (in bold) which influence tone realisation of the syllable or word (e.g., Open image in new window /mɔ:4/ ‘doctor’ and Open image in new window /ja:k1/ ‘want’). Children may omit these silent-class change consonants (e.g., for หมอ to write มอ without the ‘ห’). We found that the youngest Grade 1 children had a tendency to initially omit these silent class-change consonants (9% of these word spellings), which declined in the Grade 2 (1.6%) and Grade 3 (1.6%). Accuracy was relatively high for class-change consonant words by Grade 2 (91%) indicating that children had largely learned this rule.
Irregular final consonants. There are only a limited number of legal final consonant phonemes, /p/, /t/, /k/, /m/, /n/, /ŋ/, /j/, /w/, and /ʔ/ and other consonants occurring in final position map onto one of these sounds (e.g., ควร <khuar> ‘should’ is read as /khuan0/ and อาจจะ <?a:tçtça> ‘maybe’ is read as /?a:t1tça?1/). Children may substitute the phonological form for the more restricted legal form (e.g., to write ควน <khuan> for ควร <khuar> ‘should’). These types of errors did occur in Grade 1 children (7.9% of the words), and to a lesser extent in Grade 2 (1.9%) and Grade 3 (0.4%) children. From this error data, we can infer that the younger Grade 1 children had a tendency to adopt this strategy, whereas by Grade 3, children had largely learned this final consonant spelling rule.
Silent graphemes. Silent graphemes (in bold) are added at the end of some words (e.g., Open image in new window <satw > ‘animal’ is spoken as /sat1/ and อาทิตย์ <ʔa:thitj > ‘week’ is spoken as /ʔa:0thit3/, the silent graphemes are in bold). These types of irregularities have a high degree of arbitrariness and may need to be specifically learned. Grade 1 children had a tendency to omit the silent graphemes (e.g., for Open image in new window <satw> ‘animal’ to write สัต without the ว์, in this example occurring with a suppression marker) whereas Grade 2 children had a tendency to either omit or substitute incorrect graphemes, and Grade 3 children either substituted an incorrect grapheme or were correct in their spellings. Not surprisingly, it takes time to learn these word-specific spellings. It was not until Grade 3 that accuracy was relatively high for spelling these types of words (88%).
It can be seen that children appear to learn the more common or perceptually transparent forms earlier than words with spelling forms that apply to relatively small sets of words or individual words. In terms of acquisition, the inherent vowel words, which are a core feature of Thai (and other related scripts), were acquired relatively early and prior to the class-change consonant spellings, which were in turn acquired prior to the irregular final consonants, and the silent grapheme irregularities were the last acquired. Not surprisingly, the words with more arbitrary silent graphemes proved most problematic to the Thai children. This order of acquisition also roughly corresponds to the order of teaching recommended in the Basic Education Core Curriculum document (Bureau of Academic Affairs and Educational Standards, 2008).
Difficulties and Challenges of Learning to Read and Write Thai
All writing systems and orthographies pose distinct challenges to beginning readers and writers and influence the development of reading and spelling related skills (Abu-Rabia & Taha, 2004). Thai has a distinctive orthography, which presents particular challenges to the young learner. It has visually complex graphemic expressions, particularly in relation to the complex non-linear vowel combinations and for the expression of tone. This requires the memorisation of a complex combination of vowels and diacritics. In addition, Thai is primarily a monosyllabic language with words with very similar spellings, which often vary in just one letter or the tone of the syllable, which contributes to the challenges of learning this particular orthography. As Thai is more consistent in terms of spelling-to-sound (feedback) than sound-to-spelling (feedforward) correspondences, spelling development generally lags behind reading. The most persistent errors found in older children were related to the homophonous consonants and the complex expression of tone. Based on research findings, it appears that both larger grain size, lexico-syllabic as well as phonemic grain size are important when learning to read Thai. This reflects the hybrid characteristics of the orthography; it has alphabetic and syllabic characteristics. In order to become a skilled reader of Thai it appears to be beneficial to use both larger and smaller phonological units. Future research needs to investigate this further.
Additional research on Thai needs to focus on reading words in sentence contexts and for comprehension purposes. Moreover, there are rich opportunities for comparisons of reading and spelling development with other Brahmi-derived scripts with typologically similar and distinctive characteristics. A neglected area of research is on the acquisition of lexical tone when learning to read and write. There are intriguing prospects for further cross-linguistic research on Thai and other Brahmi-derived scripts in the South and Southeast Asian region. In particular, many children in this region are learning to read and write in more than one script so again it is important to conduct research on learning to read in closely related scripts and scripts that are quite diverse.
Tones are marked in the Thai examples cited in this paper as follows; 0 = mid, 1 = low, 2 = falling, 3 = high, 4 = rising. This system is based on the system that was developed at the Linguistics Research Unit (LRU) of Chulalongkorn University (Luksaneeyanawin, 1993). IPA transcription is used for the transcription of all other Thai text.
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