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APTITUDE, ATTITUDE AND MOTIVATION AS PREDICTORS IN

FOREIGN LANGUAGE LEARNING

C. Michael Sturgeon
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TABLE OF CONTENTS

Introduction ......................................................................................................................... 3

Aptitude........................................................................................................................... 4

Self-Efficacy ................................................................................................................... 5

Motivation & Attitude..................................................................................................... 7

Foreign Language Learning Motivation / Attitude / Aptitude ...................................... 14

Synthesis………………………………………………………………………………16

References ..................................................................................................................... 18
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Introduction

“People who are too concerned with how well they are doing will be less

successful and feel less competent than those who focus on the task itself... Some

psychologists call it a conflict between ego-orientation, or between extrinsic and intrinsic

motivation... but in all cases, what counts is whether attention is turned away from the

task at hand and focused on the self and its future rewards, or whether it is instead

trained on the task itself. The latter attitude seems the more fruitful.” Author unknown

“How can I motivate my students to work harder?” is a question posed by most

teachers at most teaching levels on a daily basis. When teachers see students who have

few obvious differences other than their motivation for learning new information,

questions concerning their students’ sources of motivation emerge. Educators accept that

students have individual learning styles and vary in their attitudes toward learning in

general. (Deci & Flaste, 1995; Dornyei, 2005; Skehan, 1989) Attitude affects levels of

motivation and can make a difference in a student’s academic career. For example,

compulsory readings and memorization of terms versus classroom involvement and

social interaction can influence a learner’s attitude.

One area of learning that is unique, when compared to other types of learning, is

foreign language learning. When learning a foreign language, students must take

something that is initially unknown and make it a part of who they are. Techniques in the

field of teaching foreign language differ and can be unique learning experiences. Students

experience diverse emotions, as well as various levels of success, while learning a foreign

language. The difference could be a matter of motivation. Is there more to this puzzling

picture than motivation and attitude? Does the individual difference of aptitude hold a
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position in this matrix? Gardner, Tremblay & Masgoret (1997) have researched numerous

variables concerning success in foreign language learning. Some researchers (Skehan,

1989) consider aptitude as the number one indicator of success in foreign language

learning. Other researchers see self-efficacy as the true indicator (Dörnyei, 2005).

Aptitude
Language aptitude has been suggested as “… one of the central individual

differences in language learning.” (Skehan, 1989, pp. 25, 38 as cited by Harley & Hart, p.

379). It has also been declared to be the most consistent predictor of one’s success in

learning a foreign language (Skehan, 1989 as cited by Harley & Hart, p. 379 and

Dörnyei, p. 61, 2005). Due to the conceptual issues involved, the matter of differentiating

among ability, aptitude, and intelligence must be considered. These terms are commonly

used interchangeably in everyday parlance, and the scientific definition is lost because of

the popular use (Dörnyei, 2005). Ability typically applies in psychology to various traits

which involve thinking, reasoning and the processing of information. Scholars have

distinguished a difference between ability and aptitude but in practical terms, and for the

purpose of language learning, these terms are synonymous in meaning and pedagogical

application (Dörnyei, 2005; Skehan, 1998). Whereas aptitude is commonly used in

reference to a specific area of performance, intelligence carries a broader meaning; it is

not specific to a discipline, but rather entails all areas of learning. The meaning is also

synonymous, to a degree, with abilities. Noticeably, the differences in meaning are

minor in detail (Dörnyei, 2005).

The research on language learning aptitude has primarily focused on the Modern

Language Aptitude Test (MLAT), but researchers are now considering other factors;
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therefore, the emphasis has lessened, especially since the early 1990’s (Dörnyei, 2005;

Gardner, 2001; Ehrman, M. E. & Oxford, R. L., 1995). Very few specialists in language

learning can discard a tool that is distinctively designed for the purpose of measuring

one’s aptitude, or ability, to learn a second or foreign language (Ehman, M.E., 1996;

Ehrman, M. E. & Oxford, R. L. 1995). Research reveals that though aptitude is well

established as a general measure, its equivalent determiner in language learning ability is

motivation. This body of emerging research continues to strengthen as more scholars

take this into consideration (Dörnyei, 2001a; 2005; Gardner, 2001). The controversy of

aptitude versus attitude continues even when scholars are proclaiming motivation to be at

least equivalent, instead of superior, to aptitude as a predictor of success in foreign

language learning (Ehrman, M.E. 1996; Noels, Pelletier, Clément, & Vallerand, 2000).

Self-Efficacy

According to Alderman (1999), motivation can be influenced by self-perception

(Zimmerman, 2000). Self-perception can destroy one’s motivation to accomplish a given

task based on the belief that the ability to do the task is lacking; or the motivation is

suppressed because of the belief that the task lacks challenging components (Alderman,

1999; Bandura, 1997; Calder & Staw, 1975). Research indicates that students perceive

themselves as more, the more challenging the goals they pursue will be (Zimmerman,

Bandura & Martinez-Pons, 1992). According to Zimmerman (2000), research during the

past two decades has revealed that self-efficacy is a highly successful predictor of a

student’s motivation and learning.

Self-efficacy is a performance-based measure of one’s perceived ability and

therefore differs theoretically from motivational constructs such as outcome expectations


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or self-concept (Zimmerman, 2000). Frequently, the terms self-efficacy and self concept

are misunderstood to have the same meaning. Self-efficacy pertains to one’s perceived

abilities to accomplish a specific task; whereas, self concept is a composite look at

oneself believed to have been formed from one’s experiences and accepted evaluations

from family and / or friends. Self-concept and self-efficacy may both be used outside the

context of learning (Bandura, 1997; Zimmerman, 2000). The role self-efficacy plays in

one’s motivation and attitude toward language learning is an important one having

influence on one’s performance (Bandura, 1997; Dörnyei, 2001a; Ehrman, 1996). When

looking at language learning many learners feel they have to be risk-takers because their

self is put before others to perform. Those with low self-efficacy perceive tasks of

difficulty as threats; these are people that dwell on their deficiencies and remember the

obstacles they encounter when pursuing challenging tasks (Dörnyei, 2001a). There is a

reason for connecting the concept of self-efficacy with the motivation to learn an

additional language. For students to be able to focus on the task of learning with all their

might and determination, they must have a healthy view of themselves as learners

(Dörnyei, 2001).

Although prior successes combined with other general measures of one’s ability

are considered exemplary predictors of achievement, (Zimmerman, 2000) many studies

suggest that self-efficacy beliefs add to the predictability of these measures. One such

study was that of students’ self-monitoring. The findings pointed to the fact that the

efficacious students monitored their working time more effectively and were more

persistent. The study also indicated the more efficacious students to be better at solving

problems than inefficacious students of equal aptitude (Zimmerman, 2000).


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Zimmerman & Bandura (1994) did a path analytic study for writing and found

that self-efficacy for writing was a considerable predictor of college students’ standards

for the quality of writing measured as self-satisfying. The self-efficacy beliefs also

motivated the students’ use of learning strategies. According to Zimmerman & Martinez-

Pons (1992), there was a substantial relation between efficacy beliefs and strategy use

across the grade levels being studied. The greater the motivation and self-regulation of

learning in students with a high self-efficacy “…the higher the academic achievement

according to a range of measures.” (Zimmerman, 2000, p. 88) Another study Zimmerman

(2000) notes illustrates a finding of an overall effect size of .38 which this indicates that

self-efficacy accounts for approximately 14% of the variance in students’ academic

outcome across various sets of student samples and criterion measures. Concerning the

effects of perceived self-efficacy on persistence, research has shown that it influences the

learner’s skill acquisition by increasing persistence (Schunk, 1981; 2003; Zimmerman,

2000). Observably, self-efficacy plays a mediational role in motivation, persistence and

academic achievement. The findings signify evidence of the validity of self-efficacy

beliefs and their influence on a student’s method of learning and motivational process

(Zimmerman, 2000).

Motivation & Attitude


Educators continue to have concerns about student success and the motivation

that is required to accomplish the academic goals set before their learners. They voice

concerns about how to make classes more inspiring, how to encourage students to be

more diligent and how to provide appropriate incentives; the list continues, as it has for

decades (Ames & Ames, 1984; Deci & Ryan, 1985; Dörnyei, 2000; 2001; 2005;
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Zimmerman & Schunk, 2001). Numerous motivational concepts have emerged over the

years designed to motivate the learner and ultimately produce the types of student

behavior desired by instructors. Motivation is referred to by Dörnyei (2005, p. 1) as “...an

abstract, hypothetical concept that we use to explain why people think and behave as they

do.” The meaning of the term, motivation, is vague but we use it because it is the best

way known to describe the abstract concept (Dörnyei, 2005).

The understanding of the term motivation is quite broad in that it includes an

endless range of meanings. The range of meanings for motivation go from financial

incentives such as a raise, which would bringing about a new level of life-style, to what

some may perceive as a freedom that is seemingly idealistic, (i.e. release from prison)

which one could possibly be driven to attain (Dörnyei, 2005). Though these two

examples have little in common, they have an influence on behavior. Because of the

seemingly limitless ways of interpreting motivation, is seen as a broad umbrella term that

covers a number of meanings (Alderman, 1999; Calder, 1975; Deci & Ryan, 1985;

Dörnyei, 2005; Gardner & Lambert, 1972).

Motivation theory started with Sigmund Freud, well known within psychoanalytic

psychology. In 1914 and 1915 he postulated that behavior can be reduced to a number of

drives; otherwise known by Freud as instinct theory. In empirical psychology it is

suggested that motivation theory started with Hull’s drive theory in 1943 (Deci & Ryan,

1985). The drives on which Hull based his theory were hunger, thirst, sex and avoidance

of pain. Today we have a much more complex world and, therefore, a more complex

understanding of motivation and motivational behavior. The motivation seen in people,

as presently practiced, appears to be primarily to avoid punishment or receive rewards


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(Csikszentmihalyi, 1975; Deci & Flaste, 1995; Deci & Ryan, 1985; Dornyei, 2001;

2001a; 2005; Weiner, 1979; 1990). Deci & Ryan (2004) have suggested that human

needs are quite different. They remark that the needs are relatedness to others,

competence, and autonomy.

Frequently, a distinction is made between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. The

understanding of extrinsic motivation is that the goal providing satisfaction is

independent of the activity, whereas intrinsic motivation finds the satisfaction within the

activity itself (Calder & Staw, 1975; Covington & Dray, 2002; Csikszentmihalyi, 1975;

Deci & Flaste, 1995; Gardner & Lambert, 1972; Noels, K. A., Pelletier, L. G., Clement,

R., & Vallerand, R. J., 2000). The assumption commonly accepted is that extrinsic

rewards such as money fulfill a basic human need. Obviously this societal based

motivation system is effective in accomplishing the set goals of bringing about desired

behaviors (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975; Deci & Ryan; 1985). Many researchers are

considering not only behaviors based on external rewards, but also behaviors that are

acted out based on the activity or behavior itself. (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975; 1991; 1997;

2000; Deci & Flaste, 1995; Deci & Ryan, 1985; Ryan & Deci, 2000).

One of the more prominent paradigms in motivational psychology has been

presented by self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 1985; Vallerand, 1997 as cited in

Dörnyei, 2001). Self-determination theory places the types of regulations on a continuum

between self-determined (intrinsic) and controlled (extrinsic) forms (Deci & Ryan, 1985;

2004; Dörnyei, 2001). For the purposes of this literature review, the terms self-

determination and intrinsic motivation will be used interchangeably.


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Where one is placed on this continuum is dependent on how ‘internalized’ the form of

motivation is and “…how much the regulation has been transferred from outside to inside

the individual” (Dörnyei, 2001, p. 47). According to Dörnyei (2001) there are five

categories which have been identified on this continuum. They are identified as:

1. external regulation, meaning that the motivation comes strictly from outside

sources, from rewards to avoidance of punishment;

2. introjected regulation, which is following imposed rules in order to avoid feeling

guilty;

3. identified regulation; an example of this would be where one engages in an

activity because of a perceived usefulness;

4. integrated regulation which involves choice made behavior(s) based on the

individual’s values, needs and identity;

5. intrinsic motivation where the individual is involved in the activity for the sake of

the activity and nothing more.

Observably, motivation is a complex concept. For this writing, the term will be

defined as a drive that influences behavior, both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, as

well as other constructs based on motivational theory.

A substantive amount of research regarding motivation for language learning has

been conducted over previous decades, especially in how it is related to perceived locus

of control, attitude, self-efficacy and anxiety (Atkinson, 1957; Dörnyei, 2001; Gabillon,

2005; Gardner & Tremblay, 1994; Weiner, 1972). The years of research have brought

about data allowing language instructors to have an understanding of the learner;

therefore, potentially improving the language learner’s outcomes (Hsieh, 2004).


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Motivation by itself appears to be understood, but language learning is quite

different compared to other areas of study, in the matter that learners will potentially face

anxiety and social distress (Saito, Horwitz & Garza, 1999). According to Saito, Horwitz

and Garza (1999), the learner’s experience of anxiety can have a debilitating impact on

their ability to learn to communicate in the second language. Moreover, the anxiety

experienced in the classroom environment has been suggested to have a negative impact

on the motivation (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975; Kitano, 2001). Because anxiety is an

unpleasant experience, behaviors associated with anxiety reduction would be reinforced

since the avoidance of pain or unpleasantness is one of the primary drives according to

drive

theory (Deci & Ryan, 1985). The problem Deci & Ryan (1985) note in this theory is that

typically, exploratory behaviors are associated with excitement not fear and anxiety. The

avoidance of anxiety does not appear to be a motivator for exploration or curiosity driven

behaviors (Deci & Ryan 1985). Collectively, there are at least two factors that can either

eliminate or diminish motivation. These are anxiety and self-efficacy. Interestingly,

anxiety is not as commonly found in learners that have a high self-efficacy as in those

who do not (Bandura, 1997). When a learner experiences diminished motivation,

academic success is impacted. The thought of past failures brings about anxiety and, in

turn, the self-efficacy is affected (Atkinson, 1974; 1983; Bandura, 1997; Ehrman, 1996).

Ehrman (1996) and Bandura (1997) reiterate the reality that emotions play an important

role in the learners’ lives. These concepts are interrelated in a learner and have potential

to enhance a learner’s motivation and performance, as well as the reverse.


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Attitudes and motivation in language learning materialized as an area of research

in the late 1950’s, and continues to be a topic of research into the 21st century (Dörnyei,

2001). Gardner & Lambert (1972) began research on the topic during his doctoral studies

in 1957. Aptitude had been accepted as the answer for why some individuals seemed to

be better at language learning than others. Yet, when a culture wants to keep an original

language alive, they learn it and pass it on to the children to know it as well as the spoken

language (Dörnyei, 2001; Gardner & Lambert, 1972). The question Gardner and

Lambert approached was that of attitude toward a culture and if it had an impact on the

learner’s motivation to learn the new culture’s language. He later termed this motivation

construct as integrative motivation (Gardner & Lambert, 1972; Csizér & Dörnyei, 2005).

Gardner has continued research in this direction as other researchers strongly suggest the

motivational framework to be expanded (Gardner & Tremblay, 1994; Noels, Clément &

Pelletier, 2001; Oxford & Shearin, 1994). Dörnyei (1994) remarks that Gardner’s works

are of great value to linguists and instructors of language; yet, there is a need to go

beyond the social psychology of motivation and language learning. Gardner saw that

there was more than aptitude involved in the success of learning a foreign language;

therefore, he positioned most of his research in the direction of discovering other factors

(Dörnyei, 2005; Gardner, 1960; 1994; Gardner & Lambert, 1972). “To say that one has to

have ‘an ear for languages’ is to give an excuse rather than an answer, since it is too easy

to transfer mysteries to biology, either as the source of one’s linguistic difficulties or as

the source of one’s linguistic genius” (Gardner & Lambert, 1972). Based on the years of

research, Gardner was accurate on this matter; yet, there still appears to be more

questions than answers as to the source of one’s abilities, or the lack of it, in learning a
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foreign language (Csizér & Dörnyei, 2005; Dörnyei, 1994; 2001; Gardner & Lambert,

1972; Noels, Pelletier, Clement, & Vallerand, 2000; Oxford & Shearin, 1994). Dörnyei

(1994) notes that Gardner & Lambert’s works (1972) are a necessary contribution to the

academy, yet the motivational construct of Gardner’s excludes cogitative aspects of

motivation to learn. From the time of Gardner’s founding of the Gardnerian motivational

theory for second-language learning till now, focus has changed from behaviorist to more

cognitive concepts (Dörnyei, 1994; 2001; 2001a). A variety of new approaches toward

motivation and second-language acquisition came about in the 1990’s. Gardner educated

many international scholars from his in-depth research (Dörnyei, 1994). Gardner &

Tremblay (as cited in Dörnyei, 1994) called the 1990’s a ‘motivational renaissance’. The

first three decades of research in the field of motivation and second-language learning

was inspired by the three Canadian psychologists, Robert Gardner, Wallace Lambert, and

Richard Clement. With their accomplishments, scholars had a solid foundation from

which to work (Dörnyei, 1994; 2001; Gardner, 1994). Research bodies established

motivation as the principle determinant of second language acquisition. Motivation and

how it impacts the learner’s aptitude is also considered well researched since the 1990’s

(Gardner, 1994). Approaching the new millennium the boundaries of second language

(L2) motivation were pushed even further with researchers adopting complex

perspectives (Dörnyei, 2001a). Studies in motivation would include: motivation from a

process-oriented perspective; task motivation; self-determination theory and the

neurobiological basis of motivation (Dörnyei, 2001a). Dörnyei (2001) suggests that L2

motivation as a situated construct will be one of the primary research areas of the future

and that there is a need to focus research on temporal motivation. The study of temporal
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motivation will be particularly useful because “…it allows researchers to discuss both

preactional ‘choice motivation’ (i.e., the motives leading to selecting goals and forming

intentions) and volitional/executive factors during the actional phase (i.e., motives

affecting ongoing learning behaviors) in a unified framework.” (Dörnyei, 2000; 2001)

To focus on intrinsic motivation allows for a detailed review and the inclusion of

various points of view. In the book “why we do what we do”, Deci & Flaste (1995) stated

that we often either experience or see others experience extrinsic motivation controlling

and forcing the focus to be on the outcomes, and that can ultimately lead to shortcuts that

may be undesirable. It is difficult to compete with extrinsic motivation, for human

behavior leads us to naturally seek gratification which is frequently offered as a reward

for the display or performance of an attained skill (Atkinson, 1974; Deci & Ryan, 1985).

The growing interest in cognitive processes since the early 1930s has had an influence on

the field of motivation. All of the cognitive theories from the 1930s till now direct our

attention to the concept of choice, which is directly related to motivation and even more

so to intrinsic motivation (Deci & Ryan, 1985; Noels, K. A., Pelletier, L. G., Clement, R.,

& Vallerand, R. J., 2000).

Foreign Language Learning Motivation / Attitude / Aptitude

Language learning research continues to view the learner, the learning, and the

instructing from a plethora of angles that include a multitude of factors (Dörnyei, 2005;

Ehrman, 1996). This paper will focus on the factors; motivation, attitude, and aptitude.

The theories specific to motivation and language learning and/or motivation for learning

a foreign language are plentiful. There is one that is of interest for this particular

literature review and that is attitude and motivation for language learning (Gardner &
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Lambert, 1972). However, there are gaps within Gardner’s theory, as it is focused

primarily on the social psychological underpinnings (Csizér & Dörnyei, 2005; Dörnyei,

1994; 2001b; 2003; 2005; Dörnyei & Csizér 1998; Gardner, 1994; Gardner & Lambert,

1972; Oxford, 1994; Oxford & Shearin, 1994). According to Dörnyei (1994; 2005) there

is a need to research outside the realm of social psychology and second language

learning. The situation Gardner’s theory is based on is quite unique in the sense that the

community observed spoke, and continues to speak, two different languages (Dörnyei,

1994; 2005). Some community members speak French, some speak English, and some

speak both; therefore his study was on the social aspects of how people were motivated,

or not motivated, to learn French if they were native English speakers (Gardner, 1960;

Dörnyei, 1994, 2005; Oxford & Shearin, 1994). Oxford & Shearin (1994) reiterated the

need to expand the framework of motivation and language learning. The attitude aspect

that Gardner included was specific to the learners’ attitude toward the French speaking

culture (Dörnyei, 1994; Gardner, 1960; 1994; Gardner & Lambert, 1972).

Seeing the narrowness of Gardner’s research, other researchers took on the tasks

of expanding the focus of research on motivation for language learning; considering

factors of attribution, self-determination, locus of control, self-efficacy and many more

(Dörnyei, 2001b; 2003; 2005; Ehrman, 1996; Oxford & Shearin 1994). The L2 research

needs seemingly continue to grow in the area of motivation and attitude, while at the

same time there is continuous research occurring on the matter of aptitude for language

learning (Dörnyei, 2005; Skehan, 1989). Skehan (1998) makes reference to Carroll’s

writing’s of the ‘60s, at the time the Modern Language Aptitude Test (MLAT) was being

designed by Carroll, suggesting that under moderate quality instruction and conditions of
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time pressure, that aptitude would be a good predictor of L2 success. Later Skehan (1998)

suggests there are L2 learners that are “less gifted” therefore need more time to put into

their learning and more effort. A number of researchers of language learning have made

apparently changed their ways of thinking about aptitude and are deciding that motivation

with aptitude is a predictor of success in learning a second language (Ehrman & Oxford,

1995; Skehan, 1998). At this time Skehan (2002 as cited by Erlam, 2005) is suggesting

that the determiner of one’s success at foreign/L2 language learning is the individual’s

general learning mechanisms. Moreover he (Skehan, 2002 as cited by Erlam, 2005)

suggests that language learning aptitude is modular in that one’s aptitude for L1 learning

is different from L2 language learning in the perception, analysis, storage and retrieval of

information.

Synthesis

In the foreign language learning context, learner’s motivation and attitude have

been suggested to have an influence on the student’s success in L2 learning (Csizér &

Dörnyei, 2005; Dornyei, 2003; 2005; Ehrman & Oxford, 1995; Gardner, 1960; Gardner

& Lambert, 1972). Self-efficacy is a belief that one has about one’s capabilities to

complete a task and at what level of success in doing so. It has been suggested that a

learner’s self-efficacy influences his or her learning motivation (Ehrman & Oxford, 1995;

Horwitz, 1988; Saito, Horwitz & Garza, 1999). Although many studies have looked into

the students’ attitude and there have been studies conducted evaluating the position of

motivation in language learning, and even studies into language learning and self-

efficacy, there has not been a study that makes the connections between the three and

compares their strengths to aptitude. Because these various aspects are important to
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success in language learning, understanding students’ various perceptions, motivations

and attitudes can offer a path to understanding the reasoning of their successes and

failures. By studying and further elucidating the attitudes, perceptions and motivations of

the learners, my hope is that this study will contribute to the research in language learning

as well as educational psychology in a significant manner; therefore helping instructors

identify destructive beliefs and attitudes that students may have. This recognition would

make it possible for instructors of language to help sustain the learners’ motivation.
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