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Some Thoughts on Polyglottery


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Kinda strange consideration, honestly. French would be rather easy, especially if you have some basis in another Romance language; Tibetan .... well, I'm tempted to simply say "it's a bitch." Interesting and challenging, nonetheless ;)

Are you learning Tibetan gerri? How do you find it?

As far as French, I think there are few main reasons to learn it. 1) It has an important and great culture, literature and history, as everyone knows. 2) It is widely used in many continents 3) for some odd reason, many of the friends that I've made over the past year or two have been French speaking, and it'd be nice to speak to them in their own language 4) I went to Paris last year, and it was amazing how rude people were to me when I couldn't speak French. One could view this in a bad light, but the positive aspect is that, socio-linguistically, there will always be tons of opportunities to use French , unlike some other languages in which, as a native speaker of English, people basically refuse to speak to you in anything other than English (the so-called "English-cornered effect"), or at least until you become very advanced. (This can be a huge hurdle in Cantonese, and I'm pretty sure it will be for Hindi/Urdu as well- since many people in India and Pakistan speak very good English). So, I've already bought the Assamil book, and think I will give it a try.

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I wish the Chinese would be rude to people who don't use Chinese.

Hehe...I think it's not too bad. When I first went to China in 2001, it seemed like a foreigner speaking Chinese was as strange as a talking dog. But now, especially in cities like Beijing, it seems like there has been a subtle shift in mentality, and speaking Chinese is no longer that odd, and in some cases even sort of expected.

As more and more foreign students learn Chinese, and as average people start to have interactions with foreigners using Chinese, and as China's power increases, I wouldn't be too shocked if Beijing will have a quasi-Parisian mindset in 10-20 years!

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These things seem to be changing rapidly, too... There is quite enough of a "what, you are studying Chinese?!?" (living in China as foreign teacher), matter-of-course switches to English e.g. in stores in Shanghai around JingAnSi, but also a natural chatting in Chinese (sometimes even local dialects) as if everybody should understand anyways...

What attitudes will be like, let's see.

As for Tibetan (@wushijiao): I've dabbled in it, taken barely a semester's worth of modern and even less of Classical Tibetan at university. Enough to really appreciate the Manual because the books we used were basically just sentences to translate. And Tibetan is hard. But somehow fun. I'd still like to get back to it, but first things first. And first thing now has to be Chinese... with the internet and teaching foreign language, I study and practice Chinese waaaaay too little.

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  • 2 months later...

Here's my own mini update:

Goals for first half of 2010

Overall: I hope that somehow I can scrounger up an amazing amount of energy, and I'll push it into this project of the next year. Some tentative goals:


-Continue to review Teach Yourself by listening 30 minutes to an hour per day.

- Listen to Beginner's Hindi and Living Language as sidekicks to Teach Yourself.

-Try to complete Intermediate Hindi Reader (main goal).

-Review Introduction to Hindi Grammar.

Have been listening to Teach Yourself Hindi about 15-30 minutes a day, just reviewing. At the same time, I'm more or less done with the first chapter of Intermediate Reader. But in general, not too much work on Hindi.


-Finish Teach Yourself (another main goal).

-Do plenty of flashcard work.

I've been studying Urdu like a madman, and I just finished Teach Yourself yesterday. At the same time, I've made hundreds of cards, and can more or less read the Nasta'liq script (although by no means perfectly or at all fluently).

In case anybody feels like the want to take up Hindi/Urdu, I feel the two Teach Yourselves are good complimentary books. TY Hindi is entertaining, a bit soap opera-ish, but it's spoken fairly quickly and they don't repeat new words all that much. The TY Urdu is also fairly entertaining, but it's spoken at a slower pace, and they repeat the words quite a bit, which is helpful.

Anyway, for the next few months, I'm going to keep reviewing those, will finish Hindi Living Languages, and will work on the Intermediate Reader and Advanced Urdu Reader. I've also bought the Hindi version of "Imagining India" and an Urdu version of Harry Potter, and I'll work on that in the second half of the year.

One thing that might be a big blessing in disguise, or could be a huge hurdle, is that there really isn't very much intermediate stuff on the market fro Hindi/Urdu.

Also, I've come to find that roughly 20-40% of Urdu vocab seems to be Arabic or Farsi derived (or at least that about how it feels). So, I've decided that I might as well take the leap into Arabic and put down a foundation! One more project to work on!

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Do you have a job? How on earth do you find time to do all these things?

Hehe, yes I have a job, but no not too much time. :mrgreen: I should clarify that my only goals in Arabic will be to lay a very basic foundation of listening practice over the year or so, and see where it goes. Although I use Mandarin and Cantonese as much as possible, I've more or less placed those two on a "passive building phase", if you will.

Time is the biggest issue though. In my schedule, however, I take a ferry to work, and so I use at least get an hour or two of studying there. Then, every weekend I take at least one 4-5 hour hike in HK (weather permitting), where I listen to and review all the Teach Yourself books and other podcasts (Mundo, 时事一周,中国一周,德国之声...etc). Besides that, I try to make room for at least an hour or two per day.

Another trick that I'm doing is more or less cutting out English-language entertainment. So, to the highest degree possible, I'm just watching, Bollywood, HK, Mandarin and Spanish movies.

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As 2009 comes to an end' date=' here's basically where I'm at:


-On the last chapter of Teach Yourself Hindi (although a lot of review will of course be needed over the next few months).

-Bought Beginner's Hindi, but found it somewhat boring.

-Bought Hindi: Living Language, went through three chapters. I found it to be well made and useful, but not as engaging as Teach Yourself. So, I'll use that as a supplement (以TYS為主,以LL為輔).[/quote']

TYSF Hindi is quite useful. Routledge has many high quality books, but their Colloquial Hindi is just a minimal introduction.


-On chapter five of Teach Yourself Urdu. I've found it to be a great resource, but I couldn't quite understand the script from the book's explanation.

-Therefore, also bought Let's Study Urdu: An Introduction to the Script, and now I'm basically able to read Urdu (although that process will still take some months to get good at, almost like learning Chinese characters).

I don't like the TYSF Urdu (Bailey, 1956) transcription system. It should be much more efficient to learn Hindi in Devanagari and then applying the Urdu script.

One of the best grammars of any kind that I've found on any language is the Routledge, Schmidt: Urdu: An Essential Grammar.


-Took a course on this, but found the course to be painful in its outdated methods.

Course? Links etc., please. For resources, I suppose you're familiar with the Rhys Davids Dictionary. I haven't had a closer look, but keep them handy, at those:

Gair, Karunatillake: A New Course in Reading Pail

Johansson: Pali Buddhist Texts

and if you read German (German and Russian should be very useful for textbooks, grammars and dictionaries anyway),

Schmidt: PALI Buddhas Sprache. Anfänger-Lehrgang zum Selbstunterricht

Mayrhofer: Handbuch des Pali I, II.

Goals for first half of 2010

My university 2nd semester distance learning Hindi uses Smith, Weightman: Introductory Hindi Course, from Landour Language School, Mussoorie. I'm not too enthusiastic yet, so I do the TYSF in parallel.

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Lugubert, thanks for the input!

The Intermediate Hindi Reader by Usha Jain looks to be really good, and level appropriate for me. I was able to find the CD that goes with it too (which wasn't easy because it wasn't in stock for months). It looks like that is probably the best resource after TYS.

As far as Urdu, I have the TYS 2007 version, which is really good and improved from the previous version (although, as Arguelles points out in his commentary on the TYS series, the editions made in the '50's were generally much more comprehensive-- often having double or triple the amount of vocabulary compared to current editions. This complaint rings true for the 2007 version. it's a great resource, but it stops at 15 chapters, and well short of the vocab base needed to plow through higher-level stuff).

It should be much more efficient to learn Hindi in Devanagari and then applying the Urdu script.

This is essentially what I did. I worked on Hindi (via TYS Devanagari and TYS) before moving to Urdu. I think this is probably the best course of action, since Devanagari is rather simple, and the transcription system is also standardized.

As far as Pali, my studies are on hold, but I'll take a look and tell you what I have. The Rhys Davids Dictionary is good, but I've heard there's an even better one in the works, with comprehensive listing of verb forms.

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You are doing very well, Bill! Welcome to Arabic! I will try to catch up with on Hindi. Good on you!

I like TY Hindi as well, especially audio, only I am not too happy that they take out the transcription after a few lessons, I am not working hard enough to master Devanagari. I find it not so easy, harder than Hangeul, anyway.

I can say that TY Thai is also good, especially the way they teach the script. They could slow down a bit on the audio.

TY Vietnamese is good, not so happy with the reading speed and clarity. The Vietnamese tones are killing me. I thought you learn tones in one language, the other will be easy - no way! There are too many vowel and diphthong variations too.

I don't think I will need Urdu. Spoken Hindi (+ a few Muslim specific phrases) will be good enough to talk to Pakistanis but I can follow Nasta'līq script after Arabic and I know, which vowels are used. Arabic is enough for me for solving the missing vowel riddles!

E.g. if you know how to pronounce याद करना (yād karnā - to remember) in Hindi, then you can guess یاد کرنا in Urdu. Urdu is like in Arabic, you need to know the (spoken) language before you can read the script, I mean you need to know how to pronounce them, then you can figure out from the written form.

It looks I'll be very busy now with Chinese. I am enrolled in a diploma course now. I will continue to study the 2 languages - I've been learning for a long time - Chinese and Japanese.

As a step to get multilingual, to the exiting Arabic I added Korean, Thai, Hindi and Vietnamese. Not enough time in the day to really study them, I just read the textbooks every now and again and listen to the audio. I am not sure I will be able to become a polyglot. Perhaps I am already, if I list Russian and German, some French and Polish.

Edited by atitarev
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Perhaps I am already, if I list Russian and German, some French and Polish.

And English! :D I think you qualify as a genuine polyglot!

I like TY Hindi as well, especially audio, only I am not too happy that they take out the transcription after a few lessons, I am not working hard enough to master Devanagari. I find it not so easy, harder than Hangeul, anyway.

This is somewhat true. Devanagai's hardest aspect is that some of the consonant clusters can take strange forms.

Urdu is like in Arabic, you need to know the (spoken) language before you can read the script, I mean you need to know how to pronounce them, then you can figure out from the written form

This is generally true, especially because Urdu sometimes leaves out the vowel sounds in the spellings (or to be more accurate, one symbol could mean more than one vowel sound), so one is expected to know them already. But with that said, I'd say probably around 3/4 of words are spelled as they actually sound, so in that respect, it may be easier than Arabic.

In any case, I decided that for both Hindi and Urdu, I was not going to take an approach that I was simply going to learn the alphabet, and then try to read. Instead, I took the dual track approach of learning the alphabet while also trying to make flashcards of the spellings of hundreds of words-- almost how one would learn Chinese characters. Also, for lessons 6-9 (or so) of the TYS Hindi, I literally wrote out the whole Devanagari script onto paper, listened to the audio dozens of times, and transcribed in romanization of any unclear parts. That process took around 3-4 hours per dialogue, I must admit. However, I think my ability to read in Devanagari improved quite a bit by doing that.

then you can guess یاد کرنا in Urdu.

Actually, the script that they use in TYS Urdu is a bit different from that one. I see that the BBC Urdu uses that Arabic-style script (which I have slight difficulties reading). While other sites like Urdu Point use the script that I'm a bit more used to. I'm not sure which is more prevalent today in the Urdu-speaking world.

In any case, I think work with Arabic will help broccoli up my ability with the former (to use a vegan metaphor).

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I don't know if the proper Urdu script is used on the Internet. Perhaps, I made a mistake by using Nasta'līq to refer to Urdu writing as there are more than one way to write in Urdu. I am more comfortable with the Arabic way and it seems it's also used to write Urdu and Persian (Farsi) on the web, although there are some differences, of course and some letters use different encoding even if they look the same.

But with that said, I'd say probably around 3/4 of words are spelled as they actually sound, so in that respect, it may be easier than Arabic.

My example یاد کرنا is ambiguous as this only means yād- k-r-nā, where "-" stands for any unknown short vowel.

Edited by atitarev
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TY Vietnamese is good, not so happy with the reading speed and clarity. The Vietnamese tones are killing me. I thought you learn tones in one language, the other will be easy - no way! There are too many vowel and diphthong variations too.

The TY Vietnamese I have found (don't remember the edition) and the Routledge Colloquial Vietnamese qualify among the worst textbooks I've seen. TY pours out new editions all the time, so maybe they've improved. And you could search the Internet for days without being any wiser on the tones despite recorded examples.

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Thanks, Lugubert.

They really don't know how to teach the Vietnamese pronunciation. The FSI course could probably be used but the text scans are horrible (format and fonts) and it's based on South Vietnamese - only 5 tones and some other differences.

FSI Vietnamese (there are many other language courses (for polyglots) of various quality)

Apart from the pronunciation I find TYV manageable as an introduction. Well, the Vietnamese grammar is not hard, so you can dig the answers yourself - they don't bother to explain some grammar points but if a language was about just reading and understanding, then the textbook could be used.

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  • 3 weeks later...

Small update on my studies (for any who might be interested):


-Going through Intermediate Reader, and managed to get the audio CD-ROM.

- Watching a lot of Bollywood movies, and trying to learn at least 20-30 words for each movie. (Eventually, I plan to learn in a way similar to "Grand First Episode Project").

-Continuing to re-listen/memorize audio materials.


I decided to try learning Bengali! Why?

-As mentioned in the first post, I'm interested in learning the languages and dialects of certain families, and the concept of a "dialect continuum". I'd also like to know as much about the northern Indian languages as Arguelles does about the

(see link in which he profiles several different Germanic languages).

-Bengal was one of the leading areas in the Indian nationalist movement in the 1800's and early 1900's, and the Bengali Renaissance (as the name would imply).

- Some of India's most famous intellectuals did their work in Bengali, such as Rabindrathat Tagore and Satyajit Ray. In other words, there's lots of great books and movies to study from (eventually).

-The language itself looks to be relatively similar to Hindi, and it also contains a lot of Sanskrit borrowings. In other words, it may actually help reinforce my Hindi, while later givng me more overall-knowledge to work with if I want to get serous about Pali/Sanskrit.

-It's the sixth most spoken language in the world, and its the official language of a country (Bangladesh). (This is in contrast to India, in which English is still the most prestigious language, and for many non-Hindi speakers, Hindi is simply associated with fascist Hindutva extremists, although that's not really fair to Hindi).

-West Bengal and Bangladesh, combined, have a significant economy.

-The TYS materials for Bengali seem to be excellent (so far).

So, overall, there are actually many good reasons to learn Bengali. It's also one of the most under-studied languages out there, relative to the population of the area and the cultural richness. Although I'm studying it mainly as a means of seeing how it fits in to this polyglottery project and because of the potential for interesting content, I think studying languages that are under-studied can give one stronger jobs possibilities than ones in which there's lots of competition.

Anyway, I'm also putting down a base in Arabic and French, although with much less intensity compared to Indian languages.

As far as Spanish and Cantonese, I still am trying to get in some podcasts, and speaking in Cantonese, when possible.

Continue to solidify Mandarin via podcasts, work, and readings (focusing on speed and volume).

Edited by wushijiao
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I am not sure how I missed this thread, but I am a little surprised to see people that share some of my outlook on language learning. I actually have a language library that looks something like Dr. Arguelles's.

A few interests that I seem to share with others here are Arabic, Hindi, Sanskrit, Spanish, and French; however, I am not actively pursuing or maintaining any of these at the moment. The only ones in which I have any substantial proficiency are Spanish, French, and some Arabic.

I think some of the ways that my interests differ from what has been expressed on this thread is that I am less interested in mastering languages than in "sampling" them. Although I have some interest in the modern cultures and the utility of learning languages, I am more interested in the overall cultures in a historical context and in the languages themselves.

I tend to have more passion around the "Great Books" and in interesting poetry or music than in being able to read newspapers or converse about the weather or politics. As a result, I study a language because it is inherently interesting and then continue as long as the intellectual payback makes it worthwhile. This means that my usual pattern is to learn enough to work my way through some reading material or to understand an interesting text, and then I forget just about everything.

Classical languages in which I have invested some substantial time (worked through one or more grammars), but have established wildly different proficiency, would include:

Latin, ancient Greek, Old Irish, Middle Egyptian, Coptic, Arabic, and Chinese.

I have also dabbled a little bit in Old English, Sanskrit, Late Egyptian, Akkadian, Hebrew, Sumerian, and Icelandic (for Old Norse), but have lost interest or hit some kind of wall.

Things I have really enjoyed include reading in the original (with copies notes and dictionaries):

Latin poetry (e.g., Horace)

Greek poetry, history, and philosophy (Herodotos, Homer, New Testament, Pericles, Aeschylus)

Middle Egyptian stories and parts of the display in a Tutankhamen exhibit

Coptic translations of the new testament

Arabic poetry and selections from the Qur'an

Chinese poetry, philosophy, and history (Daodejing, Art of War, Zhuangzi, Zhu Xi)

Because of my learning method and interests, I have also tended to study more than one period of several languages and also tended to branch out within language families or within dialects.

Here are some of the language families:

Germanic: some English creoles, Old English, German, and Swedish, I would like to add Icelandic and Danish, but keep getting distracted.

Celtic: Connemara Irish, Munster Irish, and Old Irish, I would like to read more Old Irish poetry, but this is among the most difficult languages I have ever studied.

Romance: Spanish, French, some Portuguese, a tiny bit of Italian, and Latin. I would not mind more Italian (I adore one of Petrarch's sonnets), and I have some interest in Catalan as a bridge between French and Spanish.

Slavic: A little Russian. I have some interest in attacking Polish, since I seem to be meeting many Polish speaking recently recently, and some interest in learning some Bosnian/Croation/Serbian, because of the pitch accent and its relevance for Indo-European.

Greek: Homeric Greek, Attic Greek, New Testament Greek, a little Modern Greek

Indo-Iranian: a little Sanskrit, very little Hindi/Urdu, very little Persian ( I would love to read Rumi)

Semitic: Classical Arabic, Egyptian Arabic, a little Lebanese Arabic, a little Biblical Hebrew, a little Akkadian

Niger Congo: a little Swahili, a tiny bit of Zulu (inspired by the Lion King), and some of two tonal Mande languages

Chinese: Mandarin, a little Cantonese, some classical

Cool languages I have studied (some a lot, some only a little):

Classical Chinese (script, grammar, and style)

Old Irish (pervasive sandhi, grammatical palatization, complex verbs)

Middle Egyptian (script is awesome. I remember "reading" Tutankhamen's jewelry)

Zulu (phonology: variety of clicks, implosives, glottalic consonants)

Sanskrit (elegance of the grammar and phonology)

Classical Arabic (detailed and unusual morphology)

American Sign Language (grammar, morphology, and medium)

Ancient Greek (flexible word order, rich declensions and conjugations)

Cool or interesting languages I would like to study in my next fantasy life, but probably not in this one:

Fujianese (tone sandhi)

Navaho (fascinating verbs, few nouns)

some Algonquin language (complex verbs)

Classical Maya (script, glottal consonants)

a Salishan language (astonishing consonant clusters—for instance the Nuxálk word xłp̓x̣ʷłtłpłłskʷc̓ (IPA: [xɬpʼχʷɬtʰɬpʰɬːskʷʰt͡sʼ]) meaning "he had had a bunchberry plant" has 13 consonants in a row with no vowels).

a "talking drum language"

a whistling language

a "click" language, e.g., !Xóõ

I find some aspect of just about every language I study interesting, but not necessarily most aspects.

One thing that no one has mentioned so far has been artificial languages. I have studied a little Esperanto, but did not find its structure or goals appealing to my interests. However, I have recently found an interest in Lojban

I found Lojban interesting for several reasons:

1. Its basic vocabulary was drawn from the six (at the time) most widely spoken languages: Mandarin, English, Hindi, Spanish, Russian, weighted by population. It is thus a language where knowledge of Mandarin is somewhat helpful for learning some vocabulary.

2. Its design goals require a large amount of cultural neutrality and grammatical flexibility.

3. It has two proponent grammatical features that are unusual: a basis in predicate logic and a particle system allowing great precision in expressing metalinguistic issues (emotions, attitudes, sources of information, etc.)

After Chinese, this is the language I am most interested at the moment.

If anyone is interested in this type of linguistic grazing, please let me know. I also want to mention two texts about language that I found the most surprisingly rewarding among everything I have read: How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs: A Step-by-Step Guide to Teach Yourself by Mark Collier and Bill Manley and How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics by Calvert Watkins. The first one was surprising because it gave a nice introduction to Egyptian and hieroglyphics, treating it like a real language, rather than a funny alphabet, but still not requiring a deep dive into all the complexities of the full language. The second was surprising in being able to put forth a credible theory to tie together almost 4 thousand years of disparate aspects of the Indo-European literary tradition, comparing bits of modern English nursery rhymes, early modern Irish bards, classical Greek poets, and the Hindu Vedas.

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I am not sure how I missed this thread, but I am a little surprised to see people that share some of my outlook on language learning. I actually have a language library that looks something like Dr. Arguelles's.

It might be interesting to compare our libraries. Not counting cultural history or religion (half a dozen of metres: mainly Christianity, Islam, India), but including tech dictionaries, I'm at some 24 shelf meters of language literature. Especially heavy on India, Semitic languages (not modern Hebrew, though) and China.

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Very interesting Altair and Lugubert, thanks for sharing. You might be interested in the "Great Books" section of Arguelles's website.

Personally, I think my take on polyglottery has three main motivating factors: 1) to be able to gain the knowledge from the world's "Great Books" in the original, 2) to understand the the modern societies and their politics (as a armchair anthropologist and political junkie), and 3) to understand how the brain processes language, and to see what the limits are in terms of learning.

This last point is something I've been thinking a lot about recently. For the average middle class person today, I think there is an unprecedented opportunity to be able to know many languages. With the right learning techniques, and using technologies like the iPod, Skype, Youtube and by reading many different web pages (ie. BBC news in dozens of languages) and by buying stuff an Amazon, it's possible to create virtual immersion in almost any language, with a level suitable to one's own language level. And this can now be done in a cheaper and more convenient way than in any time in history! I think it's perfectly possible to become competent in many languages, and so I want to do an experiment on myself to see what the outer limits are! To some extent, I think the limits that we put on our own abilities are self-imposed (for more on that concept, and the inspiring idea of breaking those limits, see this Arguelles video on learning Spanish, French, Italian, and German).

Edited by wushijiao
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wushijiao, let me add three points that have influenced me: 4) (close to your 3) Trying to understand how I learn languages. 5) (also close) Trying to understand what happens in my brain when I translate (my occupation). The problem is that when I try to focus on the process, translating becomes slow and unnatural. Most of the time in normal work (with familiar languages and subjects) the transition from language X to Swedish just happens. 6) Trying to understand the similarities and differences between various language structures (the problem of language universals).

6) is partly responsible for my trying languages from widely different families. Come to think of it, I probably have tried difficult languages hoping that starting from no knowledge at all would help items 4) and 5). Ha! I invariably end up being too interested in the language to concentrate on the learning/translating processes.

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