Yuri Shepard-Kegl: My name is Yuri Shepard-Kegl. Carol Zall: The younger children were communicating much more fluently than the older kids. Judy Shepard-Kegl: In 1979, there was what they refer to as the triumph of the revolution. Carol Zall: And that means that other factors can start to influence the language. According to Flaherty, older signers are aware that the language is changing — not just the size of the signs, but also things like vocabulary — and at least some of them think that the younger signers are getting it all wrong. Host Marco Werman: One upon a time, there were no languages. Judy Shepard-Kegl: Deaf people were hidden in the homes. The Nicaraguan signers may well reveal more ways in which language fundamentally affects thought, for other aspects of the language besides spatial … Carol Zall: Judy concluded that what she was looking at was the emergence of a brand new language. “That was the stimulus, that was the input to the younger kids. The new government had big plans, including a massive literacy campaign that was launched in 1980. I’m not sure when irregular verbs entered the picture. Carol Zall: Children look for patterns in language, and when they find them, they favor the ones that occur most frequently. It's All Greek to You and Me, So What Is It to the Greeks? Babies are not given grammar lessons and yet they reliably learn grammar because they have inherent expectations about how languages function, says Shepard-Kegl. Carol Zall has our report. A language profile for Nicaraguan Sign Language. There are theories about how language evolved, but the truth is, nobody really knows. Today, however, we know a little more, thanks to a language that only came into being recently: Nicaraguan Sign Language. Judy Shepard-Kegl: They were involved in all kinds of promotions to get a fourth-grade education for everyone, get people literacy, improve health care, you know the literacy rate was horrendous. But the first Nicaraguan deaf school did not use ASL or any signs at all. Minority languages. That means that language is so integral to our human experience that basically give it half a chance to emerge, and it will. Usually, we think the older a child is, the better their language skills. They copied the grammar the little kids generated.”. No one knows exactly how many individuals are needed to generate a new language or what percentage of those individuals need to be young children. Not just Nicaraguan Sign Language, but any language. Marco Werman: Yuri is 29. There's a whole lot we don't know about vision and speech perception. Related: Curious Kids: Why do we say 'OK'?   Â. Carol Zall: This is key to Judy’s understanding of what happened. Carol Zall: Now, not only had these kids never been taught sign language, but there just wasn’t any sign language in Nicaragua. Carol Zall: That means that children have an outsized influence on language. Over the years, the centers saw deaf students come and go. The country has several Indigenous languages, many of which have become extinct, while others are spoken by small groups of Nicaraguans. Shepard-Kegl thought it would just be one trip. The Sandinista government took over. This is not to say, however, that other independent community-based sign languages never existed. For all that linguists have learned from the study of Nicaraguan Sign Language, perhaps most important is the proof it has provided for a controversial theory of language. The development of Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL) within the last several years is a prime example of how a need leads to innovation. Because larger signs would be easier to see. HawaiÊ»i’s Native-Language Newspaper Archive, Prolonged Isolation Can Lead to the Creation of New Accents, combined with a locally developed sign language in the 1960s, around 60 percent of which is made up of ASL signs. Younger signers today don’t have that same pressure: they do expect to be understood: Molly Flaherty: Because they share a language the way that the vast majority of us here on Earth share a language with other people. Judy thinks that that was the trigger for creating the new language: Judy Shepard-Kegl: The kids who really benefited from that input were 4, 5, 6. The new Sandinista government had big plans for their country. What Language Do People Speak in the Balkans, Anyway? Sign languages are not simply a series of gestures; they utilise the same grammatical machinery that is found in spoken languages. The World is a public radio program that crosses borders and time zones to bring home the stories that matter. This occurred at a number of schools in western Nicaragua. They were gesturing with each other, using the signs they’d used at home with their families. Around the turn of the 20th century, some deaf-education advocates believed that the ability to speak and lip-read a language would be more beneficial to deaf individuals than “manualism,” communication via sign language. PRX is a 501(c)(3) organization recognized by the IRS: #263347402. Carol Zall: Molly thinks the change has to do with the older signers, the ones from the earliest generations, wanting to make sure they were understood. Every morning, the editorial team at public radio’s international news show The World meets to plan what they'll cover that day. Carol Zall is with the language-themed podcast, Subtitle, which is supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Many linguists regard Nicaraguan Sign Language, or NSL, as an important test case, because the language developed almost in isolation, and … But outside of the classroom — on the playground, on the school bus — they had found a way to communicate. And the fact that the language has emerged so quickly is striking: Molly Flaherty: It's not like it takes a hundred years to get a language off the ground, and that's really good to know. Atlas Obscura and our trusted partners use technology such as cookies on our website to personalise ads, support social media features, and analyse our traffic. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies and Privacy Policy. She’s looked at how the size of the language has been changing from one generation to the next. Judy Shepard-Kegl: So, they learned it. The Development of Nicaraguan Sign Language via the Language Acquisition Process Ann Senghas, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 1. Carol Zall: Another reason linguists are fascinated by Nicaraguan Sign Language is because it allows them to study the way that children’s brains influence language. Nicaraguan Sign Language: the Language of the Truly Stimulus-Impoverished For much of the history of the Nicaraguan state, deaf children had essentially no formal support from the government. Within a few years, teachers and education officials recognized that something incredible was happening at the school and, in 1986, Nicaragua’s Ministry of Education invited the U.S. linguist Judy Kegl to visit as a deaf-education consultant. Such conventions occur when a community of speakers, who at home may have all used different signs to refer to an object or action, begin to consistently default to using just one, says James Shepard-Kegl. The language follows many basic rules common to all tongues, even though the children were not taught them. The language developed when the Sandinist government of Nicaragua created the first (elementary) school for deaf people, in the 1970s. Judy Shepard-Kegl: And there, that’s when I saw something very different. Prior to the establishment of these schools, there was no Deaf community and deaf children were linguistically isolated from one another. Around the world, deaf sign languages, including the one spoken among African Americans in Raleigh, have disappeared or changed significantly when a more widely used language has entered the region. Older deaf students would teach new students the Nicaraguan Sign Language, and that new generation of students, in turn, would expand on the language. Nevertheless, Nicaraguan Sign Language de-veloped rapidly. To learn more or withdraw consent, please visit our cookie policy. Carol Zall: The story starts in 1979. In fact, the linguistic world is rich with a wide variety of mutually unintelligible signed languages. Shepard-Kegl believes that the younger kids were in the “critical period” for language, meaning their brains were very receptive to learning. Carol Zall: Flaherty asks people of different ages to describe the same event to her, to see the differences in how they sign. It’s an opportunity that owes much to the birth of NSL occuring in the 1980s, when researchers had access to video cameras and could accurately record exactly what was happening. It is of particular interest to the linguists who study it, because it offers a unique opportunity to study what they believe to be the birth of a new language. Carol Zall: Studying these changes helps researchers test theories of why languages develop the way they do. I’m from Nicaragua. Winner will be selected at random on 02/01/2021. “Languages, by nature, borrow,” says Shepard-Kegl. Judy knew that this is something that can happen when a new language comes into being. Flaherty believes that the earliest generations of NSL signers wanted to make sure they were understood — larger signs are easier to see. Follow us on Twitter to get the latest on the world's hidden wonders. Offer subject to change without notice. In this episode of Language Stories, we're exploring the story of Nicaraguan Sign Language. The story you just read is freely available and accessible to everyone because readers like you support The World financially.Â, Thank you all for helping us reach our goal of 1,000 donors. Editor's note: A transcript of the radio story can be found below. They had spent lots of time with the older children, and been exposed to the gestures and signs that the older group was using. Carol Zall: And that, of course, is what Nicaraguan Sign Language is: the creation of children. Nicaraguan Sign Language has been of particular interest to linguists as one of the few languages whose birth was recorded. Nicaraguan Sign Language is a language that was developed spontaneously, by deaf children in the 1970s and 1980s. Nicaraguan Sign Language is the only language spontaneously created, without the influence of other languages, to have been recorded from its birth. And this is where the new language emerged. Judy was invited by Nicaragua’s Ministry of Education to come observe them. It was in the years after the revolution that Judy first got involved with Nicaragua. Photo by Ann Serghas In the 1970s, a group of deaf Nicaraguan schoolchildren invented a new language. “When they're articulating the same sign, their hands actually cover more space.”. Spanish is regarded as the official language of Nicaragua. Molly Flaherty: Yeah, like how large are the physical signs? She’s deaf. In the 1980s, deaf Nicaraguan children brought together in Managua generated a new sign language, complete with syntax. “Kids are good at learning certain things, and since kids are the primary language learners, they are the ones who are selecting for what stays in language, essentially. Molly Flaherty: Since kids are the primary language learners, they are the ones who are selecting for what stays in language, essentially. In Managua in the 1980s, too, though free of the influence of eugenicists, the Sandinistas focus on Spanish literacy resulted in the immersion of deaf students in Spanish speaking and reading skills. As Shepard-Kegl started to understand them better, it seemed to her that they didn’t have a full-fledged language — it was more like an elaborate system of gestures.Â, A few weeks later, Shepard-Kegl visited an elementary school. “To my knowledge,” Senghas writes, “there has not been another case of linguists and psycholinguists documenting the birth of a language on a community-wide scale.”. “A lot of those older kids weren’t generating grammar the way little kids did. Featuring. Judy believes that the younger kids were in the "critical period" for language, meaning their brains were very receptive to learning. Deaf youth with Deaf outreach workers (photo taken in a rural location outside Condega). Though older and younger students attended separate classes during school hours, on buses and playgrounds the children quickly began to select “conventions” for necessary words. After a couple of weeks, Judy went to see some younger kids at an elementary school. Of all the changes within Nicaragua to come out of the overthrow of the Somoza regime by the Sandinistas in 1979, perhaps the least anticipated was the birth of a new language. William Stokoe, known by many as the father of American Sign Language linguistics, disagrees that the emergence of ISN is evidence of a language acquisition device. Nicaraguan Sign Language (ISN; Spanish: Idioma de Señas de Nicaragua) is a sign language largely spontaneously developed by deaf children in a number of schools in western Nicaragua in the 1970s and 1980s. the fact that it is an unusual situation to begin with — NSL is a new language that is emerging in the absence of influence of other already existing languages Courtesy of Nicaraguan Sign Language Projects, Inc. Shepard-Kegl spent whole days watching the students in their classes, and the kids became curious about what she was doing. In this respect, Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL) is quite unique. It has been learned by successive waves of children from the same culture, all of whom began to learn at about the same age. And because there was a new group of kids entering the elementary school in Managua each year, researchers have been able to compare successive generations of signers, to see how the language has been changing over time. They actively interpret the language, looking for patterns, and favoring the ones that occur most frequently. Not only were the elementary students more fluent than their older peers, but they were also operating on a much more sophisticated level. That's the kind of formula for this.”. Judy Shepard-Kegl: And that made me realize, wait a minute, what am I looking at here? And it has helped fill in some gaps in our knowledge about how languages evolve, how they work, and the role a community plays in all of that — especially when it comes to the youngest learners. They now are based in the USA but run Nicaraguan Sign Language Projects.. Tio Antonio – Antonio, a chef originally from Valencia, Spain, lives and works in Granada, Nicaragua running the Cafe de las Sonrisas and other projects providing employment … Carol Zall: Those children had no way of knowing that those gestures and signs weren’t really a language. Introduction One of the central goals in research on language acquisition is to discover what knowledge and abilities children bring to the learning situation. Then at some point in human development, we began speaking to each other – eventually in ways that followed grammatical patterns. “You start building a vocabulary this way,” he says. Newscaster: “Victorious Sandinista rebels marched into Nicaragua’s capital city of Managua today.”. She’s signing these words to her adoptive mother Judy, who’s interpreting for her. These kids, who had never been taught sign language, started signing with each other. The number of speakers on Rama Cay island was only 4 in 1992, due to language shift to English that engendered Rama Cay Creole. Judy Shepard-Kegl: When I walked in, I said, "I'm a linguist, what do you want from me?" All rights reserved. Idioma de Signos Nicaragüense, or Nicaraguan Sign Language, is a sign language that was spontaneously invented by deaf schoolchildren in Nicaragua in the 1970s and 1980s. Please click below to consent to the use of this technology while browsing our site. She didn’t communicate much at all for the first few years of her life — until she went to a school for the deaf. Nicaraguan Sign Language similarly developed in a vacuum. Carol Zall: When the kids realized that Judy was studying them, they befriended her, started teaching her their signs. Some linguists feel that the “contamination” of a local language by a more globally dominant one results in the marginalization of a native community because it supplants the indigenous form of communication with something from outside. “When I walked in, I said, ‘I'm a linguist, I study sign language, what do you want from me?’ And they pointed to a bunch of kids milling around on a little basketball court in front of us and said, ‘We want to understand what they're talking about.’”, At school, the children were taught lip-reading and Spanish and were told not to use gestures. But in the mid-1980s, linguists were just learning of NSL's existence. Molly Flaherty is a psychology professor at Davidson College. “I like that idea, that we're all using this creation of children all the time, and we don't necessarily realize it.”. All languages have grammar and syntax, but the first children at Managua’s deaf school had no model for how a language worked because they had been isolated from signed, spoken, and written language all their lives, Shepard-Kegl notes. Went Wild for an 18th-Century Scottish Novelist, This Miniature Quran Bears Witness to an Immense History, The Archaeologist Who Collected 4,500 Beer Cans, Lessons on Enduring a Lonely Winter From Antarctic Voyagers, How a Blacksmith in Jordan Created His Own Sign Language, In Naples, Praying With Skulls Is an Ancient Tradition, Inside a Domed Pyramid With Astounding Acoustics and a History of Miracles, Courtesy Nicaraguan Sign Language Projects, Inc. What Is the Hardest Language in the World to Lipread? Back in 1979, she was a young researcher. In D. MacLaughlin & S. McEwen (Eds. It was more like an elaborate system of gestures. So, that means, like, when they're articulating the same sign, their hands actually cover more space. Every weekday we compile our most wondrous stories and deliver them straight to you. Marco Werman: Yuri was born without hearing. When children learn a language, they don’t just passively absorb words. Molly Flaherty: They're actually really active interpreters of the language that they're learning. And the first place she went was a vocational school. See. Offer available only in the U.S. (including Puerto Rico). Deaf Costa Ricans born prior to the 1960s, for example, primarily use what is referred to as Old Costa Rican Sign Language. (Kegl is today co-director of the Nicaraguan Sign Language Project and married to Shepard-Kegl.) This was brand new for Nicaragua. “What we see in Nicaragua is that older signers, they sign larger than do younger signers,” Flaherty said. I mean, deaf people weren't even going to the churches, there was a real stigma. “Within the Nicaraguan sign community, you still will interact with people who will talk about how the kids are being so messy, and so sloppy, in their signing. In the 1960s, Noam Chomsky suggested that children are born with an innate ability to learn human language. There is no teaching methodology for teaching a first language to a child. It wasn't a language, but their brains filled in the holes of what was missing. Another reason linguists are fascinated by NSL is because it allows them to study the way that children’s brains influence language. They supported special education in public schools, including provision for deaf children. Thank you all for helping us reach our goal of 1,000 donors. Her first stop was a vocational school. Carol Zall: But now, for the first time, hundreds of deaf children were brought together in a few schools in the capital city, Managua. 543-552). Shepard-Kegl was not alone in her assessment, and in the decades since that first trip to Nicaragua, many other scholars have traveled there to study the new language, too. Not only did this allow for the independent creation of Nicaraguan Sign Language, but it helped the nascent form of communication to survive. And they pointed to a bunch of kids milling around on a little basketball court in front of us and said, "We want to understand what they're talking about.". There, she made an interesting observation: “The younger the kids, the more fluent they were.”Â, Shepard-Kegl recognized the linguistic phenomenon of “reverse fluency” — a situation in which the younger members of a speech community gain greater fluency as a language develops, surpassing the older speakers’ linguistic abilities.Â, Related: Artist Christine Sun Kim on ‘deaf rage,’ the Super Bowl and the power of sound. Previously, most deaf children were completely isolated. In the decades since Judy’s first trips to Nicaragua, many other scholars have traveled there to study the new language, too. But while the country’s deaf children were being taught Spanish inside the classroom, outside the classroom they were spontaneously developing their own method of signed communication. She believes that as long as we’re given the right stimulus, at the right time, our brains will produce language. For Kegl and the other linguists that accompanied her after the initial visit, the opportunity to identify and study Nicaraguan Sign Language was “extremely rare,” writes Senghas in her 1995 MIT doctoral dissertation, Children’s Contribution to the Birth of Nicaraguan Sign Language, which focuses on the years she spent working with Kegl. It was here that the new language — Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL), or Idioma de Señas de Nicaragua (ISN) — would emerge. Spanish is the official language of Nicaragua. Private Trip: Immersive Art and Otherworldly Landscapes of Santa Fe, Culinary Naples: Producers, Purveyors, and Pizzaioli, Tales From the Museum: National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, How to Make a Murder: Writing Your Own Murder Mystery Party With Abi Inman, Seeing America Through Its Roadside Signs, Why 1920s L.A. Follow us on social media to add even more wonder to your day. Nicaraguan Sign Language was not imported from some other country. Bell, Greenwald notes, “used oralism as a form of assimilation.” It was a strategy that Bell hoped would eventually lead to the eradication of deafness in American society. American Sign Language, which has existed since the early 19th century, is used throughout the Americas and is often considered a “lingua franca” among deaf people whose first sign language is a national or regional one. Carol Zall: As part of this drive for literacy, the government started providing special education for deaf kids in public schools. We use cookies to understand how you use our site and to improve your experience. Kids “don’t know what the [grammatical] rule is but [they] expect that there is a rule.” In Managua’s first deaf school, there was no model and no one to guide the children in sign language and still a language was created in a way never observed before. For example, in early-to-mid-20th century Jim Crow-era Raleigh, North Carolina, under-resourced and pedagogically isolated African-American deaf schools independently developed unique languages, says Susan Burch, an American Studies professor at Middlebury College. There was a left-wing insurrection in central America. Rather, Nicaraguan Sign Language is as sophisticated, rule governed and versatile as any human language. At school, the children were being taught lip-reading and Spanish, and were told not to use gestures. Social distancing might not entirely change the way we talk, but a Mars expedition might do the trick. Smaller-scale isolated deaf-education programs had existed previously in 20th-century Nicaragua, Shepard-Kegl says, but the critical mass needed to spontaneously develop Nicaraguan Sign Language only occurred with the opening of Melania Morales. Until then, there wasn’t any official sign language in Nicaragua.Â. “You might imagine that the pressure to be understood might keep you big versus a smaller sign might be easier to miss, so it might be harder for somebody who doesn't share your language to be able to understand.”, Younger signers today, however, are part of an established language community, so they don’t feel the same pressure to keep their signs large.Â. Linguistically, this is especically interesting, as it provides linguists a rare opportunity to study the birth of a new language. It was as if fluency was going backwards. However, by the mid-1980s, teachers observed that students were signing to each other, communicating with their hands. This language is unique, and part of that uniqueness comes from the environment in which it was created. Kegl is co-director of the Nicaraguan Sign Language Project, which administers programs to empower the Nicaraguan deaf community through the use of sign language. Whereas American Sign Language could have extended into Nicaragua by the 1980s, as it did in neighboring Costa Rica where it combined with a locally developed sign language in the 1960s, Nicaragua’s geo-political isolation prevented ASL from entering the country, notes Shepard-Kegl. Judy teaches linguistics at the University of Southern Maine. Related: Florida teen girls step up to translate Indigenous Mayan languages. And though it … And though it came out of a period of civil strife, it was not political actors but deaf children who created the language’s unique vocabulary, grammar, and syntax. Professor of Psychology and Director of the Language Acquisition and Development Research Laboratory Ann Senghas studies the evolution of language. In this way, children drive the way a language develops. This means that children have an outsized influence on language — not just NSL, but any language. In the 1980s deaf children in Nicaragua invented a completely new sign language of their own. Others believe that when dominant languages arrive, they are appropriated by indigenous communities, often combining with an existing language to create a distinctly local version. For Shepard-Kegl, the way NSL emerged has reinforced her belief that humans have an innate capacity for language: As long as we’re given the right stimulus, at the right time, our brains will produce language. Suddenly, there was a community of deaf kids, all trying to communicate with each other. Today, Nicaraguan Sign Language has its own complex grammar and a broad vocabulary. This is hardly surprising to linguists who appreciate that like all languages, Nicaragua's sign language emerged among a human population. Consider supporting our work by becoming a member for as little as $5 a month. A close look at a strangely global idiom about how little we understand each other. I’ve lived here 13 years. “As you get older, your language instincts tend to diminish,” says Shepard-Kegl. It want influenced by any existing language — spoken or signed — and instead is a completely novel language, brought about by children whose previous linguistic repertoire was limited to unsystematic gestures. We depend on ad revenue to craft and curate stories about the world’s hidden wonders. One such initiative was opening the first public school for deaf education, the Melania Morales Special Education Center, in Managua’s Barrio San Judas. James Shepard-Kegl – James and his wife Judy have been involved in Nicaraguan Sign Language for many years now. Like Atlas Obscura and get our latest and greatest stories in your Facebook feed. Nicaraguan Sign Language. A new sign language created over the last 30 years by deaf children in Nicaragua has given experts a unique insight into how languages evolve. No purchase necessary. She uses motion-tracking technology to follow the position of people’s wrists in space, to measures the physical size of the signs. The language is of special interest to linguists, because it allows them to study … Yuri Shepard-Kegl: Right now I’m at home, in my home in Maine. They had a real language. In Nicaragua today, changes in technology and communication have led to the increased use of American Sign Language within the deaf community. We couldn’t have done it without your support. Your donation directly supported the critical reporting you rely on, the consistent reporting you believe in, and the deep reporting you want to ensure survives.Â, a dictator whose family had been in power in Nicaragua since 1936, Virtual schooling poses extra challenges for English-language learners, Artist Christine Sun Kim on ‘deaf rage,’ the Super Bowl and the power of sound, Florida teen girls step up to translate Indigenous Mayan languages, 'The death of American exceptionalism’: Views from abroad on US Capitol attackÂ, From Sudan, Ethiopian refugees tell their stories, Latino communities targeted by disinformation ahead of Georgia’s Senate runoffs, 'Georgia, all eyes are on you': Activists galvanize Latino voters ahead of runoffsÂ. For many years now Sports Officials than any other language Flaherty is a 501 ( c (. Produce language the churches, there was no deaf community uses to communicate each. 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Arose naturally, among a human population their signs Research on language Acquisition and development Research Laboratory Ann,..., wait a minute, what we see in Nicaragua is that older,... Of 1,000 donors whose birth was recorded when to say, however, other... Strangely global idiom about how language evolved, but any language stokoe also questions assertions that the.! Was to observe the students –—and try to figure out what they cover., this is a study of language development, 19 ( pp supported by the IRS: #.. When it came to the learning situation I walked in, I said, `` I a... The position of people’s wrists in space, to have been recorded from its.. Close look at the language that the earliest generations of NSL signers wanted to make sure they also... Latest and greatest stories in your Facebook feed Shepard-Kegl – james and his Judy! In western Nicaragua school bus — they had found a way to communicate of signers... Created, without the influence of other languages, to have been involved in Nicaraguan Sign in... As we’re given the right time, children drive the way we talk, but a Mars expedition do! Was more like an elaborate system of gestures that occur most frequently increased use of this technology while browsing site! Countries have their own at home with their hands actually cover more space use gestures another reason linguists are by. Kids were in the 1980s, deaf individuals would be able to fully in! Says Shepard-Kegl. Condega ) what she was looking at here social media to add even more to! Vision and speech perception crosses borders and time zones to bring home the stories that matter a... They don’t just passively absorb words follow us on social media to add even wonder... At the right stimulus, that means that other factors can start influence! Was the emergence of a new Sign language de-veloped rapidly episode of language development deaf. That, of course, is what Nicaraguan Sign language is pretty special outside. Not invented by teachers, parents, or judge because they have inherent expectations about how little we each! The world is rich with a wide variety of mutually unintelligible signed languages by about %..., 19 ( pp home, in the 1980s, deaf individuals would able. Students were signing to each other playground, on the playground, on the,. Developed when the children interacted, instead of adapting their signs ref, ump, or.. Operating on a much more sophisticated level the truth is, the very youngest kids were the first place went! Done it without your support!  also questions assertions that the younger children were being taught lip-reading and,! The very youngest kids were in the holes of what happened have been recorded from birth. It to the learning situation as we’re given the right time, there was what they to. Goal of 1,000 donors was what they were saying media to add even more to...
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