Editor’s note: this article was translated from Ifeng News, and looks at the statements made by Zhang Shuhua, Head of the Intelligence Research Academy, during the recent national committee meeting. Zhang commented on the apparent “devastating” effects that the emphasis on English learning has had on the Chinese education system, and called for more in-depth focus on the studying of Chinese-related subjects.
As English is currently the most widely used language in the world, China’s education system has had to strive hard to nurture English speaking talents in order to sufficiently keep up with and communicate with the outside world. However, during the first session of the recent 12th CPPCC National Committee, Zhang Shuhua, Head of the Intelligence Research Academy, stated that the strong focus on the study of English in China has been “destructive” to the Chinese education system.
Photo: South China Morning Post
Zhang likened the studying of English in China to “putting a cart before a horse” and that in China, English isn’t seen as a requirement for social reform and development, but more as a means to an end. Zhang also stated that students often suffer during the studying of English, and that it is “wasting normal study time.” Zhang reinforced his claims by saying that the emphasis on English has “devastated” Chinese education, with the study of Mandarin facing an “unprecedented crisis.” Zhang continued by saying that “English enthusiasm has used large amounts of educational resources at high costs but with little gains.”
A “huge blow” to Chinese education
Many Chinese children begin their journey into the world of English at kindergarten, and by the time they reach middle school, English is seen as a one of the three major subjects alongside Chinese and mathematics. By the time they reach university, many students are denied access into their school of choice due to their English scores not being up to scratch. Those wanting to pursue postgraduate studies are required to take an even higher level English entrance exam. English exam preparation consumes a large portion of students’ time which subsequently results in a “huge blow” to the studies of courses related to their actual major, according to Zhang. The fact that China’s higher education is ranked as one of the lowest in the world is the result of the above trend, according to Zhang.
Zhang said that English is simply viewed as a tool for students to progress, and that every year many outstanding students are being denied access to higher education due to their English scores not hitting the mark. On the flipside, Zhang also mentioned that many “unprofessional” and “mediocre” students are being granted access to higher education simply due to their high English grades.
English overtaking Chinese as a “threshold for survival”
According to Zhang, students who take subjects such as traditional Chinese medicine, classical Chinese and ancient Chinese history are very unlikely to use English in their working environments. Yet despite this, English is often a prerequisite for getting into these courses – a reality that Zhang deems “utterly unnecessary”.
Due to the influence of the current Chinese education, society, and government policies, English has now become a threshold of survival in Chinese society. Zhang believes that as well as proving inefficient in terms of the amount of social cost used, English is often simply either “self-imposed torture or a tool of self-amusement.” Students spend unimaginable amounts of time and money on English during the 12 years between primary school and university only to pass a few exams; one can therefore justifiably claim that it’s all just a colossal waste.
Zhang referenced a 2010 survey carried out by China Daily stating, “There isn’t really a difference between the English levels of those who studied basic English and those who have never studied the language at all. Traditional methods of examination should be thoroughly abolished!” Zhang also stated that in the survey, 80% of those questioned agreed that the study of Chinese was facing a crisis. In light of this, Zhang noted the irony of the fact that there is currently little enthusiasm from Chinese people towards studying their own mother tongue, and that the Chinese language has gradually become more and more degraded.
“Feverous worship of English”
In light of the points he made, Zhang Shuhua advised that heavier focus should be placed on the study of Chinese in schools as it carries with it not only cultural significance but also a sense of pride and purpose. Zhang believes that Chinese plays an “irreplaceable part in the thought processes and spirit of Chinese heritage and civilization.” Coupled with math, Zhang believes that Chinese should preside over other subjects and the prominence of English study should be reduced significantly. Subjects such as biology and chemistry should also be left aside until students reach high school, and that subjects requiring numerous exams should also be substantially reduced, paving the way for children to embrace and appreciate Chinese language and Chinese cultural related learning. Zhang also insists that schools should start thinking about how to cure what he dubbed a “feverous worship of English.” He also urged those in the job and higher education sectors not to place too much emphasis on the requirement of certain English levels during application processes.
Source: Ifeng News
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Keywords: Zhang Shuhua English learning in China Chinese education
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I didn't hear him say anything against, or even about foreigners. Can you point to where he said anything about foreigners or blamed them for anything? It seems to me he was blaming his own country and their policies. Have you ever seen elementary schoolers testing? It's like their in IB or AP in first grade. I agree with this dude actually. First off, what's wrong with him wanting more emphasis on study of their mother tongue and own culture. It would be a damn shame if all that went by the wayside and was all but gone in 10 years. Secondly, their schools do need some massive reform, and reducing the emphasis of these massively absurd, terribly stressful, and generally useless tests would be a big step. Finally, I the man has a great point about the waste of a lot of English lessons. I taught for 2 and a half years, and I had training in Linguistics and a method. But I saw so many teachers who had no idea what they were doing, and the kids never went anywhere after years of lessons. What's more, if you have a kid who just doesn't give a shit about English and loves Math, then they are wasting a lot of time and money. What's wrong with Chinese people being encouraged to study their culture more and not let it fade away? I think it's great. As long as it's peaceful and not super pumped on Mao.
Mar 27, 2013 08:43 Report Abuse
He isn't saying it outright, but in saying that China's need to learn English so that it can better compete with the west economically has caused its people to loss touch with their cultural heritage its doubtlessly the subtext here. No amount of English education is never going to make the Chinese less Chinese, in the same way that no amount of Spanish language education in the US could ever cause the US to become a Latin American nation. Second, I would contend that an emphasis on English education actually helps Chinese in fields that are better for China's development as a whole, even if they dislike the language. Look at the majors that he mentions as not requiring very much English in their careers. None of them are good for China's development, and there is very little in the way of actual job opportunities for an Ancient Chinese History or Classical Chinese major. However careers that are helpful for China's development, like those in the Engineering or IT fields, do require a base competency in English because its likely that they will either work for a foreign company, or work of a company that does a lot of business with other foreign companies. For them, English is an asset.
Mar 27, 2013 10:22 Report Abuse
Mattsm84 hit the nail on the head. The official was blaming foreigners in a passive-aggressive way, and the fields which don't emphasize English are pretty useless. Actually, most traditions are pretty useless in today's increasingly globalized and competitive society, and that isn't limited solely to Chinese traditions. One major reason English continues to be taught around the world is because English constantly adapts new words and grows as a language to accommodate new information, whereas Chinese does not, e.g. TV = 电视 "electricity look at" (wtf??) Even the notoriously proud Japanese call a TV a "terebi" (テレビ). But the Chinese refuse to update their language in a more modern way, because it goes against their obstinate pride and tradition. They have to invent Chinese-style words instead of using foreign ones, or else they will "lose face". It's absolute horse shit, and that kind of mentality holds a society back. China needs less people like Zhang Shuhua.
Mar 27, 2013 15:26 Report Abuse
That's not what I read...and as I know pretty much first hand how English testing/ education really is a big waste. OH and all of you ethnocentric morons should really just go back to the rock from which you came. (And FYI- YES I'm a foreigner!) If we in the US and they were to try to implement the same level of learning a foreign language you bet there would be backlash. I don't understand how you can belittle ANYONE'S culture and language as 'useless'. That statement alone actually offends me to no end- simply because many Chinese will see T91's attitude as "The way ALL foreigners think". And you have NO IDEA about language- the reason why the Japanese use Katakana and the foreign pronunciation is 1) The were basically controlled by the US since they surrendered in WWII and 2) They do not want 'foreign' words in their Japanese...as in it's a slight against English. (Think of how blacks and whites were separated in the South) But here, I've known many students who had very good spoken English skills but poor test taking skills fail ONLY the English part of the Master's Degree test and be refused. My husband was one of the students who couldn't get his Master's Degree simply because his English test was 10 points off the cut off...and he has fluent speaking skills. He has no plans to go to the US and his work as a Journalist and TV reporter in no way included ANY English. But I have known plenty of people who could ace an English (grammar) test with no kind of speaking ability- who were allowed to go into majors which would involve a lot of speaking. What they SHOULD do is go ahead and do the same as we do other countries...and that's make it an elective in middle and high schools. And I'm totally for them promoting Chinese in their schools as TOO MANY students simply think of their heritage as a burden.
Mar 29, 2013 09:06 Report Abuse
@mattsm84 "saying that China's need to learn English so that it can better compete with the west economically has caused its people to loss touch with their cultural heritage its doubtlessly the subtext here." -mattsm84 I don't think it's a subtext, I think that's exactly what he's saying. However, I don't think it's fair to just assume that he's blaming foreigners per se. That to me is a bit paranoid and overly self-conscious. Yes, China is jingoistic, just like every other country (don't try to tell me they are more so than the US because the jingoism there these days is sickening), but until he outright blames foreign interests it's a bit neurotic to assume. Perhaps Zhang is a bit extreme in his assertion that English learning needs to be "significantly reduced". It desperately needs massive reforms, but there is nothing wrong with maintaining language and heritage if he feels it's slipping. Maybe it would have been better if he emphasized "reform" over "reduction." " No amount of English education is never going to make the Chinese less Chinese" -mattsm84 Fair enough, and I agree completely that English is important for their development. But I think one important part of his emphasis is the fact that their testing is skewed, with good speakers not testing well, mediocre students testing well and being admitted over mediocre English testers but better overall students. If someone is slaying it in math, but their English is a bit short, why should they be denied entrance into an engineering school? THAT seems counter-developmental. Let's not get all butt-hurt here as foreigners thinking they have it out for us again. English education in China has some good aspects, but a lot of it is a massive joke. It needs reforms, and this guy may be a little extreme, but looking at the legit points are more important than getting our feelings hurt.
Mar 29, 2013 12:02 Report Abuse
Ummm, you do realise t91camp, that the word "television" is, in a similar fashion to the Chinese word, a combination of two words, "tele" from Greek meaning far away, and "vision" from Latin, meaning to see. How this is any different from the Chinese example (except perhaps that the Chinese managed to actually come up with the component words themselves rather than just plundering other languages) I struggle to see. To take it further, tele is a component in several English words such as telephone, telecommunications, teleport, telecast, teleconference, et cetera. What does a more modern language mean anyway? Chinese already went through some pretty major reforms in the 50s (simplified characters, pinyin, standardised language, et cetera) which are still controversial not just politically but regarding their effectiveness (many would suggest that the public and free/affordable school system that the Communists set up had a much bigger influence on literacy rates). Pretty much all languages, even gravely ill ones like Irish, assimilate words into a native style even if they have to use an imported term initially. Getting rid of characters isn't going to happen. 1.2 billion people aren't just going to change the way they communicate so fundamentally and flush thousands of years of history down the toilet based on some vague idea of modernity.
Mar 29, 2013 23:48 Report Abuse
@Guest350516: I do know why the Japanese use Katakana. I was not referring to their use of Katakana as evidence of their language's growth, but their use of a word which is very similar to the one used globally. They essentially say "television" as closely to the original as the limits of their language permits them. There's hundreds of other examples of Japanese using foreign words instead of Japanese ones, thousands if you include all the Chinese words they use. It is not a slight against English at all, it is simply using foreign/English words for things that are new to Japan at the time of naming. It doesn't have much to do with the post-war politics. As for my "attitude", I've talked to many young Chinese people who are not so stupid, shortsighted, and brainwashed to arbitrarily value traditions which have no benefit. If I was a forward-thinking Chinese person reading this - and let's be honest, those are the ones who really matter - I'd be more offended by your assertion all Chinese think the same (and backwards), than my assertion that most cultures have useless traditions. You know, there seems to be a direct correlation between English competency and free thought among Chinese people - maybe THAT's why the higher-ups don't want English to be relevant in China anymore. If they can't read English, then they can't get news from anywhere but CCTV. ;) @Hygelac: Yes, English education needs reforming in China. That much is obvious as soon as you step into a classroom. But that's not what Zhang Shuhua was saying. He was saying that they need to put more importance on Chinese "tradition" and less (or none) on English, NOT that they need to fix the way they teach English. The solution put forth by Zhang is not a solution at all, but a step backwards. @seanpodge: Yes, I do know the origins of the word television. In fact, English probably has the most foreign-based words of any language. That's my point. English continually takes words and concepts other languages and anglicizes them while still staying true to the origins of the word, which is exactly why English is so adaptable. Spanish does it a lot, too. Mandarin is arguably THE most widely-spoken language in the world, but it only very very rarely uses loanwords, due to some sort of arbitrary linguistic nationalism. Now the best part? Cantonese does it pretty often, almost as working proof that the Chinese language can adapt if they want it to. Take, for example, the word "bus". There's a few ways to say it, but for Mandarin let's use 公車. Gong1 che1. That doesn't sound like "bus" at all, and it could be translated as "public car", which is kind of a stretch from what a bus is. Now what do Cantonese speakers say? 巴士. Baa1 si2. Sounds a lot like "bus", and it uses characters phonetically. Or camera film: Mandarin, 膠卷 (jiao1 juan3), "rubber roll" vs. Cantonese, 菲林 (fei1 lam2). Of course getting rid of characters won't happen - Chinese aren't creative enough to invent something like the Korean or Thai alphabet. However, using characters phonetically, especially for new/foreign words, would drastically improve Mandarin's ability to compete with other languages on an international level. Under the current system, it frightens me to imagine how convoluted Mandarin will be a hundred years from now, with all the new nonsense words it'll invent between now and then.
Mar 30, 2013 06:36 Report Abuse
"I don't think it's fair to just assume that he's blaming foreigners per se. That to me is a bit paranoid and overly self-conscious. Yes, China is jingoistic, just like every other country (don't try to tell me they are more so than the US because the jingoism there these days is sickening)" No, in the US you have a measured level of respect afforded to the armed services, and a populous that is generally in favor of a US lead political hegemony. You and I may not like it, and it may not be a good thing, but what goes on here is an all together different animal. In China, you have a regime that relies on a pair of historically dubious narratives--that free floating persecution complex it nurtures in the public schools known as the "century of humiliations" and the notion that the PLA alone was responsible for driving off the Japanese and other foreign invaders--to give them legitimacy. Put another way, if public opinion on military intervention were to change in the US it wouldn't take the Federal system or representative democracy down with it, however if the idea of either perpetual victim-hood at the hands of a kabal of foreign oppressors or dependence upon a single party dictatorship for safety and progress were somehow removed from the popular psyche then it would be the beginning of the end for that single party dictatorship. Wouldn't it? So no, there is no equivalency between to two. With that in mind, how are Zhang's comments anything other than a dog whistle intended to buttress Chinese nationalism? He isn't advocating that testing become less important, or that rote memorization of grammar rules be de-emphasized for the sake of fluency, or even a much needed overhaul to established Chinese methods. He's pushing for the opposite of that. Instead of adapting and becoming more competitive, China should double down on tradition. That's bad for Chinese students, and its poor public policy. "[B]ut until he outright blames foreign interests it's a bit neurotic to assume." When the big wigs in the CCP start placing blame of foreigners outright instead of just implying that everything is our fault it'll be too late to run. Look at what happened to the Japanese in China just this past summer. China is fragile. You do what you want, I would prefer keep my eyes and options open. "If someone is slaying it in math, but their English is a bit short, why should they be denied entrance into an engineering school?" Because they're not going to be as successful in their careers. An Engineer working for a Chinese company with 1 to 5 years of experience makes between $1,000-$2,000 monthly, a senior engineer with 5 to 8 years experience makes between $2,500-$3,000 a month, and an managing engineer with 8 to 10 years of experience makes around $3,500-$4,000 a month. For Engineers working in the West or for Western companies, those numbers double.
Apr 01, 2013 00:44 Report Abuse
Well I agree with t91camp. I'd be very surprised if Zhang ShuHua can speak English. Maybe sour grapes because he couldn't learn, or his kid or grandkid couldn't go to his desired foreign university. The real problem is putting so much stress on the kids because of the country's obsession with creating smarter kids than Japan. Grade 3 seniors have exams EVERY WEEK during the last 100 days of their year! All students have homework everyday of their so-called holidays and summer vacation. English is only one of those subjects. The real problem isn't the language, but the testing methods. I've seen some of the high school exams, and they are definitely lacking. Since nothing is proofread, there are many mistakes. But what's most unfair is putting the burden on the student to guess the answer the creator of the exam believes to be the only correct answer, when more than one or all choices might be correct! Thanks also t91camp for mentioning this resistance to use English words. Check out a Chinese movie website, translate their titls and see how they "translate" a simple English title rather than using the real one. I'm surprised they don't translate Forest Gump to "Slow-minded Man Telling Life Story Sitting On Bench Waiting For Bus." Since putonghua has the "t" sound why is saying "Avanda" easier than Avatar?
Apr 13, 2013 21:32 Report Abuse
I can see the point being made here by Zhang and from my experience of teaching English to all ages I agree that the need to speak English by all Chinese is really not necessary. Parents are making ill-informed decisions and almost forcing their kids to learn the language so we have classrooms partly filled with reluctant learners. In a 3rd or 4th tier city you meet many people that have not left their province, have never traveled and will never need to speak English to anybody. Why are they learning English? However, to think that the Chinese people would be better off learning more about their own culture and remaining shut off and insulated from the western world is virtually saying that China is 50 years behind and is happy to stay that way. English teachers and employees and business men from western countries bring to China other cultures and more importantly different ways of thinking and from what I have seen and experienced this country desperately needs that. I do question the need to be proficient in English to gain entry to a university and I would rather see people learning English because they want to, not because they have to, same as in our schools. You elect to learn another language because you want to. China proudly announced that they had umpteen millions of tourists last year. Guess where they came from? Guess what language they probably all have in common? In what country, other than China, will I find a population that speaks only Chinese? To say that learning English is a waste of normal study time is probably true if Chinese continue to learn the language from Chinese "engrish" teachers!!! Why is the learning of English such big business now? Seems people realized that for China to compete with and mix with other countries economically and socially they had better learn the English language because strange as it seems, not everybody speaks Mandarin. Zhang would be better off convincing his National Committee to ensure all public schools use native English speaking teachers then there might be a lesser need for many of us teachers to be used in private schools to fix the horrible pronunciation and lack of language understanding that are a result of using Chinese teachers. By the way, the fact that Chinese education is ranked as one of the lowest in the world has nothing to do with English studies. I suggest Zhang spends a bit of time in a classroom in the USA, Australia or Canada and compares what he sees to what goes on in his own schools. Chalk and cheese! I remember being taught like I see in Chinese public schools in 1960. Like I said - 50 years of catching up.
Mar 27, 2013 08:02 Report Abuse
But when you consider all the foreigners who are now learning Chinese...and you realize that perhaps they will not be so 'cut off' as you imagine. Chinese, as a language, is not what it was once when you consider the BIGGEST CONSUMER GROUP IN THE WORLD speaks just Chinese.
Mar 29, 2013 09:10 Report Abuse
This subject cannot be adequately discussed until the Cultural Revolution can be adequately discussed. Research departments in US history have much more freedom than research departments in Chinese History. It will take a while before Chinese culture and language can be taught well, enthusiastically, and appreciated by the students.
Mar 27, 2013 08:24 Report Abuse
Well, sicne i am in Chinese schools for such a long time even after i graduated.I think Chinese should change the Examination system of English,since most of the English they learned from middle school,high school even university are useless...They don't know how to use English to communicate with foreigners, and they barely can understand the English versions movies, TV shows...without Chinese subtittle. So far the Chinese English teachers just teaching English in their way to meet the needs of examinations(they don't care about the pronunciation,speaking skills,listening skills...just how to deal with the English examinations like mathematics ),which lead Chinese students to a wrong way of learning a language.
Mar 27, 2013 10:25 Report Abuse
That is the main problem. What and how they learn English is entirely fruitless. As soon as someone tries to teach something real world or useful, it is ignored as it isn't done by a book or by constant repetition. So parents don't like it because it wasn't how they did it or how the school does it. Exams are the problem. Too many exams in China.
Mar 27, 2013 10:44 Report Abuse
A few of my students complain about learning English. But then I ask them "How do Chinese talk to eachother?" In Putonghua, they answer. I then ask them, how will Chinese people talk with the rest of the world? The answer is obvious. English is an international language now more so than an imperial one. How can China continue its export economy if people from outside the country can't speak Chinese to order things?- duh. The U.S. State Department made a language study to see how many class room hours it takes to become fluent in English. It takes 700 hours to learn English while it takes 2,800 hours to learn Chinese. If were a Bolivian, or Indonesian , I know what language I would choose first to be able to trade and travel. When I was in high school I learned German and Spanish. "So English will be replaced by what language to study?" I would ask this CCCP member. I know it won't be Japanese. More of Chinese nationalism rearing its ugly head.
Mar 27, 2013 16:34 Report Abuse
I have taught in private schools, middle schools,and in universities in China. The biggest problem is the giving of grades in English by school administrators to keep the parents paying for classes that their students are not interested in English. Sixty students in an English class is too many, but the English Colleges in large universities keep their classes full by giving higher grades than earned. A 60 grade is given to every student to make the College Administrator appear to being doing a good job. Foreign professors have a difficult time when Chinese Students do not ask or answer questions. Th students in Africa are verbally asking to be recognized, when they do not understand. Fresh MBA graduates from United States universities teaching in China often cannot lecture their classes because the courses are not interesting to their Chinaes students, especially when the courses are linked to foreign culture standards, such American Business Law or American Organizational Behavior. Having the next class in the lecture room, I recognize that the subject was not taught. I teach Financial Accounting and Finance using an outline study guide to reduce the number pages needed to be learned by the students, not 40 pages per chapter. (i.e.Douglas W. Kieso Study Guide, Financial Accounting, 8th Ed, John Wiley $ Sond, Inc. purchased from Amazom) In middle schools the level of classes is kept too low by the teachers. By teaching subjects like Accounting and Finance gives the students better practice in using the foreign language. The main problem with all cultures is the lack of knowledge in accounting and finance reduces the level of the financial markets in their countries and the level of work that average employees can perform.
Mar 28, 2013 01:08 Report Abuse
I'm a foreigner and I see nothing blaming foreigners merely the over indulgence in English. Furthermore, I totally agree.. One must be taught to continue with their own culture and traditions, while learning others. To often the quest to be part of the world leaves destruction in it's path. Slavery and Land takeovers only look to be a thing of the past...However, the takeover technique has been modified by a better cloaking device... Past it was Religion...Now it's call Language(English) to be more specific. I believe in keeping peace and all working together but at what cost must heritage and tradition pay..KUDOS to the CPPCC Member for reconizing before it's too late and taking a stand ...Wish my ancestors had done more along these lines and our Language and Traditions would be more than dying out. Long Live The Right To Keep That Which Is True --While Learning To Live With The Rest Of The World Without Losing To It.
Mar 28, 2013 12:08 Report Abuse
I fail to see how Zhang Shuhua is being xenophobic in this article. In fact, much of what he says seems to suggest that he is critiquing the way English is taught rather than demanding that English be dropped from the curriculum. The government should consider what it aims to achieve with English education and how that can best be realised. The issues with English education in China are I feel just a part of the general problems of the Chinese education system, particularly with the university admission system. It all appears to be far too focused on test results and rote learning and memorising facts without any reference to context. What use is it to know how an English word is spelt if you can't use it in a sentence? Knowing the dates of when WWI started and ended is useless unless you know why it happened and what the consequences of it were. So I'd agree that forcing people to learn English in order to allow them to study classical Chinese is ridiculous. The current gaokao system really needs a shakeup. Really, universities should choose students based on their average results across all subjects and only require certain grades for relevant subjects (e.g. people wanting to study engineering would require a certain grade in maths and/or science but their grade for history wouldn't be important outside of their overall grade average). The government could still mandate English as a subject for all high school students but it would no longer be an irrelevant deal breaker for university access. I would disagree that learning English (or any foreign language) is a waste of time or reduces one's ability to learn their native language. From personal experience I can say that learning foreign languages increased my knowledge and understanding of English considerably.
Mar 30, 2013 00:11 Report Abuse
Contrary to Mr. Zhang, I believe that Chinese language plays an irreplaceable part in the LACK-OF-thought processes and spirit of China's religious folklore and illusion of civilization. The study of Chinese in schools carries with it not only cultural arrogance but also a sense of inflated pride and misguided purpose. Some of what he says is true, but he deliberately shifts the focus on the overall relevance of English, rather than address the bureaucratic problems which cause so many students to be forced to learn English for no good reason other than to pass entrance exams. A cowardly populist, deliberatley misdirecting the frustration felt by so many Chinese students AWAY FROM the true bureaucratic causes. And although the wording is carefully chosen, the blame is placed squarely on English, the language-of-foreigners in China. The whole speech is intended to direct public anger at us, so it's xenophobic.
Dec 07, 2013 13:23 Report Abuse
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