Analysis of the Intonation of Chinese Learners of English for Application in Second Language Teaching
Jonathan Sieg (Tianjin, China)
In this paper, the intonation of Chinese learners of English is compared with that of native English speakers from the US and the UK for the purpose of applying intonation teaching theory. Pitch range and pitch fluctuation were used to measure each speaker’s intonation, and analysis and comparison were conducted to determine shortcomings in the intonation of Chinese learners of English. The results indicate that, overall, the pitch range of the Chinese learners of English was most similar to that of British English, while the pitch fluctuation was more similar to that of American English. A grammatical function approach is recommended to teach and correct the areas of the English learners’ divergence in intonation, while teaching and providing the English learners with practice in speech rhythm to improve their pitch range, and teaching and providing the English learners with practice in the basic question contour to improve their pitch fluctuation. These specific strategies can be presented using a five-step process: sensitization, explanation, imitation, practice activities, and communicative activities.
Key words: English, intonation, Chinese, second language teaching
1.1 Background and Purpose
Ever since Harold Palmer published his monograph English Intonation with Systematic Exercises in 1922, intonation has been a consideration for some, but not many, who teach or study English as a second language. In spite of how little attention the fields of intonation research and teaching English as a second language have given each other, there has been a growing emphasis on the importance of integrating intonation into teaching English as a second language. When it comes to both intonation theory and teaching methodology, 1980 can be considered to be a turning point. Before 1980, intonation pedagogy (Palmer 1922, Pike 1945, Fries 1954, O’Connor & Arnold 1961) was largely organized based on form and focused mainly on the grammatical and attitudinal functions of intonation. After 1980, with the introduction of Brazil’s theory of discourse intonation, a more function-based approach that emphasized the discourse and sociolinguistic functions of intonation began growing in popularity (Brazil et al. 1980, Johns-Lewis 1986, Bradford 1988, Brazil 1997). This growing focus on the practical functions of intonation in the larger context of discourse seems to be highly promising for its application to teaching English as a second language.
In the interest of continuing to advance the relationship between intonation research and intonation teaching, in this paper, the intonation of Chinese learners of English will be analyzed and compared with that of native English speakers from the US and the UK. . After conducting a comparison with regards to the existence of significant errors or weaknesses in the intonation of Chinese learners of English, modern intonation teaching theory will be applied to these errors to provide an overall framework with teaching strategies specifically designed to correct the shortcomings in intonation of these Chinese learners of English. In the area of teaching English as a second language, helping language learners to understand and produce fluent connected speech continues to be one of the biggest challenges (Cauldwell 2013). The present study of the specific intonation errors that Chinese learners of English tend to make will hopefully be a step forward in improving English intonation pedagogy.
1.2 Methods and Materials
The results of three different experiments were combined for the present article: Guo (2010) conducted a study on the intonation of British English speakers in four modalities: statements, questions, commands, and exclamations. Hong (2012) likewise conducted a study on the intonation of beginner and advanced Chinese learners of English in the same four modalities. Sieg (forthcoming) conducted a study on the intonation of American English speakers in two modalities, statements and questions. All three experiments were conducted using the same measurements, pitch range and pitch fluctuation, which are described in detail below.
1.2.1 Pitch Range
Pitch range is the difference between the highest and lowest values of f0 in a given unit of an utterance. Pitch range shows the degree of pitch movement - the wider the pitch range, the greater the degree of pitch movement, Semitones were used as the unit to measure pitch range. The formula to obtain pitch range is as follows:
Here, f is the Hz value and fr is the reference Hz value, which is 55Hz for men and 64Hz for women. Once individual semitone values were calculated, word pitch ranges were calculated by subtracting the lowest value from the highest value for each word.
1.2.2 Pitch Range Ratio
Also calculated using pitch range, the pitch range ratio allows us to see the difference in pitch range that different word positions have relative to one another. It is calculated using these formulas:
prr1 = w1/w3
prr2 = w2/w3
Here prr1 and prr2 are “pitch range ratios 1 and 2,” and w1, w2, and w3 are the pitch ranges of the sentence-initial, -medial, and –final words, respectively. This measurement provides two ratios for each sentence. The lower prr1 or prr2 is below 1, the wider the sentence-final word pitch range (w3) is relative to the other two word positions. The higher prr1 or prr2 is above 1, the wider the corresponding word pitch range (w1 or w2) is relative to the sentence-final word.
1.2.3 Pitch Fluctuation
Pitch fluctuation shows the direction of pitch movement in an utterance. It includes both the top and bottom line of f0, relativized for each speaker. The top line represents the maximum value of the pitch range within a given unit, and the bottom line represents the minimum value of the pitch range in the same unit. It provides a more relative and comparable measurement than simply using f0 and highlights top and bottom line phenomena such as falling, rising, narrowing, and expanding intonation. There is an advantage to having top and bottom lines represented because in some cases, there is a significant difference in the movement of one, but not the other. An example of this phenomenon will be presented in the results of this experiment. A middle line is also included in the pitch fluctuation charts to express the top and bottom line average. A percentage scale is employed, using the equation:
Here, Ki is the top line, Kj is the bottom line. Gi and Gj are specific top and bottom line values in semitones, and Smax and Smin are the individual speaker’s highest and lowest pitch values. Examples of syllable pitch range and syllable pitch fluctuation can be seen side by side in Figure 1. In Figure 1a, pitch range shows the average degree of pitch movement in Chinese beginner M1’s questions. Figure 1b shows the direction of pitch movement. The arrows on the right of the pitch fluctuation chart also indicate the overall movement for the top, middle, and bottom lines, respectively:
Figure 1a (left): Average Word Pitch Ranges (st) in Questions of Chinese Beginner M1
Figure 1b (right): Average Word Pitch Fluctuation (%) in Questions of Chinese Beginner M1
In the British English experiment, four native speakers of British English, two men and two women, aged 19-21, participated in recording the stimuli (Guo 2010). In the Chinese-learners-of-English experiment, a total of eight Chinese speakers, four beginner English learners (two men and two women) and four advanced English learners (two men and two women), participated in recording the stimuli (Hong 2012). In the American English experiment, eight native speakers of American English, four men and four women, aged 22-57, participated in recording the stimuli (Sieg forthcoming). There were no self-reported speech or hearing disorders.
In all the three experiments, several pairs of sentences in two modalities were recorded, statements and questions, using the same sentences with two different intonations. Aside from one exception in Hong’s experiment (with four content words), all of the sentences have three content words. The stimuli for each experiment are listed below. The combination of the signs ./? at the end of each sentence signifies that the stimulus was recorded in both statement and question modalities. The average pitch ranges and pitch fluctuations for all of the sentences in each modality were calculated for each speaker for analysis and comparison:
British English experiment (Guo 2010: 27)
- You go to school ./?
- Alice enjoys coffee ./?
- The students visit the company ./?
Chinese learners of English experiment (Hong 2012: 21)
- You go to school ./?
- Tom buys a car ./?
- Mary studies English in school ./?
- Alice enjoys coffee ./?
- The students visit the company ./?
American English experiment (Sieg (forthcoming))
- Claire eats rice ./?
- John sent mail ./?
- The men invest in bonds ./?
- Steven pilfered money ./?
- Eleanor sacrificed everything ./?
- Susanna recovers the treasure ./?
While the specific wording in the American English experiment stimuli differs from that of the other two experiments, the number of content words is the same, the syllable numbers are similar, and all of the sentences were read using neutral statement and declarative question intonation.
1.2.6 Statistical Analysis
A lot of variation and subtle differences in intonation inevitably exist among both native speakers and non-native speakers alike, making it difficult to isolate actual problems in intonation that need correcting. Therefore, statistical analysis was used to isolate the most significant differences, and these differences in intonation will be addressed in the Discussion Section of this paper.
2.1 Comparison of US and UK English Intonation
We will first focus on a brief acoustic analysis of the intonation of American and British English. These two varieties of English have numerous differences, including prosodic ones, and both varieties can serve as suitable standards for language learners to emulate. Since English teaching in China reflects both British and American influences, a fair analysis of the English intonation of Chinese speakers must include both American and British English as potential standards for comparison. The average pitch ranges for statements and questions in American and British English are shown in Figure 2:
Figure 2: Averages of American and British Statement and Question Pitch Range
(pitch values shown in semitones)
As can be seen in Figure 2, average word pitch ranges in statements were wider in American English than those in British English, with a slightly steeper downstepping curve. Prosodic differences were even more pronounced in questions, with, firstly, wider word pitch ranges in American English, and secondly, a widened, lower pitch range in the sentence-medial word in American English and a narrowed, higher pitch range in the sentence-medial word in British English. Average word pitch ranges from Figure 2 with their standard deviations (SD) and statistical analysis results are shown in Table 1:
Table 1: Mean Pitch Ranges and Standard Deviations for Statements and Questions for American and British English speakers
Pitch range ratio information is shown in Table 2:
Table 2: Mean Pitch Range Ratios (sentence-initial and sentence-medial word pitch ranges, respectively, divided by sentence-final word pitch range) and Standard Deviations for Statements and Questions for American and British English Speakers
As can be seen in Table 1, standard deviation values tended to be higher for word pitch ranges in questions, showing greater variation in pitch movement among speakers in questions than in statements. Our statistical analysis confirms two major differences seen in the pitch range charts above: there were statistically significant differences between the sentence-initial word pitch ranges of American and British speakers in statements [F(1, 3) = 37.164, p = 0.009] and between the sentence-medial word pitch ranges of US and UK speakers in questions [F(1, 3) = 10.115, p = 0.050]. Table 2 shows that, while American and British speakers had quite different word pitch range widths, their proportions between one another (expressed as pitch range ratios) were quite similar except for prr2 in questions [F(1, 3) = 12.459, p = 0.039], showing relatively narrower sentence-medial pitch ranges compared to those of sentence-final words in British English questions.
The average pitch fluctuation for statements and questions in American and British English are shown in Figure 3:
Figure 3: American and British Statement and Question Pitch Fluctuation Averages (pitch movement shown in percentages relative to each speaker’s overall pitch range)
The steeper downstepping pitch movement observed above in American English statements can be seen even more clearly in Figure 3: while the top line drops 16% and 19%, respectively, in the sentence-medial and sentence-final words in American English, it only fell 7% and 9% in British English. In questions, the primary differences were found in sentence-initial words: in American English, the top line fell 8% and the bottom line fell 11%. Conversely, in British English, the top and bottom lines rose 3% and 20%, respectively. This phenomenon caused the terminal rise in the following word in American English to be primarily manifested in the top line (a 37% rise), while in British English, the terminal rise was primarily manifested in the bottom line (a 48% fall). Average top and bottom line values from Figure 3 with their standard deviations (SD) and statistical analysis results are shown respectively in Tables 3 and 4:
Table 3: Average top line movement for British and American speakers
Table 4: Average bottom line movement for American and British speakers
The higher standard deviation values in Table 4 show that there was greater variation among speakers in bottom-line movement than in top-line movement, regardless of modality. The only statistically significant difference in the top line was in the sentence-final word in questions [F(1, 3) = 52.690, p = 0.005], in which American speakers averaged a 17% higher rise than UK speakers. Two word positions on the bottom line had statistically significant differences, sentence-medial and sentence-final words in questions [F(1, 3) = 48.751, p = 0.006 and F(1, 3) = 44.470, p = 0.007, respectively]. Thus the bottom line in pitch fluctuation most prominently manifested the differences between American and British intonation in questions.
In summary, the primary differences observed between the intonation of American and British English are as follows:
- In statements, American English had wider word pitch ranges with a slightly steeper degree of downstepping;
- In questions, American English manifested a widened and falling pitch in the sentence-medial word followed by rising in the sentence-final word, while British English manifested a narrowed and higher pitch in the sentence-medial word followed by a sudden falling and rising in the sentence-final word.
Bolinger (1998) noted this distinct difference between question intonation in American and British English, commenting:
The British intonation strikes the American ear as unduly concerned (the ‘cordiality’ is carried too far); the American English strikes the British ear as too businesslike. (Bolinger 1998: 55)
However, he also proposes that, depending on the context, both types of question intonation can be found in both varieties, depending on function and context. These two distinct patterns, along with their corresponding contexts and communicative functions, are worth being noted and practiced by language learners.
2.2 Analysis and Comparison of the English Intonation of Beginner and Advanced Chinese Learners of English
Now that we have an idea of the basic characteristics of and the differences between the intonation of American and British English as described above, we will investigate the intonation of beginner and advanced Chinese learners of English. Since the results of these language learners had more variation than those of native speakers and in order to visualize the specific prosodic errors of individual speakers, the results for all speakers, rather than just the averages, will be shown. Statement and question word pitch ranges for beginner and advanced English learners (noted as CN beginner and CN advanced) are shown side-by-side with American and British averages in Figures 4 and 5:
Figure 4: Statement Word Pitch Ranges of Beginner and Advanced Chinese Learners of English (American and British pitch range averages on top for reference)
Figure 5: Question word pitch ranges of beginner and advanced Chinese learners of English (American and British pitch range averages on top for reference)
As can be seen from Figures 4 and 5, there was considerable variety in the word pitch ranges of each English learner. As we stated in the previous section, variety exists among native speakers as well. The questions attempted to answer as we compared English learners with native English speakers were:
- Are the English learners’ pitch ranges in the normal range of variation for either variety of English and
- Are the English learners’ proportions between the pitch ranges in the normal range of variation of either variety of English?
To answer the first question, English learners’ word pitch ranges were compared with those of American and British English speakers. To answer the second question, the pitch range ratios (explained in the Methods and Materials Section) of the English learners were compared with those of both American and British English. The results of our statistical analysis are presented in Tables 5 and 6:
Table 5: Mean Pitch Ranges and Standard Deviations for Statements and Questions for All Speakers
Table 6: Mean Pitch Range Ratios (sentence-initial and sentence-medial word pitch ranges respectively, divided by sentence-final word pitch range) and Standard Deviations for Statements, and Questions for All Speakers
In Table 5, we see that both beginner and advanced English learners generally had narrower pitch ranges, closer to those of British English speakers. In statements, these differences were not statistically significant. In questions, there were statistically significant differences in sentence-initial and sentence-medial word pitch range widths between the beginner English learners and American speakers [F(1, 3) = 31.361, p = 0.011 and F(1, 3) = 15.659, p = 0.029 respectively]. In Table 6, we see that the pitch range ratios of both beginner and advanced English learners were almost always smaller than those of American and British speakers, reflecting narrower sentence-initial and sentence-medial word pitch ranges relative to those of sentence-final words. However, the only statistically significant difference was found in the prr2 in questions of British English speakers and advanced English learners [F(1, 3) = 20.064, p = 0.021]. This is the same exact value (prr2 in questions) in which British and American English were also found to be significantly different.
We will now turn to pitch fluctuation. Statement and question word pitch fluctuations for beginner and advanced English learners (written as CN beg. and CN adv.) are shown side-by-side with American and British averages in Figures 6 and 7:
Figure 6: Statement Word Pitch Fluctuation of Beginner and Advanced Chinese Learners of English (American and British pitch range averages on top for reference)
Figure 7: Question Word Pitch Fluctuation of Beginner and Advanced Chinese Learners of English (American and British pitch range averages on top for reference)
As can be seen in Figure 6, the English learners’ statement pitch fluctuation was not too varied. Aside from the very low bottom-line starting points of beginner learner F1 and advanced learner M2 and the terminal rising top lines of beginner learners F1 and F2, there was considerable consistency. In Figure 7, however, we see much more variation among the English learners’ question pitch fluctuation. Most of them followed a curve which is generally similar to that of American speakers, with only advanced-learner (CN adv.) F1 having a sentence-final bottom line value that exceeds its top line value, which is more like the pitch fluctuation of British speakers. Tables 7 and 8, respectively, showed the mean top and bottom line values of all the speakers with the results of statistical analysis:
Table 7: Average top line movement for all speakers
Table 8: Average Bottom Line Movement for All Speakers
As can be seen in Table 7, in statements, the English learners showed a falling top-line value which was similar to that of American speakers in the sentence-medial word position, while it was more similar to that of British speakers in the sentence-final word position. The English learners’ bottom line (table 8) in statements was even more similar to that of American speakers in all word positions. There were no statistically significant differences in the top line or bottom line of statements between any of the speakers. In contrast, questions had several statistically significant differences between speakers: the top line of British speakers and beginner English learners was significantly different in the sentence-final word position [F(1, 3) = 21.062, p = 0.019], and the bottom line was significantly different in all the three word positions, also between British speakers and beginner English learners [sentence-initial: F(1, 3) = 15.697, p = 0.029; sentence-medial: F(1, 3) = 18.036, p = 0.024; sentence-final: F(1, 3) = 53.529, p = 0.005].
In summary, both the beginner and advanced English learner groups who participated in this experiment demonstrated similar pitch fluctuation to that of American English speakers. Statement pitch fluctuation was especially similar, and while in questions, English learners’ pitch fluctuation had more variation in degrees of falling and rising intonation, the locations of falling and rising intonation were consistent with and not significantly different from those of American English speakers. However, the pitch ranges of the English learners were generally narrower than those of American English speakers in both modalities, and the pitch ranges of the beginner English learners were significantly different from those of American English speakers in the first two word positions of questions.
In statements and questions, in all word positions, the pitch ranges of both the beginner and advanced English learner groups were quite similar to those of the British English speakers. The only significant difference was in pitch range ratio 2 in questions of advanced English learners and British English speakers. The greatest difference between these speakers, however, was in pitch fluctuation: the top line of British English speakers gradually rose throughout the sentence, while the bottom line rose in the sentence-medial word and fell drastically in the sentence-final word. In contrast, like in American English, the pitch fluctuation of most of the English learners demonstrated the reverse phenomenon: a gradually falling bottom line, with the top line falling in the sentence-medial word and rising drastically in the sentence-final word.
In other words, the English learners who participated in this experiment demonstrated similar pitch fluctuation to that of American English, and similar pitch ranges to those of British English. Therefore, a teacher from the US might seek to help them widen their pitch ranges, while a teacher from the UK might endeavor to help them adjust the direction of their pitch fluctuation in questions.
After the analysis of the main divergences from native intonation the English learners in this experiment demonstrated, an overall teaching approach, a teaching process, and specific teaching strategies will be recommended, based on current research and the needs of the English learners in this experiment.
3.1 Teaching Approach
In the Introduction, four main functions in intonation were mentioned: the grammatical function, the attitudinal function, the discourse function, and the sociolinguistic function. In general, most linguists and teachers acknowledge the coexistence of these functions, but different approaches emphasize different functions. As mentioned in the Introduction, before 1980, grammatical and attitudinal approaches were popular (e.g. Pike 1945, Crystal 1969, O’Connor & Arnold 1961, and Halliday 1967). Since 1980, a focus on discourse (which includes sociolinguistic factors) has been increasingly popular (Brazil 1980, Johns-Lewis 1986, Hewings 1990). As Chun (2002) summarizes:
linguistic research during the last two decades on both sides of the Atlantic has increasingly emphasized pragmatic, discourse-level phenomena (Chun 2002: 42)
Each function has its place in second-language teaching, depending on the level and needs of language learners. Discourse intonation is a fairly simple, straightforward approach to teaching intonation, and it is the overall approach that may be recommended to language learners to start with. The attitudinal approach has great value for helping more advanced students to grasp intonational nuances that are useful in increasingly native-like interaction. The sociolinguistic approach complements the discourse approach well and might be helpful for more advanced learners. As for the grammatical approach, even though it is not en vogue, it may represent a useful supplement for the discourse approach, because when it comes to the most basic, neutral forms of intonation, emphasizing grammatical factors such as modality and boundary is both tangible and practical, especially for beginning language learners. In the context of the present study, it is therefore recommended to teach intonation, beginning with emphasis on grammatical and discourse functions, and to eventually integrate discourse and sociolinguistic functions for more advanced learners. Regardless of the approach chosen, function-oriented teaching is recommended, because this is more practical for language learners. As Brazil says, “intonation is the means whereby we organise our language into patterns that fit the present communicative need” (Brazil 1994: 3). If communicative function is not foremost in their understanding of intonation, language learners will likely have difficulty adequately understanding and intentionally using intonation to fully engage in discourse with native speakers.
In the case of this experiment, the stimuli consisted of neutral statements and declarative questions. The sentences in the stimuli were not in the context of discourse, there was a broad information focus, and no emotion or attitude was communicated. The main factors at play in the stimuli were modality and boundary, both of which represented grammatical functions. Thus, since other functions are largely absent from the stimuli, the grammatical approach is recommended when teaching the intonation for these kinds of sentences.
3.2 Teaching Process
Underhill (2005: 196) recommends to first equip students with a simple system of intonation transcription to mark text with as they learn to recognize intonation forms they hear. Bradford (1988b) and Chun (2002) recommend a process of five steps for teaching intonation:
- sensitization, during which learners listen to audio texts (or watch videos) to become familiar with the intonation patterns being taught;
- explanation, during which the teacher, through multiple means, explains the content, sometimes comparing it with that of the learners’ native language(s);
- imitation, during which learners repeat after the teacher, getting corrected if necessary;
- practice activities, during which learners perform a variety of activities to learn how to produce the given intonation in context;
- communicative activities, during which students dialogue with one another, using the intonation functions and forms just learned (Bradford 1988b: 6-7 Chun 2002: 196).
This process can be applied to the specific teaching strategies described below and aims to help learners to develop an awareness of intonation functions and forms so as to enable them to produce them consciously.
3.3 Teaching Strategies
The learners of English who took part in this experiment demonstrated narrow pitch ranges compared to those of American speakers, with significantly narrower pitch ranges in questions. This finding points to the potential problem that language learners may be familiar with individual words, but are not well-practiced in mastering the intonation of connected speech. To help them speak with a pitch that is comparable to that of native speakers, a lot of practice in listening to and producing connected speech is necessary (Cauldwell 2013). Rather than learning specific intonation functions or contours, an emphasis on the basic rhythm that characterizes connected speech in English (i.e. stress-timing) is necessary. Underhill (2005) and Cauldwell (2013) provide a variety of activities to help language learners become aware of and produce this kind of rhythm in speech. More exposure to and practice of ordinary connected speech will also allow language learners to become familiar with the degree of pitch movement that typically characterizes word, phrase, and sentence boundaries in American English.
The learners of English in this experiment also demonstrated highly different pitch fluctuation in questions as compared to the British speakers, with a low pre-nuclear portion (i.e. the ‘head’ in British terminology) followed by a fall-rise, in contrast to the high head followed by a fall-rise produced by the British speakers. The main issue here is unfamiliarity with the typical intonation contour used for what O’Connor & Arnold (1961) refer to as “echoed statements” (italics in original) (also known as declarative questions), which they call the “high bounce” (O’Connor & Arnold (1961: 75) - a low pre-head, high head, and high-rise. Questions are more marked than statements, and have a number of types: wh-questions, yes-no questions, and declarative questions, like those used in this experiment. Thus it is important for teachers to start by specifying for the learners which contours typically apply to which question types, beginning with the most neutral and most commonly occurring question types. The terminal rise has been frequently emphasized as a distinguishing mark of questions, but as we saw in the results of this experiment, it was not the terminal rise that was problematic for the learners of English, but the pitch height of the pre-nuclear portion of the sentence. Just like the attitudinal examples in O’Connor & Arnold (1961) and discourse examples in Bradford (1988), dialogues can be used to teach the typical contours for each of the question types. Once again, this is helpful to learners because it is function-oriented, so in real-life dialogues in which they ask questions, they will be able to refer back to what they learned in this way.
The experiment, described in the present article, consisted in an analysis and comparison of the intonation of American speakers, British speakers, and Chinese learners of English producing neutral statements and matching declarative questions. In addition, a helpful methodology was presented to not only remedy these English learners’ shortcomings in intonation, but to also serve as a starting point for developing a framework for teaching intonation to language learners. This framework is function-oriented and embraces teaching all of the main intonation functions, the grammatical, discourse, attitudinal and sociolinguistic function, moving from simple to complex, based on the language learners’ level. Moreover, a teaching process that has been used by teachers for many years, consisting of five steps, is encouraged for teaching new intonation functions: sensitization, explanation, imitation, practice activities, and communicative activities. Within this framework, shortcomings in intonation, such as those demonstrated in this experiment - narrow pitch range and wrong pitch contours - among others, can be remedied, while giving language learners tools to sound as native as possible in their intonation.
While these are valuable findings, further research will be needed to ascertain more specific and nuanced insights regarding the intonation of language learners. As proponents of discourse intonation have pointed out, a context of discourse is necessary to observe intonation in its truest form (Underhill 2005). Thus an analysis of the intonation of language learners based on recordings of spontaneous speech compared with that of native speakers might prove very helpful. Also, since stress occurs at the syllable level, an analysis of pitch range and pitch fluctuation at the syllable level would likely be helpful for observing both the intonation and the rhythm of language learners.
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