How to Learn Chinese: Where to Start And How to Keep Going.

how to learn chinese

 

Today we have Dan, hailing from Chinese Breeze, talking about how to start learning Chinese and how to keep going if you’ve already reached a high beginner or intermediate level. While Dan’s post is primarily aimed at learners of Chinese, he has a lot of awesome advice that can be applied by those learning any language. Enjoy!

 

Top picks to learn chinese:

Hey there, I’m Dan – author of the recently launched Chinese learning blog over at chinese-breeze.com.

So you wanna know where to start when learning Chinese, or how to gain momentum and push through to fluency? Read on, dear reader…

Despite being only a mere mortal like yourself (in that I am not yet fluent in Chinese, – but it is only a matter of time) I am quite experienced in learning languages and have developed strategies and techniques that have saved me literally hours, days, months, maybe even years. These I will share with you today, so that you may learn from my past mistakes and less time studying and more picking up Chinese chicks!

Mentality

learning chinese

 

Okay, so, if I could impart only one thing on you it would be that confidence is half the battle.

If you spend too much time worrying about whether you will ever reach fluency, firstly, that is time you will not be spending injecting Chinese into your brain, but secondly, and most importantly, it will become a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy – you won’t enjoy the process, will associate Chinese with stress and essentially never become fluent.

This ‘blind faith’, as an atheist, is something that doesn’t come naturally to me. But you really have no choice but to take my word for it that if you:

  1. Put in the time (listening, writing and, eventually, speaking)
  2. Enjoy yourself
  3. Believe you will become fluent

Then fluency is an inevitable result.

“But, Chinese is such a hard language compared to French or Spanish!”

Don’t get sucked into this idea.

Chinese is not harder, Chinese is just far more different to English than most European languages are. Plenty of Westerners have managed to tame the beast. Off the top of my head, take Steve Kaufmann or Luca Lampariello, for example.

In fact, I would argue that Chinese is actually objectively easier and more logical than any other language I’ve come across (with the exception of Chinese characters – logical in theory, but struggle city in practice for anyone trying to learn it who doesn’t use it every day).

Consider these things:

  • Rather than having completely separate words for related concepts, one character in Chinese will represent a ‘concept’ that will manifest itself in a huge number of multi-syllable words, ie:
    工 (gōng) – representing the idea of ‘work’, present in other words such as 工作 (to work), 工厂(factory/plant), 工地 (workplace), 工匠 (craftsman), 工力 (craftsmanship), 工业 (industry), the list goes on.
  • No conjugations. No tenses. No cases. No plurals. No gender.
    Therefore, no memorising ‘je peux, tu peux, il peut, nous pouvons’. Nuff said.
  • No long words – say goodbye to ‘anticonstitutionnellement’, ‘Unkameradschaftlichkeit’ and ‘electroencefalografistas’.

I could go on for ages about how simple and logical Chinese really is.
Also, don’t be afraid of tones. They can be learned naturally through extensive listening.

Approach

Two Language Gurus: Head to Head
Two Language Gurus: Head to Head

Although the sometimes vicious debate present amongst the language learning community would have you believe otherwise (I’m looking at you, Steve and Benny), there is no hard-and-fast rule to language learning. What works for some may work for others. What seems to be unanimous is that a lot of input in the form of listening and reading is needed at some stage, with output (speaking) following either once a good level of comprehension has been achieved or from the start, in addition to input.

Here is what I would advise for those beginning their Chinese studies, and for those already on the path.

Beginners

dean
Learning Chinese can be struggle city. But only if you don’t have fun while you’re doing it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. Get some materials. Textbooks are okay, as long as they have dialogs with a recorded version. If you’ve got the dough, ChinesePod is great. ( use promo code ‘LINGHOLIC’ and get $50 off in Premium Annual Plan)
  2. Do a significant amount of input (reading and listening) with this beginner material. This is the hard bit, where the language gradually becomes less ‘foreign’ – in other words, you get used to the language. To make rapid progress, try to dedicate at least 30 minutes a day (an hour is better).
  3. Work the language into your life. I’m not really an advocate of ignoring your friends and family who don’t speak the language, or listening to the language while you’re talking to them and while you sleep (per AJATT), or changing the language on your computer and phone into Chinese – this is too annoying for me. Instead, make use of dead time. Do you daydream on the train/bus? Now you listen to Chinese. Do you wait in lines? Now you listen to Chinese while you wait in lines. Do you walk the dog? Paint your house? Daydream? Listen to Chinese while you do these things. You’ll see how easy it is. I would estimate that the average person has about 1-2 hours a day of dead time, this meaning time they do NOTHING else. If you studied Chinese only in the time you otherwise would be wasting, you will see massive progress. Now imagine if you fit some Chinese into your free time, too?
  4. Two words. Mini goals. Learn 30 words a week, and then step it up after a couple of weeks. Listen to 30 minutes of Chinese a day – then step it up to an hour incrementally. I’m soon to write an entire post over on my own blog dedicated to explaining the importance of mini goals.
  5. Characters. Forget about them for the first month. After that though, they are important. Spend 15 minutes a day learning them. Although it may seem tedious, it’s worth learning the radicals first, or as you encounter them – this will enable you to quite accurately guess new characters later on.
  6. Get an SRS. Do your reps daily, and add sentences whenever you can. Also, I’ve found sentences are better than words, as you learn grammar and new vocabulary simultaneously – it also seems much less boring than just drilling single words. If you have the option/can be bothered, add sentences with audio so you don’t get a botchy pronunciation (or just do a lot of listening). Where to get sentences? Mine them from the dialogs in your textbook, from ChinesePod, wherever. Just make sure they are correct!

Intermediate Learners

Laowai-In-China
If you could speak Chinese, you’d probably be looking as chuffed as this guy.
  1. Enjoy. This is the best part of the language learning journey. The language is starting to become familiar, and you can start doing fun stuff in the language! Like, watching TV shows from YouKu (the Chinese version of YouTube, but with full episodes) and actually understanding them! Or, reading authentic, interesting content and books. Or making friends, or…
  2. Get a girlfriend/boyfriend. Now this may be a difficult and in some circumstances unethical task (if you are just using them to practice your 中文). The truth is, that at the intermediate level you need to actually increase the amount of input you’re getting in the language in order to step it up and push through to the advanced level. At the very least, get some friends! If you live in a cultural melting pot (like my own city, Melbourne, or like, NYC, etc) then you should have no problem meeting Chinese people. Or go study overseas (this may not be practical for you – but if you’re at Uni, go on exchange like I am!) Or, hey, why not get some Chinese roomies? Instant friends that have to hang with you!
  3. Everyday. Even more important than in the beginner stage, at this level you need to be having contact with the language every day in order to incorporate it into your psychic. This is because the language needs to become part of the fabric of your mind, which is just not possible if you only study on the weekend. There’s a saying that goes ‘learn a language and gain another soul’. This is because you develop a borderline personality disorder when you learn another language – you will find your thinking and personality will be heavily influenced by cultural elements of the target language.
  4. Don’t give up. At this point, you have got it in the bag! The hard yards are almost over. Like I said, this is the best part, it is all downhill from here. You don’t have to agonise over mind numbingly boring hospital-grade artificial learning materials, and can get onto some juicy stuff. It’s simply a matter of continuing to consistently expose yourself to the language, and talk as much as possible. Language acquisition is a natural process, and we are inherently good at it by virtue of being human. Just don’t stress, it will come!

Anyway, that’s all from me, for now.

Thanks for reading my piece! And a massive cheers to Sam at lingholic for letting me gain some exposure on his blog. Sam, I look forward to keeping in contact and maybe doing some videos or something together in the future!

  • www.lingholic.com is all about the art of learning languages. Learn how to learn and dramatically improve your foreign language acquisition ability.

  • Show Comments (72)

  • Jason Eyermann

    Thanks for the great tips. I think my level is between higher beginner and intermediate. These are some great tips. I currently spend about 30-45 mins per day. I’m now thinking that i should step it up a little. I’ve gotten to a stage where i can enjoy speaking over skype in chinese. Although they normally speak back to me in english which is no good. Now and then i find someone who’s english is no good. That is normally better as I currently speak much better than I understand at the moment.

    • Dan French Poole

      Jason – your situation, in which you are better at speaking than listening, is particular, although not uncommon. It’s actually a good stage to be at, because it is clear what needs to be done for you to push through to the next level. I recommend you really step up your listening. Set yourself a goal, ie, 30 minutes a day, or an hour, whatever is manageable for you. In the next couple of days I will be writing a post about 1 month challenges and how great they are – as my first 1 month Chinese challenge (listening to an hour a day, everyday) is about to be completed. I will explain them and share my success with them. I highly recommend you give it a look! My first month challenge ends on the 31st, so I expect it will be up around then. In general, you want your comprehension to be higher than your speaking ability in order to have the best accent and grammatical accuracy possible.

  • I have been in Taiwan for nearly the last 3 years studying Chinese and teaching English. I’m definitely at a solid intermediate level now as progress is really hard to notice. I have a ‘regime’ of reading one chapter in a novel every day, listening to and shadowing an hour of dialogues while on the exercise bike and trying to at least get 30 minutes of solid conversation practice every day. I also try to get a good dose of children’s cartoons too.

    I’m hoping to take a standardized Chinese test so I can get a good idea of my level soon and use it as a motivator.

    Chinese isn’t hard (compared to other languages) but just like any language the grind of trying to get from basic to advanced takes a lot of commitment and time.

    • Totally can identify with you Scott! I think that learning a language is simply not an easy thing. As you said, it takes a lot of commitment, motivation, time, and effort. The intermediate phase is really the one where you got to put a double amount of effort and never give up despite not seeing any apparent progress, or not fast enough.

      How about life in Taiwan? The food, the people, the culture? Do you like it over there? I’d love to travel to Taiwan one day. Cheers!

      • Yeah, it’s great the food is pretty good here basically Chinese in nature, although the locals like to think it’s in a league of its own, mostly dead cheap.

        The people here are nice, pretty friendly towards and tolerant of foreigners. A lot of people here pleased to meet people trying to learn the language and make an effort. Although you usually have to initiate the conversation.

        The culture is interesting, Lots of interesting traditions, still struggle to make sense of it.

        Having lots of fun here. Let me know if you are ever in the area!

        • Dan French Poole

          There seems to be a lot of Westerners choosing Taiwan over China nowadays! Can I ask what influenced your decision?

          I mean, from a Chinese language perspective, Taiwan seems to be a drawback due to the traditional characters. Their questionable relationship with China (if you ever have dealings with the Chinese government in the future that might be a problem) and other things are also definitely considerations.

          Their lack of communism and hectic censorship is definitely a plus, though!

          • I originally came out here to teach English and was drawn by the higher wages here than the mainland and the good reports of others who had taught here.

            As for the traditional characters I don’t think it is such a big deal. When you have one system mastered you are 90% of the way there with the other system. Almost all of the radicals and phonetic components used in characters that have been simplified are also used in traditional. So even if you have never seen a certain simplified character you can often instantly know from its radicals and context which one it is.

            As far as dealing with the Chinese government, I’m sure there wouldn’t be any obstacles, although I really have no idea, as long as you don’t come out and publicly state that you are a Taiwan separatist supporter. Most people I’ve met in the mainland when I travel are really interested in Taiwan as they just see it as a part of their country they can’t easily visit yet.

            As far as benefits go, the standard of living is generally higher here, manners can be slightly better and there is no censorship.

  • Good points! I guess my biggest excuse to avoid learning Mandarin, a language I’ve been wanting to learn for sometime, is that I feel devoting time to it will take time away from improving my Japanese. I’ve been studying Japanese for the past ten years, and have lived there for two, but I always feel I should be devoting my time to it rather than starting a completely new language, (with even more characters!). But enough with excuses, thanks for the strategies, links and ideas in your post, I think it’s time to finally get started.

    • Hey Gavin! Glad you decided to get started with Chinese 🙂

      Since you’ll already be familiar with Chinese characters (I presume), this will definitely make your job easier. In any case, it’s not because you’re working on Chinese that you have to “give up” Japanese. I recommend spending only about half an hour a day, in the early stages, studying Chinese. If you need some textbook recommendations, check out my post entitled “The best self-study language method?”.

      Cheers!

    • Dan French Poole

      Hi Gavin, thanks for the feedback!
      Don’t forget that you are never too busy to learn a language, and almost everyone has enough unharnessed time in their day (on the train, washing dishes, walking the dog, etc) to easily have enough time to learn both Japanese and Chinese.

      Normally I wouldn’t recommend learning two languages at once, but once you’re at an Intermediate/Upper Intermediate level I think it’s perfectly reasonable to begin another! As long as you’re having fun.

      You may be worried that spending time on Chinese might make you lose some of your ability in Japanese – but from my experience this is not that case. It seems that as long as you are learning a language, no matter which, your ability won’t really decrease in the others you already know. In fact, you may even find your ability in Japanese continues to grow, especially if you still spend some time on it.

      Chinese is an amazing and wonderful language! Good luck with it! If you’re looking for more techniques, I just wrote an article about ‘one month challenges’ on my own blog.

    • It won’t happen. Your Japanese will get better! You will be able to pick up new words easily in Japanese because you already know and read them in Chinese. Ten years… You can’t possibly forget Japanese if you are already that good.

  • cherhale

    Really useful post. I adore Chinese (I may be a bit biased because I’m Taiwanese), and I also highly recommend sugoideas.com for Taiwanese drama watching to increase ear training, comprehension & culture exposure.

    • Angelo

      I am so loving the drama Deja Vu right now.I must admit…It makes me sob 🙁

      • cherhale

        I want to watch that! My mom watched it but I haven’t gotten around to it yet.

        • Angelo

          Its awesome!!!But It has a emotionally strong grip on me!Its my first Drama ever and I thought it would be great for Mandarin comprehension.But it turned me into a crybaby!I actually cant wait for the episode,even though I know it will ruin my night hahaha!!!!

  • Chinese isn’t hard! But seriously, be really strict on yourself with tones. “Close enough” isn’t good enough! It’s not “hard,” it’s just a habit you need to force on your lazy brain.

  • July Ju

    Good articles!! Chinese is so hard I think 🙁 here is also another article list 10 best free tools:https://www.facebook.com/notes/learn-mandarin-from-chinese-stories/10-best-free-chinese-learning-tools/10151498389547091
    I think its helpful too 🙂

  • Chris Bonger

    Learning Chinese is a pretty good thing to do at the moment, theres just no good jobs at home(Spain). I found this blog pretty good as I do rock climbing and Ive visited Yangshuo a few times. I haven’t been to the school (Omeida) myself but a few of my friends have and say its pretty good. http://learnmandarininchina.wordpress.com/ . I would really love to get better at Chinese.

    Anyone know is there a Shanghainese training school anywhere ??
    Thanks

  • Adam Rashbaum

    I’ve had success with http://briclanguage.com/. While obviously one of MANY language learning tools, I found the one-on-one approach (using video conferencing with instructors in China) very helpful. I was skeptical at first but I signed up for free evaluation and it was great.

  • Peng Yang

    我想认识一个语言朋友。I want a friend of language

  • Daniel Claire

    A lot of the economists are saying that China is picking up steam. Just for job possibilities I figure it’s best to take it on. Here’s a cool video on youtube. It’s encouragement to study Mandarin and gives a bleak economic forecast for the US.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u0GYXYA_Xv8

  • Jane Miller

    I agree with Clarice that learning Chinese online is a good method. I started two months ago with chinese-bootcamp.com. Prior to enroll
    its Chinese 101, I knew nothing about Chinese, and by the end of the course,
    I have learned the basics of pinyin and many sentence structures, such
    that I can make simple conversations and look up unknown words on the
    dictionary and properly pronounce them. Now, I am at 102 and much more
    confident with pronunciation.

  • Daniel Chen

    If you want to learn Chinese ,you should come for me .I am Chinese ,and I also want to make some foreign friends ,some friends of kindly 🙂

  • Fifi Zuo
  • chou

    Actually, I find study Chinese is easier than English. If only want discussing with Chinese. Just 1000 Chinese words enough.

    • Yes, it’s true that you don’t need that many words in order to have basic everyday conversations with people in Chinese. To be fair, though, I do think that the tones make it significantly more difficult to speak.

  • wuzzi

    I have some Chinese friends and love languages. I have decided to teach myself Chinese, going to them to practice and get feedback. I end up fascinated by how my brain works on things like this. When doing matching/memory games, sometimes I know what the character means in English, but cannot tell you the pinyin or pronounce it. I am pretty pleased, though. I am figuring things out, and see things getting easier already. I have been at it almost a month.

    The best part is the pinyin entry on Google keyboard doesn’t require the tone marks, so what I can remember can be texted from my phone or posted in social media in Chinese characters. 🙂

    • That’s awesome wuzzi 🙂 Yes, the great thing about entering pinyin is that the characters pop up with the most relevant/widely used coming first, so it makes it very easy to actually type Chinese as long as you know how to recognize the characters. Glad your Chinese studies are doing well. Let me know later how it’s coming along!

  • Yes. The best way to learn Chinese or any other language is to learn it from those who actually use it everyday. Especially from those who use it in a formal manner, like businessmen, because they use it in accordance with the rules.

    JOZELLE
    http://www.mandarin-espeak.com/

  • Javii_mii

    Chinese is not more difficult than any other language. But while the concept of ‘grab something and write down and learn every word you come across and don’t know yet’ works very well for other languages (those with alphabets) it does not work that well for Chinese: without knowing the pinyin or the radical it is almost impossible to find the word in the dictionary. Even if you are familiar with the radicals you will have trouble finding quite a lot of words. You will find them eventually but it takes ages. Plus you can not always identify which words are one, two or three syllables since there are no spaces. This makes it confusing when you come across several characters you do not know yet.

    Not being able to quickly acquire any vocabulary on your own is the most frustrating thing in my opinion and it quickly kills all my motivation. I started Chinese back in school. Technically I learn this language for four years now but I do not feel like it. It feels like the first year. Basically because of what I just said. – I started Korean a couple of weeks ago and it is incredibly more easy to figure out words, look them up and learn – and now I’m already reading and partly understanding lyrics and tv-shows and am currently planning on reading my first manwha/webtoon (pictures and little text makes it easier to guess words and the context they’re used in in my opinion, plus there are loads of them). In short: Even after just a few weeks I feel like I can understand way more in Korean than in Chinese.

    • Good point, reading a Chinese text can make it a bit more difficult to look up words, although technology has not made it much, much more easier to deal with this issue. For example, most good online Chinese dictionaries these days let you draw a characters in a box, after which the dictionary finds a list of characters that resemble what you’ve just drawn. There are also apps such as Pleco, if I’m right, that let you use your phone’s camera to identify which characters you are looking at.

      Overall, I think it is not a fair statement to say that “Chinese is not more difficult than any other language.” Of course it is more difficult (at least, if you’re looking at reading and writing) than certain other languages (all depending on your native tongue of course), but in the end I think with the right tools it’s definitely not insurmountable. Finally, depending on what you look to get out of your Chinese studies, it might be a worthwhile exercise to focus on listening and speaking skills in the first few years of study, thus avoiding the frustration that you have had to deal with. The good thing is that once you already speak a language, it’s much easier to learn how to read it, even with a language such as Chinese.

  • Tatiana

    Hi! I am a Chinese teacher. I recommend you a very good Chinese learning website: http://www.newconceptmandarin.com/

  • Cecilia Miao

    I recommend ChineseSkill for beginners.

  • Cecilia Miao

    Check out our app, ChineseSkill. It’s great for beginners and intermediates to brush their skills. Completely free and 100% effective.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vStkETYsKVw

    • Mai

      Thank you so much,but if I could have a good friend to have a conversation with that would be great.

      • du

        i am chinese boy live in lyon,[email protected]

  • Michelle Stewart

    Read this over and over again. I wish I had found this earlier. <3

    • Glad you found the article useful Michelle 🙂

  • 林 康
  • Bruce Wong

    Hello I am a Chinese student and I am currently studying in the UK now. Are there any English speaker want to learn mandarin or Cantonese? If you are interested in learning Chinese, I can be your partner. And I just want to improve my English, so text me. Mobile: 07476971379

    • Agripina Gómez

      Hi! I can help you, and you can help me

      • ben huang

        can you help me learning English?

  • Ren

    That is indeed a great way to learn easier. It certainly showed improvement on my free skype chinese lessons at http://preply.com/en/chinese-by-skype because I followed your tips. So thanks a lot.

  • tedwilliams99

    Gotta love the atheist preachers, proclaiming their belief in nothing. Oh do tell how atheism has made you a better person and changed your life for the better. Here’s the funny thing: If you found anything that looked like it wasn’t just a random rock or clump of material from the cosmos (say a toy car, or a very simple mechanical device) on a distant planet somewhere, you would assume of course that it was put there by someone. But here we are, living, breathing creatures with high intelligence, and you assume we were created from star dust, by chaos. Oh you say, maybe we were put here by aliens…but there’s no evidence at all of that now is there. No, instead, we were formed from the Big Bang and all of these highly ordered systems around us just happened to fall into place – uh huh. On the contrary my friend, you do have blind faith, in your belief that there is no living God. You have made a bigger leap of faith than I.

  • Nero Sun
  • haripriya

    since chinese is difficult language. this post will render hands for the beginners
    http://www.waterstonetranslations.com

  • Koncall

    One of the most important part of learning a new language is to SPEAK OUT! However, there is not much opportunities to speak Chinese with someone who is the native speaker : ( Koncall, a newly released app, is aimed to solve this problem! With that, you can connect with people from China, who is patient enough to talk to! Sign up for our Beta Test and get the first-hand experience of this amazing app
    http://goo.gl/forms/17uZu8dIKN

  • nihaochinese.org

    Chinese is a great language to pick up for people interested in business careers.

  • Nisllaly

    For me personally I highly recommend hanbridgemandarin if you want to actually learn Chinese with real native / near native speakers and if your goal is to become fluent. Online face to face tutors are good but the reality is if you want to become fluent you do need to practise speaking regularly with native speakers. hanbridgemandarin definitely does speed up the process and you will find that you will become fluent much faster.

  • Icy

    I am a chinese. If you want to find a friend to practise chinese . Add me as a friend at “we chat” 503108478

    • shubham

      what is “we chat”

      • li

        Chinese communicating app, like skype or what’s app.

  • Mridul Mahesh

    Is it better to learn the characters first or to learn the vocabulary? I am living in Singapore, so Chinese is a common language here. I have started to learn chinese characters using Anki and try and recognise the characters I have learnt in the subtitles for tv shows and also in signboards everywhere. I am not sure whether it is a good strategy though and should I focus on learning vocab and how to speak first?

  • Oshyyy

    Hi, my name is Oshin and I am a Chinese student recruiter. Are you interested in learning Mandarin Chinese? Our online process is the most convenient method of learning the language than the traditional classrooms with desks, books, instructor and white boards. Our tutors are certified and have professional working experience in teaching Chinese as a foreign language to overseas learners by using a mix of Chinese and your local language. We have designed flexible online learning lessons for learners at all levels from all over the world. The learning topics span across rich subject matters such as business, travel, culture and news. Please contact me at [email protected] for the instructions on how to start your free 30 day trial.

  • moses

    hi,i am a nigerian i live in africa i wil love to learn chinese.,i lovr the language

  • moses

    i love chinese language

  • Jae-Eun Lee

    Hello! I’m trying to learn Mandarin and just recently began learning via a language exchange partner. However, I don’t have any friends or family that know the language and I feel my tones are way off. I also feel that just learning a few words every other day won’t help.When learning English and Korean, I always knew how to say some words and then learned the phonetic alphabet later. But due to Chinese’s use of characters, I feel that wouldn’t help me. Do you perhaps have a set curriculum I can learn off of? Or an idea how to?

    Thank you in advance!

  • Yerkebulan Saparov

    Nice review. I have some comments to add. There is a brilliant app for beginners to learn writing and reading Simplified Chinese characters. I have been using it for about 2 months. You can search for it in google, just type: “Kung-Fu Master Easiest Way”.

    • liza perry

      thank you

  • Amy Xie
    • Valery Manriquez

      Hey i’m an english speaker and i was hoping if you could as well teach me chinese while i can teach you english. I would really be grateful if your offer is still up. Thank You!

  • Richard D. Isalos

    Wenhou Everyone From the Philippines!
    I’m here wanted to be a well-rounded Chinese Speaker someday. Hoping for the best that I can the earliest possible time but not to the point of forcing myself with deadlines. I just want it to be in a naturalistic manner and as a habit. If this happen, Mandarin could have been my L3 or the Third Language that I got. Inviting anyone to help me up! I can also teach you Waray-Waray language if you want.

  • Xiaolong Liu

    Jesus, I’ve never realized how much I had been through until just nowXD is it really that hard?

  • Ahaela Tseng

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