Linguists: Help me sort my life, please.
February 25, 2018 9:33 PM   Subscribe

I, a middle-aged mefite, want to make a career change into linguistics, and could use some encouragement mixed with a heavy dose of realism in the job market.

I am 46 years old, single, no kids, and have a B.A. in communications in the U.S. My debts, as of this past year, are paid off for the first time in my adult life. (Whee!!) But I don't have much in savings. (Boo!) I have studied 2 years of French, 2 years of Latin, 1 year of German, and 2 years of ASL, as well as some smatterings of other things like singing in many languages. I'm currently employed as a technical writer, so my English chops are good. I spent many years hating my jobs and amazed by people who seemed to love theirs. And then about 5 years ago, I discovered linguistics. Since then, I've listened to many audiobooks by authors like John McWhorter and Ann Curzan. I listen to linguistics podcasts. I squee about language change on social media. I take non-credit courses on linguistics online for fun. I tutor adults weekly in ESL through my local library, and volunteer at schools as a reading mentor. I love helping people be understood. I read articles about how 90% of our languages will be extinct by the end of this century, and I cry.
I fantasize about finally, after 30 years in the workplace, doing a job I actually enjoy, instead of having to work to survive. If I were independently wealthy, I would get my masters in linguistics and work to record some of the languages going extinct. If I couldn't get work doing that, I would maybe enjoy speech pathology or ESL. But I'm not independently wealthy and have to weigh the risk of going back to school at my age. But I recently career-shifted into tech writing, which was the hardest thing I've ever done, and I figure if I can do that, I should be able to shift again. Also, I think that I'd rather do something in linguistics for 10 years than spend 30 doing stuff I don't enjoy. Whatever that means for my future.

So - linguists: Help! Is there an online masters program that isn't crap? Is there a place I could move to that has a low cost of living, but a good masters program? Am I fixated on a masters for no reason? Is there a way I could work in linguistics without it?

I have a friend who grew up in Europe and says that there, you can get paid to teach or do research while doing a masters, but that seems like more of a PhD here. Has anyone gotten a masters in linguistics in another country and could comment on that? I just don't have enough savings to not work while getting a degree, but I worry that the clock is ticking and if I save for a few years to be able to do that, my cognitive abilities will be even worse. I hate that I've seen a cognitive decline in recent years. but I have. I don't want to wait too long.

Thanks in advance!
posted by greermahoney to Work & Money (26 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
When you say 'work in linguistics' , what do you mean exactly? What are you envisioning? You mention speech therapy or ESL as if those are not your first choices, so what are you thinking of job-wise besides recording endangered languages? I guess I'm trying to ask what you see yourself wanting to do that you need the Masters for.
posted by nakedmolerats at 10:00 PM on February 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

Well, I don't know exactly. I guess I don't even know what jobs are available. I think that's part of what is alluring about a masters, or any formal education. It usually clarifies what someone might pay you to do. I just know I love language and seeing how it changes.
Yeah, in a perfect world, I'd be doing something to record languages before they're gone. But if that's a complete pipe-dream, I wouldn't be unhappy helping people to communicate better. That's really important work, and still in the realm that I love.
posted by greermahoney at 10:17 PM on February 25, 2018

Fwiw, when I managed a coffee shop 5 years ago 2 out of 20 baristas had a graduate degree in linguistics
posted by mikek at 10:18 PM on February 25, 2018 [7 favorites]

Hi, I'm a graduate student in linguistics. I'm going to be blunt, because I think it will save you a lot of pain going forward and because you asked for "a heavy dose of realism":

This is a bad idea.

Almost everyone who has a job in linguistics is faculty at a research institution. There isn't much of a private job market. This is because linguistics, while it has some very important things to say about the world, is still primarily a field of academic inquiry. There aren't many commercial applications that people will be willing to pay you for.

Getting a job as faculty requires a PhD, often subsequent post-docs, and surviving what is, quite frankly, a brutally exploitative job market.

When it comes to documenting endangered languages, even experienced linguists have to compete for limited pots of research money. Unfortunately, there's no Bill Gates of linguistics, giving us money to do this thing.

This is a worse idea if you're considering paying for a graduate degree in linguistics.

Imagine your question was from someone explaining about how they're really passionate about philosphy. They want to get a "job" in philosophy, and so they're considering going back to school for a Masters. You'd probably realize that they've made some faulty assumptions, starting with assumption that philosophy is a vocational degree that prepares you for one of those many jobs as a philosopher.

This might sound really hypocritical, because I'm a graduate student in linguistics. But I'm not giving up an existing career, I'm attending a funded PhD program, and I'm okay with not getting a job at the end of it (I'll be sad, but still think the experience was worth it). I'm also not concerned about cognitive decline or how old I'll be when I finish. I don't think a graduate degree in linguistics is always a bad idea, but I think it sounds like a bad idea for you, given what you've said here.

Luckily, linguistics is one of those fields that is easy to learn and love as a layman. There are a lot of good linguistics writers, and resources for people who want to dive into more academic work, too.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 11:31 PM on February 25, 2018 [24 favorites]

I don't know about linguistics, but there are certainly fields of study, including paleontology and astronomy, where amateurs make significant contributions. I'm just throwing out wild ideas here, but you're already a writer. Have you thought about trying to write about linguistics as a freelancer? Does your tech writing need to be location-specific? Is it work you could ever do remotely? Could you go on the road, still working remotely as a tech writer to support yourself, and visit some of those places where languages are endangered and write about them?

One thing sort of struck me though--you mention a noticeable cognitive decline, and that seems weird. I am a little older than you, and I have noticed nothing of the sort. People in their 40s and 50s are not in the twilight of their years intellectually, and I can't help wondering if either you're demanding things of yourself cognitively that just aren't realistic (at any age) or if you should see a doctor.
posted by tiger tiger at 11:36 PM on February 25, 2018 [3 favorites]

Could you go on the road, still working remotely as a tech writer to support yourself, and visit some of those places where languages are endangered and write about them?

While this sounds like an appealing idea, there's a couple of issues with it -

The most obvious is money. Research can be expensive, especially when you consider working on a language that isn't spoken where you live. Travel, room & board, payments to consultants and assistants...

The second and more important issue is that working with endangered languages can be very sensitive. These are often communities that have a fraught relationships with the majority, and it can be real easy to put your foot in it. How not to put your foot in it is an ongoing conversation in the field and can be a lot more complicated than you expect.

In the US at least, we also have to go through an IRB process.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 11:47 PM on February 25, 2018 [5 favorites]

I have a BA in linguistics (in addition to a more employable degree), and I know lots of people with linguistics degrees at both the undergrad and PhD levels. Ironically, I would recommend tech writing to a newly minted linguistics grad looking for a job. Since you've already successfully pivoted into that field, I recommend trying to find jobs in tech or in tech writing that are related to language (e.g. tech writing for an NLP product).
posted by serelliya at 11:51 PM on February 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

The most obvious is money. Research can be expensive, especially when you consider working on a language that isn't spoken where you live. Travel, room & board, payments to consultants and assistants...

I don't think I was clear--I was thinking more of doing journalism than academic work, but you're absolutely right that there are sensitivities and undercurrents that need to be taken into account. (Literally the one time I didn't preview before hitting post and your original post appeared after mine, and I wished I'd read it first as soon as I saw it.)

You did mention interacting with the field as a layman. Is linguistics a field where amateurs ever make significant contributions?
posted by tiger tiger at 12:07 AM on February 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

One thing sort of struck me though--you mention a noticeable cognitive decline, and that seems weird.

Cognitive decline = nothing major, really. I just don't learn as quickly as I did when I was 18. I used to pride myself on only having to be shown something once. Now, that's not the case. But I do worry that it's a slippery slope and I don't want to put things off too long.
posted by greermahoney at 12:28 AM on February 26, 2018

Hi, I'm a professional linguist (academic).

What people have said here so far is absolutely correct.

You did mention interacting with the field as a layman. Is linguistics a field where amateurs ever make significant contributions?

Linguistics, not really. Language documentation, yes. You don't need to know so much about linguistic theory in order to produce good archival recordings, transcriptions and translations of these. I've worked on languages where a lot of the earlier work has been done by interested amateurs, and while it's of patchy quality, it's still very useful, and some of it is very good indeed.

However, what Kutsuwamushi said about sensitivities is super important. Laymen usually only do well if they are already embedded with a community that wants their language documented (e.g. teachers or doctors in remote areas, members of the community in question themselves, sometimes missionaries if they have the right approach). If you have strong personal connections to people in a remote area whose language hasn't been documented, and who want that to happen, yes, you could probably do okay as a layman, if you teach yourself about recording and transcription best practices. If you don't, you could do more harm than good. I have also worked in areas where people still are very suspicious of or refuse to work with linguists because of damage done by well-meaning amateur language documentation projects.

For theoretical linguistics work, there's really only two markets: academia (which is a disaster of a job market, and requires a PhD) and speech technology (natural language processing, etc), which really requires a PhD nowadays too. And is also not hiring linguists at the rates you might think, since non-linguistic statistical approaches do quite well here too.

If you want to do an MA because you love the subject, then yes, there are places in the world you can do this for cheap/free. I did an MA in linguistics in Germany (I'm from NZ), and it was free in the early 2000s. It now costs a few hundred to a thousand Euro, but you get all sorts of discounts for being a student (travel, health insurance etc). It's cheap like that even for foreign students, if you can get accepted, and get a visa.

And I did get some teaching and RA work, enough to cover my rent.

But I've never seen a linguistics MA program in Europe (or Australia/NZ) that would admit someone without an undergraduate degree in linguistics. I think the USA might be different, but then you are likely paying big money to do it.

I think a career transition into ESL or speech pathology or something might be doable and interesting for you. These are subjects that it makes sense to get an MA in, because that's the only degree you need to practice in the field. It doesn't make sense to get an MA in theoretical linguistics or language documentation in the hope of employability.
posted by lollusc at 12:30 AM on February 26, 2018 [9 favorites]

Okay, one other thought - there is work in Australia in what are known as "language centres". These are community centres in remote areas that serve as language documentation hubs. They usually have libraries of books and printed materials in the local language(s) that are open to the community, they host linguists working on the languages, they run community language revitalization, education and documentation programs, etc. Most have one or two part time linguists on staff, and most importantly, because these places are remote, and the positions are badly paid, they don't always attract people with PhDs. Many language centre linguists have an MA or even just a BA in linguistics. They do prefer to employ people who have some connection to the region, or who have worked on one of the local languages as part of their studies, though.

I'm not suggesting you could move to Australia and do this work. But I'm wondering whether there is anything similar in the USA, and/or in any country you might like to live in. If you volunteered for one for a while, it would give you a sense of what it's like to be a working linguist, and might make you employable for a paid position for one in the future. If you get the sense there is enough of a job market to risk it, you could consider getting whatever qualification they would require for you to be employable there longer term. Meanwhile volunteering might scratch your linguistics itch for a bit too.
posted by lollusc at 12:45 AM on February 26, 2018 [2 favorites]

Duolingo is hiring. With your tech writing skills could you potentially get involved with customer or product support?
posted by freya_lamb at 2:45 AM on February 26, 2018 [4 favorites]

e.g. tech writing for an NLP product

Hmm, neuro linguistic programming is to linguistics what Christian science is to science. I would be surprised to see a linguist with a reputable degree touching it with a barge pole.
posted by smoke at 3:31 AM on February 26, 2018 [3 favorites]

I assume that by NLP is meant Natural Language Processing, not Neurolinguistic Programming. It's unfortunate they use the same acronym.
posted by lollusc at 4:05 AM on February 26, 2018 [14 favorites]

I have a BA in linguistics and dropped out of grad school (holy god, wrong program). I was thinking about going back to grad school for linguistics because I love it, and then realized that I'd get out and have to fight 200 people for 3 jobs in places I didn't even want to visit.

I'm an attorney now. I do use linguistics every day, but let's get real: there is no money in this. It's a great interest, it's awesome, it's so amazing. There is no money.

Evaluate the two questions separately, that you are unhappy with your job and that you are excited about linguistics.
posted by bile and syntax at 5:01 AM on February 26, 2018

Another professional linguist chiming in.

So, for an idea of career paths, check out Superlinguo's job series posts; CareerLinguist is another good resource. Note that these blogs are mostly aimed at either undergrads getting a BA who are now quietly freaking out about the job market, and/or current MA or PhD students looking at the non-academic job market.

In the US, you can get into MA programs without a BA in Linguistics, but they're pretty much all self-pay. A few may have TA ships (with our without a tuition waiver)for teaching undergrad linguistics, or, if they have links with an English department, either teaching First-year composition, or possibly language courses, but these would be competitive and/or difficult to get as a first-year; see UNC's program, for example. My department, for example, takes people with no background in linguistics; we usually have one or two TAships to give out (for incoming cohorts of 3-4 ish).

So, as finding a funded MA program is somewhat unlikely, and taking out debt to get an MA in linguistics is not the best idea (although as noted above, doing so in ESL/TESOL or Speech Pathology is a somewhat less bad idea).

But: If you want something a little more structured then self learning, why not check out continuing ed courses at your local state school? This will still likely be Not Free* (at my school, for a state resident, this would be between $1500-2000), but it will definitely be cheaper than jumping in to a MA program. It also has the added bonus that, if you really like it, and take a couple classes with a faculty member (that is, not a grad student) who can write you a good letter of recommendation, you'd stand a better chance of getting a funded slot somewhere for an MA.

But, as noted above, odds are, with your MA, you might end up doing...exactly what you're doing now, unfortunately.

(*Ohio State has free continuing education for folks over 60, and also has a world-class linguistics department. 14 years is probably too long to wait, but it might be worth checking out if other places have similar programs that start at 50.)
posted by damayanti at 5:02 AM on February 26, 2018 [4 favorites]

There is nothing there now but shows some job postings for past months. From the main website: A conlanger is someone who creates or constructs languages or conlangs. It doesn't sound like career but it might be an occasionally paying hobby requiring a good knowledge of linguistics.
posted by Botanizer at 6:03 AM on February 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

Hi, I have an MS in Linguistics. The DingoWife does, too (we met in our program, actually, when we both thought we wanted PhDs and to teach linguistics). She is currently working as an administrative assistant, while I'm working on my third masters in a different field. While neither of us left our program explicitly looking for careers in linguistics, neither have we seen many opportunities - and of our classmates who went on to get a PhD, only our department "rock stars" have ended up with a position at a university.

Me of the Past could have written your question - like you, I love the idea of linguistics and thought that I'd be a great fit for the jobs I envisioned being out there. And I did have a great time in my program - I enjoyed my classes, I got to write all sorts of interesting papers about the New Zealand Vowel Shift, Welsh language revitalization, humor processing and Gricean maxims, language and identity, etc ... but at the end of the day I enjoyed the idea of linguistics more than doing the research necessary to become an academic. I didn't have a clear idea of what I wanted to DO with linguistics - my kind-of joke answer to "What do you want to do when you graduate?" was "Make more linguists." And I think that should have been a red flag to me very early on. Those "rock stars" I talked about? They all came in with pretty good ideas of what they wanted to research, and even though those ideas shifted over time, they never seemed to suffer from the nebulous "I just want to study linguistics" mindset that I'd had.

My experience is that getting a masters in linguistics isn't going to open up many job opportunities for you, and getting a PhD is only worthwhile a) once you move beyond "loving language" into having some clear ideas of specific research you might want to pursue and b) if you'll be okay even if you don't get a linguistics job at the end, as the job market truly is brutal. This is what I would have told me of the past, so I'm sharing it with you here now.
posted by DingoMutt at 8:22 AM on February 26, 2018 [3 favorites]

And because you mentioned that you love helping people be understood I'll put in a plug for the field I'm currently in grad school for - speech-language pathology - with one caveat. Forgive me if I'm misreading you, but I get the sense you're thinking of speech-language pathology as a "safety option" in case linguistics doesn't work out for you - but getting into a speech-language pathology graduate program is highly competitive and requires (for most schools) at least a year of leveling courses if you don't have a BS in Communication Science & Disorders. Moreover, I'm in my second term of my master's program right now, and I'm working harder than I ever did in either of my previous two graduate programs. The courses are challenging and involve a lot of reading and work, and that's on top of many hours each week meeting with actual clients in our clinic (plus planning for sessions, writing up the paperwork after sessions, meeting with my clinic advisor, etc.). It's an amazing field - and unlike linguistics, this time I'm enjoying my program but am even more excited at the thought of graduating and getting out in the field - but it's mentally, emotionally, and sometimes even physically exhausting.

That said, I love this field and feel it's really given me the opportunity to DO something with my love of language. While in linguistics I was frustrated at times with the feeling that even if I got my PhD, I'd mostly be publishing articles/giving talks for other academics, here I'm working face-to-face with individuals who need help communicating. I do get to use my linguistics background - e.g., understanding phonological processes really helped in my Speech Sound Disorders class - and the job market for SLPs is (so I'm told) very strong.

One of the really cool things about the field is that professionals will let you shadow them as they work - I had to have 10 observation hours before I even started my post-bacc program. If you think you might be interested in speech-language pathology I'd strongly recommend looking up professionals in your area and asking if you can come observe for an hour or two. It feels super awkward to ask but my experience was that most SLPs are very supportive of new recruits. And hey - towards that end, if you do think you'd like to learn more about the field feel free to drop me a PM. I'd be happy to talk more linguistics and SLP stuff any time =)
posted by DingoMutt at 8:39 AM on February 26, 2018 [3 favorites]

I also have a BA in linguistics and seriously considered graduate school.

I would urge you to not do this. To illustrate, allow me to share an anecdote.

During the last few weeks of my senior year of university, we were wrapping up a capstone seminar in Yiddish. One of my classmates asked our professor a question which she couldn't answer offhand. She remarked, "Oh, my plumber is coming this evening. I'll ask him." When asked how she knew that her plumber spoke fluent Yiddish, she exclaimed with surprise, "Oh! I've never told you? My plumber has a Master's in linguistics!" Seeing our faces, she added, "And he makes more as a plumber than I do as the chair of this department." This was at a private, highly ranked R1 university.

I felt my dreams die in that moment. Now I am a biologist. I have had people laugh outright when told what my major was.

Do anything else.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 9:29 AM on February 26, 2018 [3 favorites]

^ Oh hey, I am the dingowife mentioned above. Yes, from a US perspective, I have to say that..... the only use case I saw for getting an MA in linguistics is if you wanted to beef up your CV before applying to PhD programs. Of the >5 people in my program who left with just the MA, the only ones of us working in linguistics today are people who moved towards TESOL or speech therapy. (The rest of us have generally moved into other academic-support type roles - college staff, writing center, etc) Sadly, you won't even get to teach Linguistics 101 with an MA - there are a million PhDs out there saturating the market. The problem with wanting to document endangered languages is mostly bound up in funding, as I see it - the departments and people that control sponsoring research to the jungles of Brazil funnel that directly to their PhD students and/or postdocs.

I might suggest that you tailor your search specifically towards "applied linguistics" careers and programs and see if anything strikes you there. No one will tell you this before grad school, but there is a deep divide between 'applied linguistics' - ESL, translation, education - and what is considered the more 'pure' or academic/theoretical linguistics (syntax, pragmatics, semantics, etc.) Bluntly, the 'pure' linguistics will not help you at all with careers outside academia. The core curriculum of linguistics serves to train future professors. The con is that everyone knows this but keeps teaching it to 20 bright young PhD students, perhaps two of whom will ever become professors.

I know this all sounds pretty depressing. FWIW, I don't regret getting my Masters. I am lucky I didn't pay for it, but frankly I paid for it in terms of "3 years of not developing other, more relevant job skills." If you have the money and/or don't care if it ends up a wash... do it! YOLO. But I wouldn't recommend it for anyone going into debt and/or someone who needs a viable career to come out of it.

The other thought I have re teaching is that you MAY, with an MA, be able to worm your way into teaching a community-ed type class on Ling 101. Many large unis also have an Osher program for teaching audit courses to seniors, and I've seen people get to teach their pet subject here with less credentials. BUT both those routes would require significant schmoozing and networking even with the MA, and neither of them will pay enough to live off.
posted by nakedmolerats at 9:55 AM on February 26, 2018 [3 favorites]

I have a BA in linguistics, and got an MA in ESL. When I got my MA, they paid me to be there -- I taught in the school's ESL program pretty much from day 1. So, I left without accruing any debt. I did get to "geek out" on English, and really enjoyed the multiple cultures of the students in our program. I don't know how common such a situation is these days. I ended up teaching a year overseas, and then in a university-based program in the US. It didn't pay a lot, but it was enough income for a two-income family.

Eventually, I went into computer programming and the NLP which is natural language processing, and that's been certainly more lucrative (and, for me, even more enjoyable).
posted by willF at 10:33 AM on February 26, 2018 [2 favorites]

Another professional linguist checking in here. I’d say nakedmolerats pretty much nailed it, especially the part about applied linguistics. One point I’d add is that the divide between linguistics and applied linguistics is not just, like, a difference of opinion within departments — in most places they’re different departments entirely. If you’re motivated by the idea of helping people, you might be happier in applied linguistics. I also think doing an MA in applied linguistics might be more common than in linguistics, although I’m not totally confident about that. In linguistics most US graduate programs are focused on the PhD, for better or worse.

There isn’t a very expansive set of secret linguist jobs that you aren’t aware of, sad to say. Academic linguist is the job that people like McWhorter and Curzan have, but it doesn’t sound like that’s your goal, except insofar as it’s the main path to a career in language documentation. SLP, TESOL, you’ve mentioned — those are, as far as I know, relatively viable options, especially the latter. There’s a slew of options that are basically programming jobs with a language focus — they're lucrative, but the qualifications are computer science degrees, mostly. I sometimes see job ads on Linguist List for non-academic jobs doing things like annotation for language technology companies, and those sometimes just require a BA. You might consider interpreting and translation, including being a linguist for the State Department (no idea how to get into this but I bet it’s very competitive!).

One other thing I should mention: there’s a substantial tradition in the US of language documentation in the service of missionary work and particularly Bible translation. My feelings about that are...let’s say mixed; consider this information rather than recommendation. The main organization doing that work is SIL International.
posted by somedaycatlady at 9:49 PM on February 26, 2018

Thanks, all. Clearly, there's a consensus of "don't do this" advice. Which is disappointing, but not entirely unexpected. I knew it wasn't a field where people were throwing money around. That said, I was hoping there was a little more opportunity than there appears to be. It looks like I'll be giving even more thought to it all. Thank you for your offers of more info via PM. I may take you up on that. In the meantime, I'll try to sate my thirst for knowledge with what I can obtain on my own. I'll also try to do some research to find volunteer opportunities. If I could spend 40 hours a week doing something I didn't really mind to support 10 hours a week to do something I thought was worthwhile, that might be enough.

One other thing I should mention: there’s a substantial tradition in the US of language documentation in the service of missionary work and particularly Bible translation.

This makes me want to cry in frustration - that some of the only people doing the necessary work are doing something that is anathema to me. Ugh.

I really do want to thank you all for your warnings, ideas, experiences, and links. I knew I could count on this community to give me give me a lot of next steps. You never disappoint.
posted by greermahoney at 10:31 PM on February 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

In the meantime, I'll try to sate my thirst for knowledge with what I can obtain on my own.

Towards that end I'll share a suggestion that someone gave me while I was at your point; this person himself had gone to grad school to earn a PhD in Linguistics, finished his coursework, and decided to take his Masters and leave the field (much like I ended up doing!): look at some actual peer-reviewed linguistics journals, e.g., through the Linguistics and Language Behavior Abstracts database if your library has access, or by going to a university library and perusing the hard copy volumes of linguistics journals. Read the titles of the articles; read the abstracts. It may go mostly over your head (it certainly did for me at the time), but it could give you a sense of the kinds of things that theoretical linguists study.

I'll tell you the truth: when I did this, back before applying to grad school, I was mildly disappointed because most of the studies I came across did not seem very exciting to me. Naive as I was, I assumed that was just because I didn't understand enough to "get" why these studies were interesting. I should have taken it as at least a bit of a red flag, a realization that I loved the linguistics that was packaged for popular consumption, but not so much the deeper stuff that was the day-to-day work of actual linguists. Who knows, maybe you'll feel differently - but whether you do or not, it could be another measuring stick to help you gauge your interest in the field as a professional.
posted by DingoMutt at 3:19 PM on February 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

(Sad note that an MA in applied linguistics or TESOL is also a bad idea. Full-time jobs barely exist. My campus has a huge ESL population, but ONE full-time ESL professor.)
posted by wintersweet at 2:58 PM on March 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

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