Chapter 6. Provide comprehensive language support

This chapter uses data from the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) to illustrate the important role that language plays in the social, academic and economic integration of immigrant students and adults. While factors beyond language may sometimes prevent immigrants from thriving in their host communities, this chapter argues that tailored language support – which are personalised to an individual’s characteristics and contexts – can help facilitate integration processes. This chapter also discusses a selection of policies and practices that countries have used to support the linguistic integration of immigrants.

    

The ability to use language has an immediate impact on the lives of individuals because people primarily communicate by speaking, reading and writing. For immigrant children and adults, proficiency in the host country’s language can be a key driver for their integration. At school, language fluency enables children to fully benefit from learning opportunities, participate in the social life of their school and develop a sense of belonging in their new environment (Coll and Magnusson, 1997[1]; Zhou and Xiong, 2005[2]; Dawson and Williams, 2008[3]). For immigrant adults, good language skills can facilitate access to job opportunities, job retention and career progression. Adults who are fluent in the host country’s language are also more likely to participate in the social life of their communities, access public services and contribute to local activities (Dustmann and Van Soest, 2001[4]; Dustmann and Fabbri, 2003[5]; Bleakley and Chin, 2004[6]; Bleakley and Chin, 2010[7]). In short, being fluent in the host country’s language allows immigrants to thrive.

On the other hand, lack of language skills can have a negative impact on the lives and integration of immigrants. Children with an immigrant background who face language barriers are more likely to experience bullying, discrimination and emotional problems like depression and low self-esteem (Gil, Vega and Dimas, 1994[8]; Padilla and Perez, 2003[9]; Romero and Roberts, 2003[10]; Smart and Smart, 1995[11]). Adults who lack language fluency may face similar social and emotional risks but they may also experience economic hardship, find it difficult to access information in the host country and struggle to advocate for themselves or their families. As a result, the sooner immigrants become fluent in the host country’s language, the faster these risks diminish and the more individuals can benefit from new opportunities. These findings explain why many countries emphasise language-training policies to support people with an immigrant background.

This chapter will demonstrate the importance of language in immigrants’ integration process while emphasising the need for language support as a key policy concern. However, it is important to note that factors beyond language may sometimes prevent immigrants from thriving in their host communities. This section will also highlight OECD evidence suggesting that while language support is important, a one-size fits-all approach is not effective and immigrants may have a greater need for different support to thrive. Finally, the chapter will examine a set of principles that could guide the design and implementation of policies and practices to ensure that immigrants receive relevant language support to facilitate their integration.

Language barriers and the academic and well-being outcomes of immigrant students

Language fluency is associated with students’ proficiency in all academic domains, even those with less language content like mathematics. It also explains much of the difference in academic performance between native students and students with an immigrant background.

Figure 6.1 compares the percentage of immigrant students who are academically resilient among those who speak and those who do not speak the language of assessment at home with the percentage of native students who attain the same level of academic proficiency. It reveals that on average across OECD countries, immigrant students who do not speak the language of assessment at home are around eight percentage points less likely to be academically resilient than native-speaking immigrant students. However, the size of this gap varies across countries and economies.

Figure 6.1. Students attaining baseline academic proficiency, by immigrant background and language spoken at home
After accounting for socio-economic status
Figure 6.1. Students attaining baseline academic proficiency, by immigrant background and language spoken at home

Note: Statistically significant differences are marked in a darker tone.

Students who attain baseline academic proficiency are those who attain at least proficiency Level 2 in all three core PISA subjects: science, reading and mathematics. Native students are students without an immigrant background who speak most frequently at home the language of the PISA assessment. Native-speaking students are students who speak most frequently at home the language of the PISA assessment. Non-native-speaking students are those who reported that the language they most frequently speak at home is different from the language of the PISA assessment. Only countries with valid values for both native- and non-native-speaking immigrant students are shown. Statistically significant differences between non-native- and native-speaking immigrant students with at least one native-born parent are shown next to country/economy names. The OECD average refers only to the subset of countries/economies with valid information on both groups of students. Countries and economies are ranked in descending order of the gap between non-native-speaking immigrant students with at least one native-born parent and native students in the percentage of students attaining baseline academic proficiency, adjusted for socio-economic status.

Source: OECD, PISA 2015 Database.

 StatLink http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/888933939809

In some cases, linguistic proficiency explains almost the entire gap in academic achievement between immigrant and native students. For example, non-native-speaking immigrant students tend to perform below native students in Macao and Hong Kong (China), Ireland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Jordan, Malta, the Netherlands, Croatia, Russia, and Latvia. By contrast, these countries and economies reveal no statistically significant difference in the academic achievement between native students and immigrant students who are native speakers of the host country’s language. This difference is largest in Latvia, where native-speaking immigrant students demonstrate a similar academic performance as native students but non-native-speaking immigrant students are 31 percentage points less likely to attain baseline academic proficiency than native students are.

Proficiency in the host country’s language also affects the well-being of students with an immigrant background. In a large number of countries and economies, non-native-speaking immigrant students were less likely to feel they belong at school than both native speakers born in the country and immigrant students who are native speakers (OECD, 2018[12]). Non-native-speaking immigrant students were also less likely to be socially resilient. On average across OECD countries, the share of students who reported a sense of belonging was five percentage points smaller among non-native-speaking immigrant students than among native-speaking immigrant students and nine percentage points smaller than among native students.

In several countries and economies, native-speaking immigrant students had equal or higher chances of reporting a sense of belonging at school compared to native students and had significantly greater chances compared to non-native-speaking immigrant students. This is the case in Greece, Italy, Macao (China) and Sweden, while in Norway and the United Kingdom, native-speaking immigrant students were more likely to report that they feel like they belong at school, even compared to native students.

Language barriers for adult immigrants

Language fluency not only has an impact on the resilience of students with an immigrant background, it is also a key driver of integration for adult immigrants. As with PISA data, the OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) reveals that a person’s mother tongue language is an important determinant of differences in literacy between native adults and adult immigrants. Figure 6.2 illustrates, among participating countries, differences in the average literacy performance among natives, immigrants whose mother tongue is the same as the language in which they sat the PIAAC test and immigrants whose mother tongue is different from the language of the PIAAC test. The average difference between foreign-born and native-born individuals in PIAAC participating countries is 22 points. However, while the difference in the PIAAC scores of immigrants who are native speakers and of non-immigrant native speakers is 10 points, this difference is as large as 27 points between natives and immigrants whose mother tongue is different from the language in which the PIAAC test was conducted.

Figure 6.2. Gap in literacy performance between natives and immigrants, in PIAAC participating countries
Unadjusted and adjusted differences in literacy score between immigrants and natives (Natives minus immigrants)
Figure 6.2. Gap in literacy performance between natives and immigrants, in PIAAC participating countries

Note: Statistically significant differences are marked in a darker tone. Proficiency in literacy ranges between 0 and 500 score points. Adjusted differences are based on a regression model and take account of differences associated with all or some of the following variables: age, gender, education, and language background. Estimates based on a sample size less than 30 are not shown. Estimates for Russia are missing due to the lack of language variables.

Source: Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) (2012, 2015). www.oecd.org/skills/piaac/publicdataandanalysis/

http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/888933845795 (accessed 14 May 2019).

 StatLink http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/888933939828

Figure 6.2 also reveals significant variations across countries. In Lithuania, Estonia and the Czech Republic there are no significant differences in the literacy proficiency of immigrants whose mother tongue is the same as the language of the PIAAC assessment and those with a different mother tongue. For a different group of countries, the fact that immigrants speak a language other than the language of the PIAAC assessment largely explains the immigrant gap. For example, in Australia, Austria, Greece, Finland, the Netherlands and Singapore, a language penalty can explain over 70% of the immigrant gap in literacy scores, after controlling for the influence of age, gender and the level of education attained.

Differences in language barriers across student profiles and host countries

While language fluency is important, immigrants may face other sources of disadvantage that affect their ability to thrive. For example, PISA 2015 results suggest that in addition to language, socio-economic disadvantage is one of the greatest obstacles to the successful integration of students with an immigrant background. However, the relative importance these factors have on the academic and social resilience of students affects them differently depending on the host country and student’s profile.

On average across OECD countries, native-speaking immigrant students with at least one foreign-born parent are two percentage points less likely than native students to attain baseline levels of proficiency in the core PISA subjects, while non-native-speaking immigrant students (with at least one foreign-born parent) are about 17 percentage points less likely to do so (OECD, 2018[12]). In Bulgaria, Finland, France, the Slovak Republic and Slovenia, the difference compared to native students is more than 25 percentage points for non-native speakers, and it is not statistically significant for native speakers. These results suggest that fluency in the language of assessment links to academic resilience among immigrant students with at least one foreign-born parent.

Table 6.1 and Table 6.2 further show that, in some countries, language fluency is relatively more important in explaining disparities in academic performance and sense of belonging between native and immigrant students. In these countries, offering language-specific training for immigrant students can be an essential element of policies aimed at fostering their academic and social resilience. In other countries, socio-economic background plays a more important role than language in promoting academic proficiency and sense of belonging. This can mean policy trade-offs between targeting language versus targeting other sources of disadvantage.

Table 6.1. Key risk factors for the academic resilience of immigrant students
Targeting efforts on key risk factors for the academic resilience of immigrant students: the relative importance of language and socio-economic background

Language relatively important

Average

Language relatively not important

Socio-economic status relatively important

Croatia, Hong Kong (China), Luxembourg

Greece, Netherlands

Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires (Argentina), France, United States,

Average

Jordan, Switzerland

Austria, Belgium, Germany, Slovenia, Sweden

Italy, Spain

Socio-economic status relatively not important

Estonia, Latvia, Slovak Republic

Denmark, Finland

Czech Republic, Portugal, United Kingdom

Note: Dimension 1 (rows) sorts countries into three equally-sized groups based on the share of the difference between native and immigrant students (first- and second-generation) in the likelihood of attaining baseline academic proficiency that is explained by differences in socio-economic status. The share is larger for countries in the top row and smaller for those in the one below. Dimension 2 (columns) sorts countries into three equally-sized groups based on the difference between native-speaking and non-native-speaking immigrant students in the likelihood of attaining baseline academic proficiency. The positive gap is larger for countries in the left column and smaller for those in the right one. Students who attain baseline academic proficiency are those who reach at least PISA proficiency Level 2 in all three core PISA subjects: science, reading and mathematics.

Socio-economic status is measured through the PISA index of economic, social and cultural status (ESCS).

Native-speaking students are students who speak most frequently at home the language of the PISA assessment. Non-native-speaking students are those who reported that the language they most frequently speak at home is different from the language of the PISA assessment.

Source: OECD, PISA 2015 Database.

Table 6.2. Key risk factors for the social resilience of immigrant students
Targeting efforts on key risk factors for the social resilience of immigrant students: the relative importance of language and socio-economic background

Language relatively important

Average

Language relatively not important

Socio-economic status relatively important

Austria, Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires (Argentina), Denmark, Netherlands

Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg

Average

Greece, Italy, Spain, Sweden

New Zealand

Slovenia, Switzerland

Socio-economic status relatively not important

Estonia, Jordan, Latvia, Montenegro

Czech Republic, Portugal

Ireland, Malta

Note: Dimension 1 (rows) sorts countries into three equally-sized groups based on the share of the difference between native and immigrant students (first- and second-generation) in the likelihood of reporting a sense of belonging at school that is explained by differences in socio-economic status. The share is larger for countries in the top row and smaller for those in the one below. Dimension 2 (columns) sorts countries into three equally-sized groups based on the difference between native-speaking and non-native-speaking immigrant students in the likelihood of attaining baseline academic proficiency. The positive gap is larger for countries in the left column and smaller for those in the right one. Students who reported a sense of belonging at school are those who reported that they “agree” or “strongly agree” with the statement “I feel like I belong at school” and “disagree” or “strongly disagree” with the statement “I feel like an outsider at school”. Socio-economic status is measured through the PISA index of economic, social and cultural status (ESCS). Native-speaking students are students who speak most frequently at home the language of the PISA assessment. Non-native-speaking students are those who reported that the language they most frequently speak at home is different from the language of the PISA assessment.

Source: OECD, PISA 2015 Database.

Tailor-made programmes: the importance of the proximity between the origin and host languages

A range of factors can influence an immigrant’s fluency and ability to learn the host country’s language. Examples of such factors include age of arrival in the host country, how different a person’s mother tongue is from the language of the host country (linguistic distance), levels of exposure to the host language (for example in school interactions) and the expected time of stay in the host country. The diversity of factors that can shape an immigrant’s language proficiency, and thus their integration into the host community, suggest that tailor-made language programmes could be more effective than one-size-fits-all approaches in helping immigrants develop the language skills they need to thrive.

Although language support receives a lot of attention in the policy debate, many language programmes employ a dichotomous distinction between same and different language speakers. This prevents programmes from considering the wide spectrum of languages spoken by individuals with an immigrant background. This is an important limitation since the degree of similarity between an immigrant’s mother tongue and host language affects the ease with which they can become fluent in the host language (Isphording, 2014[13]). For example, the language barrier that immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries face when settling in Italy is not the same that Spanish-speaking immigrants face when they settle in Finland. The language penalty gap that some immigrants suffer in terms of social, academic or economic integration is also related to how similar or dissimilar their mother tongue is from the host country language.

The OECD (2018) Skills on the Move report quantifies the degree of linguistic proximity between individuals’ mother tongue and the language in which they sat the PIAAC assessment. This builds on previous work from (Isphording, 2014[13]) that uses data from the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS). The report then analyses the association between linguistic proximity and literacy, numeracy and wage levels.

Figure 6.3 displays the level of language diversity that exists within immigrant populations and the extent to which, on average, the languages that immigrant communities speak are very similar or very different from the language in which they sat the PIAAC test. It also displays the additional literacy gap expected given the level of linguistic distance among immigrants, after controlling for individual characteristics. Results show that the greater the linguistic dissimilarity between the mother tongue of an individual and the language in which that person sat the PIAAC test, the lower his or her proficiency in literacy will be. Results were similar for numeracy proficiency.

Figure 6.3. Language distance and related additional gap in literacy among foreign-born populations in PIAAC participating countries
The dissimilarity (distance) between the mother tongue of foreign-born populations and the language of the PIACC test, and its implication for literacy proficiency
Figure 6.3. Language distance and related additional gap in literacy among foreign-born populations in PIAAC participating countries

Note: Estimates for Australia, Germany and Russia are missing due to the lack of language variables. Countries are ranked in descending order of the score point difference.

Source: OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) (2012, 2015).

 StatLink http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/888933939847

The diversity of languages spoken by immigrants and the degree to which, on average, such languages differ from the host country’s language is an important consideration when assessing the potential language training needs of immigrant communities. The greater the distance between the languages spoken by minorities and the official language spoken in the host country, the more intense and long-term language training needs are likely to be. It will also likely be more difficult for immigrant communities to obtain fluency in the host country’s language. The greater the diversity of languages spoken by immigrants, the more difficult it may be to find trainers who will be able to cater to a large variety of needs. However, in the absence of large communities of immigrants who speak the same language, the greater the incentive is for immigrants to learn the official language in the country. This is because opportunities for communication within theim migrant community will be lower.

From evidence to action: Lessons from the field including examples of policies and practices to promote long-term well-being through integrated language support

This chapter has shown the importance of language proficiency on the social, academic and economic integration of immigrant students and adults. However, the evidence also reveals that addressing language barriers requires a nuanced approach. This means tailoring the time and intensity of language support to meet the specific needs of language learners. Support should consider individual factors, such as a person’s age of arrival and how dissimilar an immigrant’s mother tongue is from the host country’s language. Policy makers should also consider the context of immigrants living in the host community, such as their socio-economic background. Together, this can help determine if different or additional support is required to help immigrants thrive. Over the years, countries have used a range of policies and practices to address the language barriers facing immigrant communities. This section highlights some of these efforts, which can be tested and evaluated to facilitate the linguistic integration of immigrants.

Promote plurilingualism and consider offering mother tongue tuition

Plurilingualism refers to individuals or societies that can speak and switch between several languages according to the circumstances (Council of Europe, 2001, p. 168[14]). When people speak multiple languages, they tend to become autonomous learners and are motivated to learn other languages (OECD, 2019). In the classroom, promoting the flexible use of code switching across languages can ease the transfer of knowledge from one language to another (Garcia, 2009, p. 140[15]). Some research suggests that this practice can “facilitate metalinguistic awareness and promote the development of the school language, as well as the content learning of the subject” (Herzog-Punzenberger, Pichon-Vorstman and Siarova, 2017, p. 61[16]).

In France, newly arrived students can benefit from pluralingualism. At the national level, some language classes seek to help newly arrived students discover French by leveraging and comparing the variety of languages used by students in the classroom. This approach stimulates student thinking about how language is structured and used, offering learners a deeper understanding of their own languages/cultures and that of their peers (European Commission, 2018[17]).

In communities that have a large number of immigrants who speak the same language (other than the host country’s language) developing students’ mother tongue can be beneficial. Promoting a student’s mother tongue has the potential not only to help secure the self-esteem and identity of immigrant students and their families (Benson and Kosonen, 2013[18]; Dolson and Mayer, 1992[19]; Bühmann and Trudell, 2008[20]; IDRC, 1997[21]; European Commission, 2015[22]; Eurydice, 2009[23]), it also can be important to supporting the overall integration of immigrant students.

In Sweden, mother tongue instruction is a right for all students with a legal guardian whose mother tongue is not Swedish (Cerna et al., 2019[24]). This provision is offered if (1) the language in question is used for daily communication in the student’s home, and (2) the student has basic knowledge of the language in question (Ganuza and Hedman, 2015[25]; Utbildningsdepartementet (Ministry of Education and Research), 2016[26]).

Offer targeted language support, especially to late arrivals

Immigrant students who arrive late in their adolescence without the language skills of the host country are especially vulnerable to falling behind in school and struggling to develop a sense of belonging. Late-arrival penalties vary across countries, but they are usually more pronounced for immigrant students who do not speak the assessment language at home (OECD, 2012[27]; OECD, 2015[28]). While most countries provide some form of language training to first-generation immigrants and new arrivals, it is also important to offer targeted language training to returning students and students from mixed-heritage households when proficiency in the host language is markedly lower than that among native students.

Countries can develop targeted language support programmes in several ways. Support might include offering second language courses; providing a special curriculum for language learners in mainstream classes (that are appropriate for the student’s age and grade level); or leveraging innovative practices such as dual language learning, pluralingualism or online programmes. The latter can be especially useful when there are only a small number of non-native-speaking students in a particular school. When appropriate and feasible, countries can also offer intensive induction classes for language learners with little or no knowledge of the language of instruction. This can help students quickly develop the language skills they need to access mainstream curriculum content. However, the goal of induction or preparatory classes should be to mainstream students as soon as possible to avoid segregating them from native-speaking peers and to facilitate inclusion.

In Sweden, immigrant students (aged 7-18) who arrive with little or no knowledge of the Swedish language are considered “new arrivals” for up to four years starting from the time they enrol in school. Within two months of starting school in Sweden, new arrivals have their level of literacy and numeracy skills assessed (see below) and then assigned to an appropriate class. Newly arrived students can also benefit from separate introductory classes but are included in mainstream classes to the extent that their language proficiency allows. In Slovenia, newly arrived immigrant and refugee children benefit from both induction classes and continuing or advanced classes to support their language development during the school year. The continuing classes consist of an individual programme or plan of activities (before or after school) that may include remedial or supplementary classes in Slovenian with the aim of integrating students into mainstream classes with their native-born peers (OECD, 2018[29]).

Support opportunities for informal language learning

Providing opportunities to learn and practice the target language outside of schools and training centres can help learners improve their language skills and become more confident. For children, (language) summer camps are one example of supporting language learning in an informal setting. Other examples of informal language learning might include participation in leisure centres and after-school programmes, like sports, music, dance, drama and the visual arts. These activities can help increase participants’ self-confidence, self-esteem and positive behaviours (Bungay and Vella-Burrows, 2013[30]). After-school activities also appear to improve immigrant high school students’ sense of belonging, motivation and academic achievement (Camacho and Fuligini, 2015[31]). In Austria, the cities of Vienna and Linz offer free summer language camps for any student who is struggling with German in school, including immigrants who arrived late in the school year and need additional support. The summer camps offer students an opportunity to learn German through sports, games, and other activities (Das Institut Interkulturelle Pädagogik (The Institute of Intercultural Education), 2012[32]; Lindner, 2017[33]).

Make use of assessments to monitor and improve language skills

Many countries have developed initial assessments of language and other competencies that target students with an immigrant background (OECD, 2018[12]). These assessments can be administered in either the language of instruction or the student’s mother tongue. The latter can help teachers and schools distinguish between language barriers and other learning needs. Assessments can ensure that newly arrived students who struggle with the language of the host country are identified and results are used as a basis for distributing additional funding to schools or as a formative tool to identify the type of language support individual children need along their educational trajectory. However, poorly designed assessments can have a detrimental impact as immigrant children are more likely to be allocated to special education classes and lower-ability tracks (OECD, 2018[12]). In Sweden, diagnostic tests provided through the Build Swedish (Bygga svenska) programme determine the language ability and level of academic knowledge of newly arrived students. Initial tests are conducted within two months of the student’s arrival at school and subsequent tests can be used to measure the student’s competencies in different school subjects over time (Cerna et al., 2019[24])

Language assessment is not only a valuable tool for first-generation immigrant students; it can also benefit students with other types of immigrant profiles. For example, native students born to immigrant parents (second-generation) may lack exposure to the language of instruction at home, which could have consequences for their school achievement. In these cases, interventions that address the language proficiency gaps of immigrant students should be implemented as early as possible (OECD, 2018[29]). As such, some countries use non-targeted initiatives to diagnose children with language difficulties at a young age. However, research from the United States suggests that early language assessments should be monitored to ensure they are psychometrically sound and combined with other strategies such as teacher observation or reports from parents or guardians to provide a more comprehensive evaluation of young students’ knowledge and abilities (Ackerman, 2018[34]). It is important that any information about a young child’s learning in pre-primary is transmitted to primary school teachers to facilitate a smooth transition.

Prepare and support teachers for linguistically diverse classrooms

Supporting children and adults from immigrant communities to learn the language of a host country requires specialised language teachers. However, research shows that multilingualism in teacher education is lacking (Carlson, 2009[35]) despite the fact that many national reports have pointed to the importance of teachers’ language knowledge as an integral part of core content teaching (Skolinspektionen (The Swedish Schools Inspectorate), 2010[36]; Skolverket (National Agency for Education), 2012[37]). Many countries offer courses on teaching second-languages as part of initial teacher education or professional development programmes. Preparing a cohort of teachers who specialise in language teaching can be important for countries facing inflows of immigrants. However, including learners who are not fluent in the language of instruction requires that all teachers, from across all content areas, are familiar with language acquisition pedagogies that can help them accommodate language learners into mainstream classrooms.

In the United States, the state of California has several initiatives to ensure that teachers are equipped with the skills and knowledge to support English language learners to work in linguistically diverse classrooms. Californian teachers with at least one English Learner (EL) student in their class are required to have an EL Authorisation to provide English language development and specialised instruction (California Department of Education, 2018[38]).

As discussed above, students can benefit from mother tongue tuition. However, this requires teachers who reflect the linguistic diversity of students. As such, some countries have adopted initiatives to facilitate the hiring of teachers from immigrant or minority backgrounds who may have unrecognised foreign qualifications or lack the training to practice teaching in a host country (European Commission, 2016[39]). In Sweden, for example, the Fast Track for Migrant Teachers (Snabbspår) programme offers a 26- week course that incorporates Swedish language learning with a condensed teacher education programme (Cerna et al., 2019[24]). Participants are required to have some teaching experience but the extent varies considerably. Most participants are from Syria and Iraq, therefore the programme uses both Swedish and Arabic (Hajer and Economou, 2017[40]). The programme aims to familiarise teachers who have an immigrant background with Swedish pedagogical norms and develop the language skills needed to work in a Swedish classroom.

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[16] Herzog-Punzenberger, B., E. Pichon-Vorstman and H. Siarova (2017), Multilingual Education in the Light of Diversity: Lessons Learned. NESET II Analytical report, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg.

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