Saturday 2 February 2013

On the Linguistics Olympiad

A correspondent writes to ask about the linguistic equivalent of the Olympic Games. He means the International Linguistics Olympiad. This is one of 12 International Science Olympiads, held annually since 2003. Each year, teams of young linguists from around the world gather to solve puzzles in language and linguistics. The last one, the 10th, was held in Slovenia, when 131 contestants in 34 teams represented 26 countries. This year, the event will be hosted in Manchester, 22-27 July. Information can be found at Linguistics Olympiad.

The puzzles are great fun. What happens is that teams are presented with a chunk of linguistic data from a language - in the last Olympiad, data from Dyirbal, Umbu-Ungu, Basque, Teop, Rotuman, and Lao - and the challenge is to find the system behind the words. For example, you might be given a set of verbs containing regular and irregular forms, and you have to work out what's going on.You don't need to be a linguistics specialist to solve the problems. As the organizers say: ‘No prior knowledge of linguistics or languages is required: even the hardest problems require only your logical ability, patient work, and willingness to think around corners’. And there are some past problems at the website to illustrate the point.

Dick Hudson, who’s on the UK organizing committee, tells me that British involvement started only recently, but numbers of participants have hugely increased, from 500 in 2010 to nearly 6000 this year. The British Olympiad has three levels of difficulty, so it can reach pupils as young as 12 as well as the more advanced sixth-formers. There’s been a really enthusiastic response, apparently, but the event still isn't as widely known as it ought to be - hence this post.

When teaching linguistics at Bangor and Reading, we used to set ‘morphology problems’ each week. They’re fun, because they are a close encounter with the reality of languages, in all their glorious irregularity. And nothing, to my mind, beats the satisfaction of solving one.

1 comment:

Peadar said...

I guess similar problems, just several levels easier, are used to test the inductive language learning ability in language aptitude tests (using both natural and artificial languages as a material).