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.