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The Linguistics Olympiad. Harold Somers & Cara Greene, CNGL, Dublin City University. Linguistic Olympiads. History Typical problems AILO and ILO 2009 Collaboration among English-language Olympiads Olympiads and school-level linguistics AILO 2010, UKLO 2010, 8th ILO.

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the linguistics olympiad

The Linguistics Olympiad

Harold Somers & Cara Greene, CNGL, Dublin City University

linguistic olympiads
Linguistic Olympiads
  • History
  • Typical problems
  • AILO and ILO 2009
  • Collaboration among English-language Olympiads
  • Olympiads and school-level linguistics
  • AILO 2010, UKLO 2010, 8th ILO
history of linguistic olympiads
History of Linguistic Olympiads
  • Long tradition of linguistics and mathematics competitions, since 1960s in Moscow
  • Other fields have Olympiads, notably sciences (physics, maths, chemistry, biology, philosophy, astronomy, geography), also arts etc.
  • LOs in other Eastern European countries since 1980s
  • First International Linguistics Olympiad Bulgaria 2003
  • Moscow 2004, Leiden 2005, Tartu 2006, St Petersburg 2007, Black Sea (Bulgaria) 2008, Wrocław 2009
  • Last ILO had competitors from 17 countries (see later)
  • See
  • Individual and team problems
  • Problems require logical thinking and often involve (or reveal) some linguistic insights but …
  • … no formal knowledge of linguistics is assumed (even linguistic terminology is avoided) and …
  • … knowledge of any particular language should not be a particular advantage
  • (though language students are generally advantaged!)
typical problems
Typical problems
  • Quite varied, but always the information required for solving them is fully contained within the problem
  • Translation problems
    • Set of phrases in foreign language + translations in English
    • Figure out vocabulary and/or grammar rules
  • Number problems
    • Basic arithmetic statements from which you have to figure out something about the counting system.
    • Quite popular are languages with unusual systems, or where different words for the same number depend on the objects being counted.
  • Deciphering writing systems: very popular
  • Questions about phonetics or phonetic systems, especially phonemics (though that terminology is not used)
  • More “formal” problems include analysing and describing a language phenomenon in a set of "rules" that a computer could follow.

Puzzle by V. Belikov. English adaptation by Valentin Vydrin and Thomas E. Payne

Hawaiian is a Polynesian language, spoken fluently by about 2000 people.

The following Hawaiian sentences, with their English translations, are about a girl named Mele and a boy named Keone:

1. He has seven elder brothers. Ehiku ona kaikuaana.

2. Mele has one brother. Ekahi o Mele kaikunane.

3. Keone has one younger brother. Ekahi o Keone kaikaina.

4. Mele has no elder sisters. Aohe o Mele kaikuaana.

5. Keone has no sisters. Aohe o Keone kaikuahine.

6. I have one canoe. Ekahi ou waa.

7. Mele has no younger sisters. Aohe o Mele kaikaina.

A: There are two possible English translations for the following Hawaiian sentence.

What are they?

Aohe ou kaikuaana.

B: Translate the following sentence into English and indicate who is speaking, Mele or Keone:

Aohe ou kaikuahine.

C. The following English sentences would be difficult to translate directly into Hawaiian. Explain why this is true.

Keone has one brother.

Mele has one younger brother.

japanese te forms
Japanese verbs have a form ending in –te (or –de) which is a bit like the English –ing form of verbs, and is also used with kudasai to form a polite request, e.g. suwaru ‘sit down’ -> suwatte kudasai ‘please sit down’.

(a) From the following list of verb plain forms and their corresponding –te forms, can you say what are the “rules” for forming the –te form from the plain form?

(b) What would be the -te form of the following verbs?

kesu ‘shut’, matsu ‘wait’, nugu ‘take off’, tobu ‘jump’

(c) Can you say what the plain form of the following would be?

koide ‘row’, shimeshite ‘indicate’, kande ‘bite’

ailo 2009
AILO 2009
  • Part of CNGL Outreach & Education
  • Format somewhat experimental
  • Collaborated with NACLO (and OzCLO) over problem selection
  • Sent out invitation letter in October to all schools in Ireland (c. 1200), targetting “Transition Year”, ≈ Y 11/12
  • Promised one or two training sessions
  • Responses from ~18 schools
ailo 20091
AILO 2009
  • Members of CNGL visited schools once or twice either side of Christmas
  • Worked through some practice problems
  • Talked in general about linguistics
  • Class sizes very varied
    • Worst case ~60 kids, no teacher!
    • Typically though ~20 or fewer, usually with teacher
    • Teachers usually language teachers but not always
    • Second visit, groups often reduced to genuinely interested kids
ailo 20092
AILO 2009
  • Grand final in Dublin, April 2009
  • All participating schools allowed to bring 2 teams
  • We offered support for travel costs
  • Individual contest in morning, team contest in the afternoon (3 hrs each)
  • Despite bus strike, almost all schools turned up
  • ~ 90 kids
  • Two schools from UK took part as guests (in own schools)
ilo wroc aw poland
ILO, Wrocław, Poland
  • We originally offered to take the winning team to ILO
  • 2/4 couldn’t make it so we took 2 best individuals
  • 23 teams from 17 countries
    • Each country allowed 2 teams
  • Individual and team events
    • 3 hrs and 6 hrs resp.
  • All problems available in language of choice
  • VERY difficult problems!
  • 6 days – great social programme too (for the kids)


ilo wroc aw poland1
ILO, Wrocław, Poland
  • Individual winners were from Bulgaria and Poland
    • 2 gold, 9 silver, 11 bronze
    • UK’s Ben Caller got a bronze (top 20)
    • Ireland’s Ruadhan Treacey got commended (top 50%)
  • Team comp won by USA (Korea 2nd, Moscow 3rd)
collaboration among english speaking olympiads
Collaboration among English-speaking Olympiads
  • USA (incl. anglo Canada), Australia, Ireland, UK all organizing Olympiads
  • Agreed to collaborate in use of same problems
    • Setting and testing problems is a big overhead
    • Coordination in timing of rounds, and public release of used problems
  • NACLO, OzCLO and AILO all have a commitment to “computational” problems
    • Not a big deal
    • About 1/5 problems have a computational flavour
    • recent examples: spell checking, pronoun resolution, grammar writing
olympiads and school level linguistics
Olympiads and school-level linguistics
  • Pupils and teachers VERY enthusiastic
  • Very common to find …
    • closet linguists: pupils who know quite a lot already
    • serendipitous linguists: pupils who like this kind of thing, and didn’t know it was called linguistics
  • Teachers are not necessarily language teachers
  • Problems range over many aspects of linguistics
    • though mainly “pure” rather than cross-disciplinary
  • No prior knowledge required
    • though problems offer a good vehicle to introduce concepts and (some limited) terminology
    • teachers often ask for recommendations for background reading
ailo ii 1st uklo 8th ilo
AILO II, 1st UKLO , 8th ILO
  • We’re running it again in Ireland, but with some changes
    • expecting bigger participation – already have as many as last year, a month before registration deadline
    • will have a qualifying round in schools (like USA, Oz)
    • will offer training to individuals who achieve a certain standard
    • grand final again individual and team event, but with smaller numbers (elite)
    • Ireland team will be best 4 students
  • UKLO likewise
    • will have a qualifying round taken in schools
    • best students will attend a training weekend from which UK team will be selected
  • 8th ILO will be in Stockholm, end July 2010