January 17, 2017

Linguistics olympiad open to middle, high school students

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Some people are born problem- and puzzle-solvers. They are the people who might be able to translate a few basic, English sentences into the Austronesian language Malay, or figure out Cistercian monk sign language, with just a few hints.

Area middle and high school students between the ages of 13 and 18 who have such skills might enjoy the North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad (NACLO), a problem-solving competition that tests powers of deduction, reasoning and observation.

The Department of Linguistics at Southern Illinois University Carbondale hosts an open round for the Olympiad on Jan. 26 in Faner Hall, Room 2365. The contest itself begins at 9 a.m., and students should plan to arrive approximately 15 minutes early for registration, seating and instructions. 

Despite the term “linguistics,” student competitors do not need prior experience with either linguistics or second languages. They should, however, be interested in language, or enjoy puzzles or logic games. 

The January event is an open round, meaning it is open to all middle and high school students. Those who do well in the open round have the chance to go on to the invitational round, set for March 10 at SIU. The invitational round results in national winners, who may go on to compete at the International Linguistics Olympiad. 

The format resembles a written exam, with students answering, in the open round, five to eight problems. The problems are written to contain all the information needed to solve them. For example, some problems may involve language translation but the skills needed to solve them are logical thinking or maybe a knack for code breaking, not foreign language acquisition. Other problems may involve numbers, writing systems such as hieroglyphs, calendar systems, or others.   

The NACLO website includes practice problems, including problems from previous competitions and student-submitted problems.

This is SIU’s second year as a host site for the competition.

Contact Jeffrey Punske, assistant professor of linguistics, at punske@siu.edu, for more information. Register for the event online, or visit the local website