If only they’d had this when I was in school… From Mark Liberman at Language Log:

Tomorrow, Dragomir Radev and eight amazingly smart high-school students will be taking off for St. Petersburg (Russia, not Florida), to participate as the American entrants in the 5th International Linguistics Olympiad. There are two teams: the first team is Rachel Elana Zax, Ryan Aleksandrs Musa, Adam Classen Hesterberg, and Jeffrey Christopher Lim; the second team is Rebecca Elise Jacobs, Joshua Stuart Falk, Anna Tchetchetkine, and Michael Zener Riggs Gottlieb.
The students won their spots based on their performance in the 2007 North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad (described in this post from last February). Lori Levin and Tom Payne are the co-chairs of NACLO 2007, and Drago Radev is the U.S. team’s coach.

Mark gives a question from last year’s competition. What fun!


  1. John Emerson says

    My God those kids must be smart!

  2. SnowLeopard says

    To whom it may concern: kindly go back in time and sign me up for this. If it didn’t exist when I was 7, please invent.

  3. The question seems not so much a test of linguistics, as a test of logic and pattern-recognition–albeit a complex one.

  4. John Emerson says

    I met some bright kids from accelerated programs in college, but none of them did that kind of stuff for fun.

  5. SnowLeopard says

    It may not have been the sort of thing they felt like volunteering– it’s a rare hobby usually met by blank looks or complaints about how much somebody hated their French teacher. But you can identify them by certain signs– the furtive glance over their shoulder as they slip into the foreign language book shop to spend the last money in their wallet; the little spiral-bound notepads of vocabulary words that they glance through as they zip hither and yon; the doodling that consists mostly of foreign characters or alphabets; the way they taste Khoisan clicks as if they were ice cream; and the barely suppresed excitement if they manage to turn the general conversation, ever so briefly, to the use of evidential markers in the Amazon. If those signs were present, they probably would gladly solve these puzzles for fun.

  6. marie-lucie says

    Hint: The puzzle included looks very hard at first sight, but it is not so hard to solve if you have any acquaintance (in my case through exercises included in numerous linguistics textbooks) with Bantu languages, which stick prefixes on both nouns and verbs.
    More problems (quite varied in type) submitted for the Olympiads in past years should be findable on the internet (I tried some before, but this time I am lazy). Looking up Tom Payne (linguistics, U of Oregon) should also get you there as he has been the US organizer for some years.
    As to Conrad’s remark that this is “a test of logic and pattern-recognition” rather than linguistics, an awful lot of linguistics (and of language learning ability) is about pattern-recognition. If you are good as solving this type of puzzle, you will be good at linguistics and get to do many more.
    If “none of the kids did that sort of thing for fun”, it is probably because high school programs do not deal with linguistics, so that they had never encountered this type of problem (there are a few “outreach” programs where some linguistics departments are working with high schools, but they are very rare).

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