UK Linguistics Olympiad 2014

Hooray!  I’ve just received an email reminding me that I’m officially on the list of volunteer markers for this year’s UK Linguistics Olympiad!

I think this may be one of the best things I’ve arranged to do in 2014.  This event is such a wonderful idea.  I really believe that encouraging interest in language/linguistics from a young age is a hugely valuable aspect of education.

And I don’t just mean that in the academic (study, tests, formal achievement) sense.  I mean it in the wider-world sense, in which education fosters lifelong learning, understanding, imagination, creativity, lateral thinking, problem-solving and sense of achievement.  This is the stuff of life.  And whether a child grows up to be a linguist or to live and work in any other domain whatsoever, these skills are so important.

What’s more – it’s fun!  The Linguistics Olympiad is all about cracking codes.  It’s about working your way through different complex systems (i.e. comparing and contrasting linguistic forms) and feeling the lightbulbs flick on as understanding emerges from something apparently incomprehensible at first sight.

The official website here gives more information on what the UKLO is and why it exists, but to save you the trouble of extra clicking and scrolling:

  • It’s a competition for secondary-school students of any age and level.
  • These students have to solve linguistic problems based on data they are given (see example below and many more here).
  • It’s free to participate!  (But schools need to print out their own question papers.)
  • Question papers are available at three different levels: Foundation (roughly equivalent to Key Stage 3 level, for those familiar with the UK education system), Intermediate (roughly KS4) and Advanced (KS5).
  • The school just has to organise a couple of hours in which the student partipants can work through the questions.
  • Any Foundation and Intermediate papers are marked by the schools themselves (the UKLO organisers provide a detailed markscheme).  The Advanced papers are marked by external volunteer linguists – like me! 🙂
  • A selection of 16 students who pass the Advanced paper go on to Round 2; and 4 of those will eventually be entered for the International Linguistics Olympiad.

There are loads of examples of questions from past UKLO papers available here.  Here’s a challenge for you: next time you sit down to do a crossword or something, why not ditch that and have a go at one of these puzzles instead?  (Answers are provided for most of them!)

If you scroll down to where it says “A PowerPoint for Training” and download that, it will take you through a couple of typical questions/puzzles and how you might go about solving them very nicely and clearly.

I hope nobody will mind if I reproduce an illustrative part of that PowerPoint here.

1. The slides introduce a typical problem, in this case comparing several sentences between English and a language called Abma:

2. Then it visually walks you through how you can look for simple patterns in the data:

3. Then it makes some other suggestions for pattern-spotting:

4. Then it shows how this kind of deduction might help you arrive at understanding:

This is a very simple problem from the lowest level of paper, and as the levels get higher, the problems get correspondingly more difficult to solve.  The patterns are far less obvious and explaining how you’ve arrived at your hypothesis/es of how the given linguistic system works is extremely important.

When I was younger, I loved doing this sort of code-breaking, lateral-thinking task.  I’m so excited to be taking part in the UKLO this year and encouraging a new generation of younger learners to love language!

Here‘s more information for teachers who are new to the UKLO and interested in enrolling their school.  (Note that schools can register for more information without committing to anything straightaway.)

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About Laura Patsko

Senior ELT Research Manager for a major publisher. Alter egos: English language teacher, language learner, teacher trainer, linguist. Not necessarily in that order.

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