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The Linguistics Olympiad final is coming up soon: ‘The questions shouldn’t be too easy’

On Saturday 16 April, secondary school pupils will once again have a chance to sink their teeth into the hardest language-related questions during the final of the Linguistics Olympiad. Professor Sasha Lubotsky and PhD student Cid Swanenvleugel are both former Olympiad winners. Now they are involved in organising the event. What makes this contest so special?

Sasha Lubotsky

Sasha Lubotsky once took part in a Linguistics Olympiad in Moscow, where such contests have been popular since the 1960s. He decided to bring the initiative to the Netherlands. ‘It’s a way for secondary school pupils to be introduced to a subject they don’t learn in school,’ he says. This means that the contest requires no prior knowledge. ‘If you don’t know anything about chemistry, there’s no point in enrolling in a Chemistry Olympiad, but our contest is all about puzzles and logical thinking. We want to show that although linguistics belongs in the humanities, it is probably the most mathematical of all disciplines.’ 

One of the secondary school pupils who turned out to be good at this mathematical approach to language was Cid Swanenvleugel. ‘I heard about the Linguistics Olympiad during an Open Day. I was planning to study biology at the time, but I thought I’d just give it a try.’ And a very successful try it was, since he went on to win the 2015 Olympiad and is now one of the people responsible for writing the questions.

Difficult puzzles

In principle, a suitable question for the Olympiad can come from any research area, says Lubotsky. ‘The only thing is that a linguist has to analyse a lot of material to solve a problem, without any guarantee of success. Whereas when dealing with a secondary school pupil you can say: there is a solution hidden in this assignment, and it’s your job to find it. That makes it a lot simpler.’ 

Cid Swanenvleugel

Ideally, the Olympiad questions should represent all branches of linguistics, from numeral systems to grammar. In addition, every question should consist of a number of elements that participants can score points for, so that everyone can at least make a start. ‘It should be a kind of puzzle,’ explains Swanenvleugel. ‘Based on the limited information you get, you should be able to use logical reasoning to get all the information you need for the solution.’ The creators therefore always try the questions out together, to make sure that all the information is available and the level is right. ‘If we spend more than ten minutes on a question, it’s too difficult,’ explains Swanenvleugel. Even with these simpler questions, many participants still get most answers wrong, but that’s not a problem, according to Swanenvleugel. ‘On the contrary, that way you can see clearly that some people are really good at it.’ 

‘Zoek de hint’

For finalists who want to score highly, Lubotsky has a few tips: ‘Don’t be afraid to write things down if you’re unsure, and try to get into the skin of the question writer. Everything that’s there is there for a purpose. Often, there is even a hint in the question itself. Did you really understand all these details?’ And if you fail anyway? Swanenvleugel has some reassuring words for future participants: ‘Don’t worry, you’re only doing this for fun. Even if you don’t get a high score, you can still come and study Linguistics.’ 

At the Linguistics Olympiad, secondary school pupils are invited to solve problems about the most diverse ancient and modern languages and scripts. By looking at things like grammar and sentence structure, they can work on the puzzle and find an answer, without speaking the language. The four best candidates of the national Linguistics Olympiad qualify for the international final. 

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