It may be semantics, but linguistics can be a team event
THE highly endangered language of the Menominee Indians of Wisconsin in the US is spoken by only a handful of elderly people. But last year secondary students competing in the International Olympiad in Linguistics were asked to translate I begin to eat. He digs a hole, and he walks out into Menominee.
They were also tested on their knowledge of the barcode language EAN-13, which is used in almost every country in the world, yet nobody speaks it. Anyone know the full EAN-13 code of Korsordboken, a puzzle magazine in Sweden?
These are the types of questions that will confront four year 11 students from Presbyterian Ladies’ College, who will represent Australia in the 10th International Olympiad in Linguistics in Slovenia next week.
But there is no point in the girls – who are competing under the prosaic name Team 700 – swotting up on their Menominee or EAN-13. The problems could cover anything from the relation between grammar and morphology in classical Nahuatl (spoken in central Mexico since the 7th century), to Blissymbolics, an international language of symbols used to teach people with disabilities to communicate.
”It could be Budukh, it could be genetic coding,” said the girls’ coach, Susan Knopfelmacher, head of gifted education and extension programs at PLC.
”The girls have to be able to understand sub-systems and how they operate in any text that might be provided for them. The whole thing is an immense problem-solving exercise – they have to think critically, analytically and laterally.”
Mind you, speaking more than one language is an advantage, according to Team 700, who speak a total of seven. ”Being bilingual helps because you have an understanding of different grammar patterns and how grammar could possibly work,” said team member Catherine Perry, who speaks French, Japanese, English and a bit of Chinese.
Competition organisers say the sciences of language are scantily represented in school curriculums, and the olympiad helps attract students to careers in theoretical, mathematical and computational linguistics.
International teams will compete in a six-hour individual contest and a three-hour team contest.
Team 700 qualified to represent Australia after winning the Australian Computational and Linguists Olympiad in April. Team member Kai-Xing Goh said the girls had been working on their strategies and training with mentors who had PhDs in linguistics. ”They showed us the different things language could do and how language could behave,” Kai-Xing said.
Mrs Knopfelmacher believes the olympiad is a greater challenge than even the International Mathematical Olympiad, because students could be asked to listen to a language they have never heard before and write it down. ”Once you get the multi-sensory element you are really thinking on your feet,” she said.