Local competition exposes high schoolers to the study of linguistics

by Kristin Czubkowski, UW-Madison Communications

While the average U.S. high school may not offer classes in Turkish or Indonesian, an international competition will soon be bringing them to Madison’s high school students.

On Feb. 5, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Library and Information Studies and Edgewood High School will host the 2008 North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad Open competition, which is open to all area high school students. Similar events will be held at 12 other locations in Canada and the United States this year as well, and top scorers from the events will have the opportunity to compete again on March 11 at the Invitational Competition.

Computational linguistics competitions, which feature mathematical methods of studying language, trace their origins back to events in Russia and Eastern Europe in the 1960s. Six years ago, the competition went global with the inaugural International Linguistics Olympiad, which the elite problem solvers from the March 11 competition can attend. Last year, students from the United States took top honors in both individual and team categories.

The competitions feature several logic problems involving the translation of relatively obscure languages to which most students will not be exposed, such as Georgian or even Braille. Most problems involve a series of sentences in one of the languages, and students are given some clue — either full translations that have to be matched to the sentences, or a single translated word that serves as a key — that they must use to decode the language and answer a series of unique questions about the language based on their translations.

The NACLO came to Madison this year thanks to the help of one person in particular, UW-Madison assistant professor of library and information studies Catherine Arnott Smith, who says the event is a great way to raise awareness of the field of linguistics, as well as other languages and cultures. While Smith is not a computational linguist, her work as a medical informatics researcher relates to the broader category of language technologies.

“For many students, linguistics, and computational linguistics in particular, is a rather unknown academic discipline,” she says. “This event raises students’ awareness of the discipline, including the incredible variety and beauty of the world’s languages, while challenging their natural problem-solving and analytic skills. It is one of the few opportunities students have to meld cross-cultural awareness with technical interests.”

Arnott Smith adds that thanks to the competition’s sponsors, which include companies and organizations as diverse as Google, the National Science Foundation, the North American Chapter of the Association for Computational Linguistics (NAACL) and Cambridge University Press, all NACLO events are free for participants.

Information on the Madison competition, which will be held at Edgewood High School, 2219 Monroe St., can be directed to Arnott Smith at casmith24@wisc.edu.