Linguistics Olympiad Draws Multi-Talented Youngsters

Article excerpt

Don't look for questions in anything as mundane as French, Spanish or Mandarin at the International Linguistics Olympiad this week at Carnegie Mellon University.

Organizers of the competition prefer their puzzlers in rarefied scripts including Japanese braille, Kazakh, Yoda speak (for the Star Wars character's unique chatter) and button talk, a made-up language that uses a series of four buttons to represent alphabetical characters.

"It's fun. You can, without any previous knowledge of a language, solve a problem," said Canadian national team member William Zehang, 17, of Vancouver, British Columbia.

This is the first time the 9-year-old competition, which is bringing to Pittsburgh 100 high school students on teams from 19 countries, has taken place in the United States.

Organizers hope it will engage high school students in areas of computer science included in computational linguistics such as search engine technology, speech recognition and speech translation.

But the Olympiad is strictly low-tech. Competitors playing on four-member teams and individual matches solve the problems with paper and pencil.

So much the better if a puzzle in ancient Greek is "all Greek" to them. Competitors demonstrate their linguistic prowess and analytical skills by solving the logic puzzles based on patterns they tease out of writing systems, grammar and sequences.

For good measure, the authors sometimes throw in a falsehood the competitors also must solve.

Kaitlyn Price, a junior at Oberlin College who is interning at CMU this summer, remembers the first time a teacher at Shaler Area High School handed her a sample problem when she was 15. …