Press 2009

Press release 2009


UK Scores in its First Linguistics Olympiads

AT the recent International Linguistics Olympiad held in Wroclaw, Poland, one British student won a bronze medal, and the UK team came fifth overall. This is the first time the UK has fielded a team in the Olympiad.

An Olympiad in linguistics is just like the better known academic olympiads in maths and science except that the questions are about language – brain-teasers such as how to transcribe Micmac, what the rules for Old Norse poetry were and how Inuktitut syntax works.

For years, sixth-formers from different countries have been competing in International Linguistics Olympiads. Twenty countries now send teams to find the world’s best young linguists, but it’s only this year that, at last, the UK managed to send a team.

The competition doesn’t test pupils’ knowledge of the languages concerned, but rather their ability to unravel the details of the languages’ structure. With twenty translated sentences of Inuktitut (an Eskimo language) as evidence and twenty minutes to work out how to translate ten more sentences, the challenges are real.

Why did it take UK schools so long to get involved? Linguistics Olympiads have been growing in popularity since they started in Moscow in the 1960s and then went international for the first time in 2002, but UK schools have been noticeably absent. Maybe it’s because language has such a low profile in our education system (compared, for example, with Eastern European countries such as Bulgaria, which provided this year’s best individual competitor).

Whatever the reason, this year marks a turning point, with the first UK entry to the International Linguistics Olympiad in Wroclaw – a team of four year-13 students. What’s more, this year also saw the first steps towards a UK olympiad, with two schools entering as guests in a new All-Ireland Linguistics Olympiad in April this year. It was this competition that selected the team to represent the UK in Wroclaw.

This year’s experiment showed the potential for a future UK olympiad. Although only ten teams from two schools took part in the qualifying heats, they covered a wide range of ages. The teams from Manchester Grammar School were all in years 12 or 13, whereas those from Downlands Community School in Hassocks, West Sussex, were in years 10 and 11. Given the age differences, it’s not surprising that the winning team was the only year-13 team from Manchester.

The UK teams didn’t have much time for preparation. The Irish invitation only appeared in early April, and the competition (consisting of two parts, one for individuals and one for teams) took place in late April, so there was little time to prepare pupils in either school. Nor did the winning UK team have time for serious training before the international competition in July.

And the outcome? A great success, according to everyone concerned.

In terms of awards, the UK team did very well. Ben Caller won a bronze medal in the individual competition, and the team was judged informally to be fifth out of 23 teams. Considering their lack of experience, this was a great result.

But even more impressive was the enthusiasm for the Irish competition, not least among the group least likely to win, the year-10 pupils. According to Caron Methol, Head of Languages at Downlands Community School, “We all loved it. If you remember that we did it in the middle of year 11 GCSE speaking tests (immense staff fatigue as well as pupils stressing) and Year 10 school exams (German that same day), the level of enthusiasm was inspiring.”

Plans are in hand to make Linguistics Olympiads a permanent part of the UK school year, with a local competition as well as a UK entry to the international event (in Sweden next year, and in the USA the year after). The UK competition will be part of an international consortium of English-speaking countries, so the UK competitors will be taking the same tests as those in the USA, Australia and Ireland.

Who said that UK children don’t find foreign languages interesting?


Notes for editors

  • Contact details.
  • Background information on linguistics is available here.
  • Historical and administrative details about the Linguistics Olympiads, both national and international, can be found here.
  • Information about UK olympiads is here, including links to the academic organisation responsible, the Committee for Linguistics in Education.
  • The UK team was sponsored this year by the Philological Society. Financial support will continue to be important because of the very short lead time between the team’s selection and the international competition, which rules out the usual processes in which young people find their own sponsors.


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