The Linguistics Olympiads: Lots of fun, but are they educational?

The UK Linguistics Olympiads have been a great success (since they started in 2010), with thousands of children engaging in two or three hours of ‘code-breaking’ – analysing the patterns in a small amount of linguistic data, and working out how the underlying system works. At least some of them seem to have enjoyed the experience, and maybe they all did; but does its value go beyond fun? Does this kind of activity contribute positively to their overall education? We, on the committee of UKLO, think it does, and the following analysis attempts to explain why. The discussion starts with the current context for language education in the UK, and then focuses on a number of relevant educational parameters.

Summary

The reasons we think that this kind of activity has a positive effect on education overall are:

  • it encourages students to focus on the formal patterns and structures of language, an important skill in developing both first-language English and foreign languages.
  • it helps students apply to language the formal analytical skills that are more typical of maths.
  • it allows them to build on their understanding of how their mother tongue works in learning a foreign language.
  • it allows boys and girls to build on their different strengths, one in formal analysis and the other in languages.
  • it allows even primary pupils to develop analytical skills.

Context

Language education in the UK is in a state of change, with some things getting better and others getting worse. On the positive side,

  • A-level English Language is very popular
  • Government documents recommend:
    • more explicit focus, following the National Literacy Strategy and the National Curriculum, on language structure in primary literacy and secondary English; this explicit focus on structure is called Knowledge About Language (what we shall call ‘knowledge-about-language’). As of 2014, primary schools now have a list of grammatical concepts and terms to teach, and this knowledge-about-language is tested directly (though at a very low level) in the Year 6 Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar tests. (The secondary curriculum pays less attention to knowledge-about-language.)
    • more explicit focus on language structure in the teaching of foreign languages, albeit without explicit links to the knowledge-about-language learned in English and primary literacy.

Unfortunately, neither of these developments seems to be leading to increased knowledge-about-language in school leavers, who demonstrably know even less grammar now than they did in the 1980s, before the National Curriculum was introduced. It seems likely that the spread of knowledge-about-language is being held back by three weaknesses:

  • lack of knowledge-about-language in teachers, and especially in prospective English teachers, who have been taught knowledge-about-language neither at school nor at university.
  • lack of explicit credit for knowledge-about-language, which is never tested in its own right.
  • lack of continuity in knowledge-about-language, including continuity of terminology; some teachers certainly teach some grammar, but there is no continuity from year to year which would consolidate concepts and terminology.

A widely held view (which we share) is that knowledge-about-language is an essential component of language education for both first and second language. This knowledge-about-language includes not only terminology but also an understanding of ‘how language works’ – precisely the kind of understanding that the linguistics olympiads develop.

Languages and maths

The linguistics olympiads require formal analysis of linguistic data. A typical problem consists of ten sentences from an unknown language containing, say, fifty words, each of which (at first sight) is nothing more than a string of symbols. Further information, such as a translation, adds information which students have to pair with these symbols in such a way as to reveal the underlying generalisations which then allow further patterns to be generated. The mental operations required are very similar to those developed in maths, and it is a commonplace that those who do well in the linguistics olympiads also have a flair for maths. As in maths, the reasoning is iterative, with later conclusions building on earlier ones – a skill that humans have (and need), but which even the most advanced computer-based systems cannot yet match. For evidence of the similar demands of maths and linguistic analysis, see the 2020 book by Alex Bellos.

However, it is noteworthy that this kind of formal analysis plays no part at all in most language education, either in first-language English or in foreign languages; in both cases, the dominant approach to teaching relies on pupils learning from adult models without conscious analysis. This is a serious gap, because pupils who have formal abilities are not using them, or developing them, in relation to language; moreover, formal patterns have some interest to any learner, especially when they are hitherto unnoticed patterns in their own behaviour. Linguistics olympiads can fill this gap, and it is interesting to see that these competitions have been introduced in some schools by a teacher of maths or IT rather than by a teacher of language. However, it is also encouraging that we are in touch with a large number of teachers of foreign languages.

Foreign languages and English

At present foreign languages and English have very little to do with each other at school. (There was some hope that they might be brought together at least in primary schools thanks to the Rose review, but the reform of the primary curriculum that this recommended was abandoned.) This separation is clearly disastrous for language education, and very different from the symbiosis found in many other countries where children learn knowledge-about-language first in relation to their mother tongue, and then apply it to foreign languages; it is also contrary to the recommendations of the official syllabus for foreign languages.

The link between language learning and formal analysis is recognised by Oxford University’s Language Aptitude Test for those applying for a degree in foreign languages or linguistics, and the ‘language aptitude’ test itself is just like a Linguistics Olympiad problem. (To see a sample test, click here, then find ‘Modern languages’, then ‘Specimen paper’, then #9 and #10 in the paper.)

The link from formal analysis to English is also explicit in the very popular Advanced-level English Language qualification, where students are expected to be able to apply various kinds of linguistic analysis to a wide variety of texts. Although formal analysis of language is missing from most other kinds of English teaching, grammar is now recognised as an important part of English, so we can look forward to a slow increase in more formal analysis. However, in English teaching the focus of more formal approaches is the text rather than the language system, so the focus of the linguistics olympiad on the system provides a healthy complement to standard English teaching.

Sex/gender

Linguistics olympiads are particularly important in the overall pattern of education because they seem to appeal to both boys and girls.

  • Boys excel in formal analysis; for example, in the 2010 International Mathematical Olympiad all but seven of the 150 winners of gold or silver medals were boys.
  • Girls excel in languages; for example, research has found that adolescent girls’ brains work harder, and better, on language problems than those of boys; and among younger learners, research shows that girls outlearn boys.

This balance emerges from the results of the IOL over three years, in which although boys outnumber girls among the award winners, the balance is much nearer (about 3:1, in contrast with the 20:1 ratio in maths).

At the level of ordinary schools with ordinary participants, boys are widely seen as particularly resistant to language teaching, so some of the language teachers who entered pupils for UKLO saw the Linguistics Olympiad as a way to interest boys in languages. Encouragingly, they report that the boys did in fact enjoy the experience.

Age

[Written in 2011] Traditionally, the school olympiads in maths and sciences are aimed at sixth-formers (years 12 and 13), and we assumed that the same would be true of our linguistics olympiad. However, a trial run in 2009 showed that younger pupils (years 10 and 11) also enjoyed the challenge, although they naturally did less well than older students. Indeed, the results from our round 1 in 2010 and 2011 show a weak correlation between age and success. However, the 2009 trial also suggested the advantages of providing the competition at two different levels, Foundation and Advanced, of which only the Advanced level qualified for round 2. Some questions were shared by both levels, but Foundation included two easier questions and Advanced two harder ones. With this arrangement, we attracted even younger pupils than we had expected, with some pupils as young as 12 (year 7). The teacher who entered these pupils reported: “I know the twelve year-olds were amazing! They practically got all the first three questions correct!! Very impressive – and they were telling me the answers so I can’t take any credit … !! Thanks – and they’re all looking forward to the after school classes we’re going to hold once a term to prepare more for next year …” More recently, the results of the 2011 competition suggest that even the present Foundation level questions are too hard for the youngest competitors, so from 2012 we plan to introduce an ‘Intermediate’ level so that the Foundation level can be even easier.

The inclusion of younger pupils has important educational consequences if the olympiads become a regular annual event for the schools concerned (as we hope they will). Instead of being a test of the analytical skills of school leavers, they will be a regular means of developing both skills and interest throughout the secondary curriculum.

Incidentally, we have already had one inquiry from the parent of a primary school child.

[Update written in 2020] We now offer the Round 1 competition at four different levels: Breakthrough, Foundation, Intermediate and Advanced. Each adjacent pair of levels share two problems, so we offer a total of ten problems at Round 1. The youngest competitors so far have been in Year 4, i.e. aged 8-9, who in principle can take part in the competition ten times before they leave school! At the levels below Advanced we encourage teachers to tailor the competition to their needs, so it is normal for competitors to work in small groups. We also provide computer-generated certificates at all levels, including Gold, Silver and Bronze awards at each level.]