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What is UKLO?

UKLO (the United Kingdom Linguistics Olympiad) is a voluntary organisation which brings the fun of detective puzzle solving to UK schools using the theme of languages. We create mysterious puzzles written in an exotic language that students cannot read, and the task is to work out what it means with hints and clues. We offer the competition at four levels of difficulty for KS2 – KS5, and provide Gold, Silver and Bronze awards, as well as participation certificates, at each level. The highest scoring students proceed through a couple more rounds of testing and coaching before we present them for the International Linguistics Olympiad (IOL) where they compete against other countries. Our problems require general thinking skills rather than prior knowledge either of the language concerned or of linguistics.  See some of our problem sets for yourself!

Our Mission

Here is our mission: we create linguistics puzzles and run competitions for school children to encourage a lifelong interest in the world’s languages. We hope teachers will dive in deep with their students to uncover the strangeness and the beauty of these languages. We hope students will go on a journey with us to places far away from the UK and to experience languages very different from ours.

Take the Challenge

Do you have what it takes to represent the United Kingdom on a world’s stage? Do you have the courage, the mental agility and the resilience to make it through the rounds of glory? Do you want to discover worlds and possibilities you have never come across in your life? Test your brain, test your might, and enter the United Kingdom Linguistics Olympiad (abbreviated UKLO) to become our next champion!

We have set out a challenge to young people (ages 7-18) and teachers from schools all around the UK to problem solve the questions we have made for them. UKLO is a team exercise for teachers to register and provide environments for practice, as well as for students to get involved and join. It is a great opportunity for teachers and students to work together on something both of them have never tried before, and to represent their school against hundreds of other schools in the grand competition that is UKLO. So students! Whether you are the captain of geeks, or the captain of paper aeroplanes, you may be our next champion. Last but not least, have fun!

History

The first linguistics olympiad for school children was held in Moscow in 1965. Since then, the idea has spread to many other countries, but the UK didn’t hold its first olympiad (called UKLO, the UK Linguistics Olympiad) till 2010. The first UK schools took part as guests of the newly founded All-Ireland Linguistics Olympiad (AILO), which in turn built on the relatively new North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad (NACLO), which allowed AILO to use a selection of test material developed for use in US schools. Since then a consortium of English-speaking countries have constituted ELCLO, the English-Language Computational Linguistics Olympiad, as a means for pooling resources; but their shared resources are hosted by NACLO. The committee charged with setting up UKLO is a subcommittee of the Committee for Linguistics in Education (CLIE).

How to Solve a UKLO Problem

The main skill you’ll need is the ability to analyse patterns in language data – in short, the skill of language analysis. This is the basis for linguistics, so once you’ve developed your language analysis, you’re a linguist (= one who does linguistics) – ready to study language and even to do good research.

Linguistics

It’s all about looking behind the raw data to find how the language system works. Imagine a strange language in which adding an -s makes some words singular and others plural; how can that be? What’s going on? In case you haven’t noticed, that strange language is English, where an odd old sock smell+s [singular], but many old sock+s [plural] smell even worse. Why? You could start with the difference between nouns and verbs, and write some rules. Then you might notice some exceptions (e.g. smelled or will among the verbs and mice among the nouns), and wonder whether your units should be endings like -s or abstract features like ‘plural’. But the basic work is done: you’ve found the rules, so, as in any good science, you can now make testable predictions: given the noun gug and the verb chortle, you can predict A gug chortle+s but Gug+s chortle.

In short, you have to ‘crack the code’, using the data as a source of clues to what lies behind – just like a detective investigating a crime, a doctor diagnosing an illness, a scientist studying an unfamiliar substance or species, or an explorer finding a way through unknown territory. Welcome to the science of linguistics!

The olympiad

An olympiad problem, unlike the English example above, presents unfamiliar data, and the challenge for you is to discover the system that lies behind the data; so it’s not a test of your MFL skills.

Here’s an example, taken from a language spoken in the north-east of the Sudan, between the Nile and the Red Sea, by about a million people who are mostly nomads. They call the language ti bedawie, but it’s usually called Beja, based on its Arabic name. The language isn’t used in writing, so the first step in analysing it is to develop a way of writing it down; here we’ll skip that step and go straight into the grammar. Here are some Beja words:

BejaEnglish
kaama camel
uukaamthe camel
ragada leg
iragadthe leg
ikaamimy camel
meeka donkey
??the donkey
lagaa calf
??the calf

Your task is to crack the code to the extent of being able to fill the two empty cells. If you look at the data (i.e. the words that are given to you), the answer may leap out at you; if so, lucky you! If not, here’s how to work it out.

  1. What’s the missing bit of information? Each empty box needs the Beja for ‘the X’, where X is actually given in the cell above – meek for ‘donkey’ and laga for ‘calf’; so what’s missing is the way to express the meaning of English the.
  2. If you look through the earlier forms that translate the X, it’s easy to work out that the meaning ‘the’ is expressed by a prefix attached to the noun; but in some cases, this prefix is uu- (uukaam) and in others it is i- (iragad, ikaami).
  3. Why does the form of this prefix vary?
    1. Is it because of the choice of the noun (like gender in languages like French)? No, this can’t be so because uukaam and ikaami both contain the same noun (meaning ‘camel’) but have different prefixes.
    2. What else might be relevant? If you compare the alternatives, they vary in length: uu, i. So maybe it has something to do with the length of the word to which the prefix is added? This is more promising because uu-kaam has just one syllable after the prefix whereas iragad and ikaami have two. At least all the data are consistent with the following rule:
      • Add uu- before one syllable and i- before more than one syllable.
  4. You can now fill the empty cells: uumeek and ilaga. Job done!

Hopefully that wasn’t too difficult; but of course the actual problems in the competition can be very much harder – as hard as any problem in (say) the Mathematics Olympiad.

What Skills Do You Learn?

The assumption behind all linguistics olympiads is that school children do not study linguistics at school, so they cannot be tested on content that is specific to linguistics (such as the IPA or any particular scheme of grammatical analysis). On the other hand, it is clear that most of our outstanding performers already have a relatively deep, though unformalised, understanding of language structure from learning a foreign language.

The general thinking skills that a linguistics olympiad tests are:

  • pattern-recognition
  • generalisation
  • analysis
  • lateral thinking
  • attention to detail
  • attention to the larger patterns

At a lower level of difficulty, a problem requires an analysis of presented data which allows the competitor to generalise and go beyond the data. But at higher levels, competitors have to not only make these analyses mentally, but also put them into words in an explicit explanation of how the underlying system works.

Please click to see full details of our educational rationale.