Jane Li, Pinetree Secondary School
Kevin Liang, Port Moody Secondary School

Local Students to Represent Canada at International Linguistics Olympiad

June 04, 2017

SFU is a local site for the North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad (NACLO). NACLO is a fun and educational contest for US and Canadian high-school students in which contestants compete to solve creative puzzles in linguistics and computational linguistics. Requiring no previous knowledge of linguistics, languages, or computing, the puzzles can be solved by analytic reasoning alone and serve as a stimulating introduction to the field of linguistics. Through solving the problems, students learn about the richness, diversity and systematicity of language, while exercising natural logic and reasoning skills.

On January 26, 2017, 138 Canadian students competed in the Open Round, of which 15 highest-scoring participants were invited to the Invitational Round on March 9, 2017. From the Invitational Round, the top four students were selected to represent Canada on Team Anglophone-Canada at the International Linguistics Olympiad (ILO) in Dublin, Ireland, July 31 – August 4, 2017.

Two local high school students – Jane Li from Pinetree Secondary School (Grade 12) and Kevin Liang from Port Moody Secondary School (Grade 11)  – competed at the SFU NACLO site and both obtained scores in the top four, landing each of them a seat on Team Anglophone-Canada traveling to Dublin this summer.

How did you learn about NACLO?

Jane: I learned about NACLO from scrolling through Tumblr using the #langblr tag. I thought it would be cool to meet like-minded peers through this contest, as we must share a certain amount of interest in linguistics and languages. I thought: why not sign up?

Kevin: I was browsing Wikipedia, reading about academic Olympiads. I stumbled upon a list of every Olympiad and found one for linguistics – an interest of mine – and I was incredibly excited! I checked out the NACLO website and did some past problems and they were incredibly fun. I’ve always liked logic puzzles and languages, and this seemed like the perfect combination of the two. I signed up for NACLO right away

How did you prepare for the competition?

Jane: I prepared for the competition by working on past problems. Past problems are great sources for competitors to get a sense of what’s going to happen during the actual competition.

Kevin: Mostly it was just doing past problems in order to understand what question types would frequently reoccur. It also helped me get into the right problem solving mindset for the contest. I also did my own reading on various languages and their different unique features. Reading up on Basque introduced me to ergativity and Turkish introduced me to vowel harmony. Understanding what was possible within a language really helped me to decipher some of the problems.

What prior exposure to linguistics did you have prior to NACLO? Will you pursue linguistics in the future?

Jane: I’ve always been attracted to learning different languages. I had been thinking about what I wanted to study at university and googled “the study of languages” and that’s how I found out about linguistics. I intend to major in linguistics with a joint major in computing science to form a computational linguistics degree (the C and the L in NACLO!) and have decided to pursue my undergraduate degree at SFU because it’s the only university in BC that offers this specific field of study. I have been accepted to start at SFU in the Fall of 2017.

Kevin: My exposure to linguistics mostly comes from YouTube; there are a tonne of amazing linguistics youtubers (Lingspace, Xidnaf, Native Lang etc).  I've also done some reading of my own through Wikipedia and some introductory linguistics textbooks. My interest in linguistics began from my interest in languages. Linguistics provides everything I love about learning languages - seeing how other languages work and the interesting features other languages have. I plan to study linguistics during my undergraduate degree and hopefully continue at the graduate level.

I'm not sure if any other high schoolers are going to read this, but if you are in high school and thinking about linguistics, do NACLO! It has been such a fun experience. The questions seem daunting and unsolvable at first, but every question is designed to be solved; there always will be a way to do it.

How are you feeling about the upcoming trip to Dublin to compete in the ILO?

Jane: I’m super excited and nervous at same time! This is my first time traveling to Europe, so I can’t wait to explore everything in Ireland. I’m planning to go on my own adventures after the contest so I can get to know the city more before I head back.

Kevin: I am incredibly excited for the trip. I have traveled outside Canada before, but not for anything like this. I'm not nervous at all; I have already accomplished a lot more than I expected and I'll just study as much as I can and see how I do.

Congratulations Jane and Kevin! The Department of Linguistics at SFU is proud of your achievement and wishes you the best of luck at the ILO!