Bronze success for Perse students at International Linguistics Olympiad
20 Aug 2019
Kilian Meissner (Lower Sixth) and Alex Walker (Year 11) secured bronze medals at the International Linguistics Olympiad (IOL) in Korea.
The Perse students were selected as part of an eight-strong Great Britain squad following their performances in the second round of the UK Linguistics Olympiad in March.
They claimed their individual bronze medals after finishing among the top 60 competitors from a field of more than 200 at the IOL, held at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Yongin, following a tough series of challenges in which they had to solve problems in a variety of obscure languages.
Kilian said both he and Alex had enjoyed taking part and discovering more about the country.
He said: “We arrived separately in Korea, brimming with anticipation, and completely unable to sleep on the 11-hour flight. In hindsight, it would have been a good idea to get at least some sleep, as it was with heavy eyelids that we sat through the opening ceremony, which included traditional Korean dance performances.
“Already from the thousands of high-rise buildings and tropical temperature and humidity we had seen on our journey from Incheon airport, we could tell that this was going to be a very different cultural experience and the dancing only proved to solidify this notion.”
The individual competition came first with Kilian and Alex facing a six-hour paper, which included deciphering the script of the Middle Persian language Book Pahlavi and working out the differences in re-duplication rules in two dialects of West Tarangan, as well as matching up noun phrases and understanding class systems in Yurok and figuring out the time and tone systems of Nooni.
Despite being bilingual in English and German, and having also studied French, Irish and Mandarin, Kilian admitted it was a huge test.
He said: “Each question, each in an uncommon language, whether indigenous or literary, ancient or still spoken, challenged a diverse set of analytical skills and lateral thinking. The entire six hours were spent pattern-spotting, hypothesising, frustrating over data that did not fit said pattern and re-hypothesising.
“The hardest, though not the most time-consuming, step to make is always the first – trying to figure out what on earth is going on. It really demands you to shrug off all in-built notions of what a language is made up of. By the end of each question, you needed not only to have answered a set of questions to test your understanding of the language, but also to have written out an entire grammar of the part of the language you are analysing.”
However, Kilian and Alex were unable to add to their medal tally in the team competition as the two UK teams struggled with a fiendish linguistics problem that did not concern a language.
Kilian said: “Given the description of a gymnast’s actions for a move and the difficulty panel’s code script for each move, we had to decipher what each symbol referred to and how many points it was worth. The twists? It was highly ambiguous and different moves got different amounts of points in different combinations.”