Perse students represent UK at International Linguistics Olympiad
28 Jul 2021
Barnaby Colvin (Upper Sixth) and Toby Collins (Lower Sixth) have represented the UK at the International Linguistics Olympiad (ILO), with Toby Collins achieving a Bronze medal.
They were among an impressive number of Perse pupils who reached the second round of the UK Linguistics Olympiad (UKLO) after being among the 51 gold medallists nationally in the first round, the others being Daniel Chen, Eos Liao (both Year 11), Sourish Sharma and Vishrut Pisupati (both Year 10).
It was from this stage of the UKLO that the eight British representatives for the international competition were picked, with Barnaby and Toby making the grade after earning distinctions for their performances.
They had to answer a series of tough questions during the online exams, which tested their ability to decipher obscure languages and unfamiliar scripts from a limited amount of clues.
Toby Collins said: “We sat two exams, a 6-hour individual paper and a tough 3-hour group problem. The questions were very difficult, but I was delighted when I discovered I had achieved a bronze medal at the closing ceremony. Linguistics is not something we study at school, but if you like problem solving, you’ll probably enjoy it.”
“One of the hardest questions at the Olympiad was to work out the number system of a rare tribal language. The experience was extremely enjoyable and I have learnt a lot from the training and competition. Hopefully future competitions will be held in-person to make it easier to socialise with the other teams.”
Here Barnaby Colvin shares his experience of the international event.
On the 19 of July, I and Toby Weston went down to Greenwich for the 2021 International Linguistics Olympiad (IOL). Two rounds of problems of increasing difficulty had selected us to represent Britain on a very minor part of the world stage.
Covid had prevented us at the last moment from travelling to Latvia, the host nation this year. (The IOL was established in 2003 as a joint Russo-Bulgarian project, and many of the host nations and most successful teams are Eastern European). The University of Greenwich hosted us instead, and we took our tests in the beautiful buildings of the Old Royal Naval College.
Having arrived at our hotel, we met the six other contestants and our hosts, Neil Sheldon and Professor Graeme Trousdale, and settled in with a pleasant meal, courtesy of the British Philological Association. I tried to get a good night’s sleep, in spite of the oppressive London heat — the morning would see the individual contest, generally regarded as the most important part of the Olympiad.
The morning of the 20th saw a rush to the exam room for a 9am start and the beginning of the six-hour paper. The individual contest consisted of five questions. In each one you are given data concerning a real-world language and asked to deduce some of its rules. I drew the paper from its green cardboard folder to be confronted with a question about the number system of the Papuan language Ekari. In all six hours, I failed to find anything whatsoever out about it.
After the competition one of the IOL jury (a former British team member) told me the average mark on that question was 0.8 out of 20. The second question — on the Amerindian Zuni — had taken that same jury member three years to compile, and had required the interview of native speakers.
Other questions involved Kilivila (which I found to class nouns into four groups: men, women and animals, children, and canoes), Agbirigba (a Nigerian cant language with thirty speakers), and Rikbaksa, a language of the Amazon forest.
After the competition we walked out to the grand Greenwich Park to talk over the questions. I discovered that every team member had studied Latin – an argument for the Classics if ever there was one. Dinner was just down the road at a local restaurant, and we spent the later evening talking over some of the more absurd past team problems. Georgian (2013) was a particular favourite as it required one to recognise the phrase ‘Or-or’ in the archaic Nuskhuri alphabet as referring to the book Either-Or by Søren Kierkegaard. That year the jury gave up ranking the teams by their score: instead, as even prizewinners scored zero, they were judged on the elegance of their guesswork.
The team contest fell on the same time the following day. We took part as two teams of four, each working through the same extended question on Garifuna. This language turned out to have differing grammar and vocabulary, depending on whether the speaker was a man or a woman. After four hours of work the problem was still unfinished, although my team made some progress, and was later awarded an honourable mention of 7th place worldwide.
And that was the end. Covid restrictions meant we had to split up more or less immediately. But the pleasure of the competition remained along with the pleasure of having met some of the brightest minds in the country, and having tried (and often failed) some of the hardest problems one is likely to face in life.