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7 Tips to Help You Win the International Linguistics Olympiad (IOL)

National and international Olympiads have long been strong opportunities for a high schooler to showcase their knowledge, dedication, and competitive spirit. If their competitiveness has made you feel daunted in the past, take heart - even participating in Olympiads comes with enough benefits to make it worth the effort. You’ll get a crash course in time management, critical thinking, and creative problem solving, while boosting your profile for future college applications! Today’s blog post dives deep into the International Linguistics Olympiad (IOL) and what it takes to win it.


What is the International Linguistics Olympiad?

The IOL is an annual international competition that challenges high schoolers like yourself to solve complex problems in the field of linguistics in the language of your choice. It began in 1965 in Moscow, initiated by Alfred Zhurinsky, a linguistics student, and has since grown into an international event that is now hosted in a different country every year.


The Olympiad aims to foster a love for language and problem-solving among young minds. You will get to work on intricate problems across different branches of linguistics, some of which you might be encountering for the first time. This exposure broadens your linguistic horizons while also enhancing your analytical skills.


The IOL also functions as a platform for cultural exchange and intellectual growth, with each team working with a different language of their choice and competing together on an international stage.


Is it prestigious?

The IOL is highly prestigious, attracting over 200 students from over 40 countries. In most countries, even being selected to participate in the IOL is a rigorous challenge of winning the National Olympiad against hundreds of competing students. For example, the national olympiad for the United States, the NACLO, had over 1500 students competing in 2023. In the IOL itself, you’ll be engaging in complex problem-solving, showcasing your linguistic skills at an international level. All of this means that even by participating you’ll be dramatically enhancing your academic profile, as the IOL is recognized globally for its challenging nature and the high caliber of its contestants. Should you reach the podium or receive an honorable mention, that prestige is compounded.


Who is eligible and how do you apply?

To reach the IOL, you must first be selected through your country’s national selection competition. The complete list of presently accredited countries with their respective competitions can be found here. If your country is not yet accredited, the IOL organizers can still try to help you in assembling your own team with a teacher or a parent.


While each national olympiad has its own slightly varying criteria, broadly you just need to be a high school student with an interest in linguistics. No specific prior knowledge is required according to the IOL, since every problem is self-contained and only requires logical ability, patient work, and a willingness to think outside the box. You will have to form a team of 4 students. Should you move to the IOL, you will also need an accompanying Team Leader (TL) who may be a teacher or a parent.


The TL is also responsible for submitting the request for the working language that your team will receive the IOL problems in. You can quite literally ask for any language, and each language problem will be judged solely on its own merit with no language having an advantage over any other.


The important dates for IOL 2024 are as follows:

  • Requesting new working language - before January 31, 2024

  • Early Bird registration - January 8 - 31, 2024

  • Deposits for the teams with Early Bird registration - By February 28, 2024

  • Standard registration - February 1 - March 31, 2024

  • Payment for the teams with Standard registration - By April 30, 2024


While the IOL has not released the fee structure for 2024, you can get a sense of it from the 2023 fee structure.


Note that the above details are for the IOL only. Your respective national competition will have its own deadline(s) and fees, that you should check on their website. For example, for students in the US and English-speaking students in Canada, the relevant competition is the North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad (NACLO).


How is the IOL structured?

The IOL is held over six days between late July and mid August, with the individual contests held on the second day and the team contests on the fourth day.

  • Individual Contest: You will be assigned a set of five problems. You will have six hours to complete them, with no break provided.

  • Team Contest: Your team will be provided a single problem set to work on jointly, over three to four hours.


The problems themselves can be of the following types:

  • Translation problems: A problem includes a set of sentences in a foreign language and their translations into English, which may be in order or out of order. YOu will have to learn as much as possible from these translations and then translate other given sentences to or from English.

  • Number problems: A problem includes foreign sentences that describe basic arithmetic facts, such as "six times four is twenty-four," and your task is to figure out how to translate different numbers and expressions. You’ll have to decipher the number base used in that language, or the different words that may be used for the same number depending on the objects being counted, etc.

  • Writing systems: You will have to figure out how a particular writing system works and then use it to write out a given text, such as an ancient inscription. Some languages are written right to left or top to bottom, others do not use vowels, etc.

  • Calendar systems: Your task will be to figure out what calendar was used by a particular civilization based on sentences that refer to it.

  • Formal problems: In this problem, you will have to build a logical model of a language phenomenon. For example, a transformation rule may say "to convert an active voice sentence to passive voice, make the object of the former sentence the subject of the latter one, convert the verb to passive voice by using an appropriate form of the verb "to be" with the past participle of the verb, and add "by" before the word that was the subject of the former sentence." If we apply this rule to "Maya ate an apple," we get "An apple was eaten by Maya."

  • Phonological problems: Your task will be to figure out the relationship between the sounds of a language and its writing system.

  • Computational problems: You will have to develop a procedure to perform a particular linguistic task in a way that can be carried out by a computer.

  • Other types: Deciphering kinship systems, transcribing spoken dialogue, associating sentences with images, translating unknown languages from scratch, and many other types of problems.

You will be awarded points for the completeness of your solutions, with “completeness” here referring to accuracy, creativity, and clarity.


7 Tips to Help You Win

  1. Thoroughly master past problems: The IOL has a vast library of problems from previous competitions. Considering the complexity and caliber of the problem sets, we highly recommend you go through and solve as many of these as possible.

  2. Practice, practice, practice: The IOL is an intense and challenging competition, and you’ll need to practice regularly to stand a chance at winning. Practice solo, practice as a team, practice every single day!

  3. Learn linguistic concepts: Familiarize yourself with basic linguistic concepts and terminology. Work with your teacher(s) to learn these concepts in depth, their applications and usage techniques.

  4. Learn how to work as a team: In the team round, effective communication and collaboration are key. Make sure to practice as a team to understand your respective strengths and weaknesses and how to manage the work between all of you in a restricted time frame.

  5. Focus on time management: While four- to six-hour rounds sounds like a lot, the problems are complex enough to make that fly by. Learn to manage your time efficiently during the competition, breaking down tasks into manageable chunks.

  6. Try to find mentors: Don't hesitate to seek help from teachers or past participants. The IOL is difficult enough that you will benefit greatly from the expertise of people who have participated in it multiple times, and will be able to guide you on how to approach the problems and their solutions

  7. Stay calm and focused: The IOL is as much a challenge of endurance as it is of linguistics. During the competition, stay calm and focused on the problems at hand. The Pomodoro technique is something you can consider learning to help you focus. There is also the 4-8-7 breathing technique you can use for controlling your anxiety in the competition itself.


Lumiere Research Scholar Program

If you’re looking for the opportunity to do in-depth research on various topics, you could also consider applying to one of the Lumiere Research Scholar Programs, selective online high school programs for students I founded with researchers at Harvard and Oxford. Last year, we had over 4000 students apply for 500 spots in the program! You can find the application form here.

Stephen is one of the founders of Lumiere and a Harvard College graduate. He founded Lumiere as a PhD student at Harvard Business School. Lumiere is a selective research program where students work 1-1 with a research mentor to develop an independent research paper.


Image Source: IOL logo


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