Yale students use international contest to build knowledge of linguistics

“Have fun” and “don’t stress about the competition” read in part the instructions to the participants in the open round of the 10th annual North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad (NACLO) that took place at Yale recently.
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Tom McCoy ‘17, one of the organizers of the 10th annual North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad that took place at Yale recently, gives students final instructions before the contest began.

“Have fun” and “don’t stress about the competition” read in part the instructions to the participants in the open round of the 10th annual North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad (NACLO) that took place at Yale recently.

More than 50 students from middle and high schools throughout Connecticut arrived at Yale to compete in the “pencil and paper contest,” in which students use analytical skills to solve linguistic puzzles in languages that they are not familiar with and, in the course of solving the puzzles, “learn something about the structure of human language,” notes the faculty organizer Raffaella Zanuttini, professor of linguistics at Yale.

This is the fourth year that the Yale’s Department of Linguistics has hosted the competition, which is organized by Zanuttiniand a team of undergraduates including seniors Aidan Kaplan and Tom McCoy, junior Kate Rosenberg, sophomore Jay Pittman, and freshman James Wedgwood. Several of the organizers participated in NACLO when they were in high school, and McCoy and Kaplan both credit NACLO with their decision to major in linguistics at Yale.

NACLO was co-founded in 2006 by Dragomir Radev, who was recently appointed as a professor in the Department of Computer Science at Yale. He also serves at the program chair and head coach.

The contest is made up of seven to eight linguistics-based puzzles. A typical NACLO problem consists of about 10 sentences in a language that students are unlikely to be familiar with — for example, Hungarian, Yup’ik, or Tshiluba — along with English translations, followed by five more sentences without translations. The participants must figure out how to translate the sentences based on the patterns they can deduce. No prior knowledge of linguistics is necessary to participate; in fact, McCoy says, most of the students don’t have any linguistics background. “It is one of the best features of the contest because it makes it accessible to everyone,” he says, noting that solving these puzzles “is like code breaking. You really feel like you’ve learned something by the end of the contest.”

Many of the students who attended the open round at Yale participated in at least some of the five practice sessions led by the Yale undergraduates that were held in the Department of Linguistics, on Sunday afternoons, over the past several months. Rosenberg says that working with the students in these practice sessions was an “impactful” experience for her. “It is really very impressive because these problems are very difficult, and the students can’t always get them. But they don’t give up, and don’t get defeated. They either keep working at it or decide that this is not the problem for them and move on.”

“We love to have this opportunity to help students discover how languages can differ and how they can be similar, and educate them about the properties of human language” says Zanuttini. “People often think that they know about the properties of human language just because they speak one. But that’s like thinking that we know the properties of the brain because we have a brain.”

Zanuttini heard about NACLO several years ago at the annual meeting of the Linguistics Society of America and thought that it would be an ideal way to reach out to the broader community and share her knowledge of linguistics; but she didn’t think she could find the time to get it started at Yale. McCoy and Kaplan, who had participated in NACLO in high school, approached her as soon as they arrived on campus as freshmen, at the Academic Fair held before the beginning of classes in Fall 2013. They asked her if they could organize a NACLO site to give to others the kind of opportunities that they had in high school. “It was the push I had been waiting for,” says Zanuttini, who credits McCoy and Kaplan with bringing the energy, enthusiasm and commitment that were necessary to start the program at Yale. In just four years, Yale has become the third-largest university site nationwide.

One of the highlights of the contest for Zanuttini is the opportunity to work with the families and the teachers who come to bring their students to the practice sessions. “I love talking to them about linguistics, sharing the sense of community that Yale provides and, of course, I love to showcase our amazing students.”

Many of the high school students who participate in Yale’s NACLO contest have been attending our practice sessions and have entered the competition all four years. “This is not just a one-off event,” says McCoy, “We are building a community here.”

Linguistics is a very diverse field, notes McCoy, adding that “the contest is like a sampler dessert platter where you get a little taste of each of the areas in linguistics.”

Each time that Kaplan solves a NACLO problem “is like a new chance to discover something that a language can do. Every problem gives me this sense of ‘wow, a language can do that?’” The Yale senior is applying to master’s programs in Arabic and plans to teach the language after graduation.

The top achievers from the open rounds that take place across North America will advance to NACLO’s Invitational Round. The finalists from that competition form teams that compete in the International Linguistics Olympiad. Three of the organizers of NACLO at Yale had qualified for the U.S. team and participated in the International Linguistics Olympiad when they were in high school.

McCoy, who will pursue a Ph.D. in linguistics after he graduates in May, also participates on the national level of NACLO as a member of the organizing committee, and wrote some of the problems that were used this year. “It is really fun to watch the kids getting engaged in the problems that I wrote because it feels like I’m passing my love for linguistics on to them. Not many people get to watch students solving the problems that they wrote. I really enjoy being able to see that happen,” he says.

“It’s been extremely rewarding to watch the NACLO community grow. The students constantly amaze me with how quickly they figure out advanced topics. Though I’m sad to be leaving Yale, I’m glad that this group will continue to get students excited about linguistics after I graduate. The purpose of language is to bring people together, and that’s exactly what NACLO does.”

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Bess Connolly : elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu,