February 02, 2007

The Computational Linguistics Olympiad

[Guest post from Dragomir Radev, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, about an exciting new way to bring computational linguistics to the people, and vice versa.]

As a teenager in Sofia, I spent a lot of my free time in the local "Filmotheque". I always wanted to become a movie director like Truffaut, Wenders, or Angelopoulos. That was until the day I learned about the Linguistics Olympiad. My high school was about to participate in it for the first time so there was still space on the team for those students who did well at the internal tryouts. Knowing a few foreign languages already, I had always been intrigued by their regularities and differences. The contest seemed to fall at the right time. I ended up on the school team and won a couple of awards at the Bulgarian national contests. These were organized at the time by Prof. Ruslan Mitkov of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. I enjoyed the problems thoroughly - we had to decipher texts in obscure languages, figure out the Japanese calendar system, and "discover" vowel harmony in Hungarian and Turkish.

Twenty years later, here I am, doing research and teaching Computational Linguistics courses at the University of Michigan. I was very pleased to be asked to become the program chair of the first North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad. The program committee prepared a large number of practice problems (see here!) for students interested in participating. You can try them out and learn about language evolution in Ojibwe, why letter tiles in the game of Scrabble (R) have different point values, or parse really convoluted English sentences.

The contest is open to high school students with no prior preparation in computer science and/or linguistics. They can sign up to participate in either one of four live sites (Ithaca, Boston, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh) or via internet. Check the olympiad web site for registration information. The best four contestants from the US will represent the country at the International Linguistics Olympiad (link) in St. Petersburg, Russia, in August 2007.

It is very encouraging that NSF has agreed to sponsor the contest. The stated goals of NSF are to "increase the size and diversity of the pool of future scientists in Linguistics, Computational Linguistics, and Human Language Technologies", "identify talented high school students and help them get the background that they need for higher education in Linguistics, Computational Linguistics, and Human Language Technologies", and "get the scientific study of language into high school curricula (in cooperation with the LSA's Language in the School Curriculum committee)". In other words, attracting teenagers to a very rewarding future in (Computational) Linguistics. Take that, Hollywood!

- Dragomir R. Radev

Posted by David Beaver at February 2, 2007 02:20 PM