The UK Linguistics Olympiad: Is It For You?

Are you interested in languages?

Do you like puzzles?

Would you like the chance to win a medal in a national competition? 

If you answered ‘yes’ to all of the above, then the UKLO may be the perfect blend for you!

The United Kingdom Linguistics Olympiad (UKLO) is a language-analysis competition open to all school-age students of different abilities that is completely free to enter. 

The UK Linguistics Olympiad has been offered every year since 2010, and the best candidates qualify for the International Linguistics Olympiad, representing the United Kingdom and competing against teams from up to 33 different countries. 

At first it might sound like just another test you have to sit for which you don’t even get a credited grade, but the Olympiad is not like that at all! 

Format of the Olympiad

Each question is presented like a puzzle, where you are given sentences or words in a language that is not widely spoken, with the aim of working out elements of its grammar, vocabulary and even orthography (spelling). 

An interesting past example from the Advanced level of Round One in the 2010 Olympiad was a question on Armenian. 

The question provided a map of the Armenian underground train network, and the challenge was to transcribe the stations from the Armenian alphabet into English, using cues given by the question and the metro map. 

You can find further examples of past UKLO challenges here.

The Linguistics Olympiad is very accessible, with no previous knowledge of foreign languages or linguistics needed. It does not create a disadvantage to those who cannot speak multiple languages, though clearly this can be helpful when analysing different languages. The major test is how well candidates can become familiar with a language they have not seen before and begin to find and apply rules that make sense in general language constructions. In this way, it is a good starting point for anyone interested in linguistics, or many other fields of the very interrelated subjects concerned with languages.

A Great Introduction to Linguistics

If you have ever studied or read about linguistics, you will know how complicated it can be, so the Olympiad is a great gateway to linguistic investigation, giving a fun example of analysing technical features of a language without the stress of using specific terminology to identify very precise elements. For those that get stuck in, the UKLO website has a range of recommended reading and listening materials that cover both entry-level and more nuanced Linguistics topics such as Child Language Acquisition, Linguistic Relativity and even “Conlanging” (the process that created TV’s favourite languages such as Dothraki from Game of Thrones). 

Degrees that cover one modern foreign language will include linguistics studies at some point, so the Linguistics Olympiad is a great way to have some immediate exposure to linguistics, even if you won’t officially study any at university.

Excellent Preparation for Oxbridge Language Applicants

The Linguistics Olympiad is very similar to the Oxford Language Aptitude Test (LAT) and the Cambridge Linguistics Admissions Assessment, which are used to test the linguistic ability of students applying to study languages or linguistics at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. 

The advanced UKLO is of similar difficulty to questions from both admissions tests, and some are even harder, making it the perfect preparation for an Oxbridge application! Subjects like Modern Languages with Linguistics, Philosophy or even Psychology will require taking the Language Aptitude Test, and the UKLO will prepare you for all of these. 

The UKLO is also a great way of showing your love for the subject beyond the classroom, participating in a national, and if you achieve high enough, possibly even an international competition, which is directly relevant to your subject of interest.

How To Get Involved

A school and a specific teacher must first register with the UKLO, then its students will be eligible to take part in the competition through the school. If your school is not currently registered, no need to worry! Registration is simple and free; you should get in touch with your school’s language department to register the school, which will allow you and future students to get involved.

Fancy taking it on? 

Tips and Tricks To Set You On Your Way

Here are some tips to get you started on your road to linguistics mastery! The best preparation for the Olympiad is practice. The UKLO website has lots of past competitions where you can have a go at previous questions to get a feel of the challenges, and there are some walkthroughs on YouTube of more difficult questions where past winners talk about the way they would solve the challenge. 

Any task that tests your skill for recognising patterns is helpful, even a daily Sudoku in the newspaper. As you practice and experience more past questions, you might even notice patterns in the answers, like learning to look out for syllable counts, open or closed word endings, the classification of nouns and whether gender or number are interpreted differently.  

Good luck to anyone wishing to take on the competition, and happy linguistics studies! 


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