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News Release 09-148

U.S. Students Win Big at the International Linguistics Olympiad

Event in Poland highlights significance of emerging field of computational linguistics

Photo of the U.S. team that competed in 2009 International Linguistics Olympiad, Wroclaw, Poland.

U.S. teams competed in the 2009 International Linguistics Olympiad in Wroclaw, Poland.

August 5, 2009

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High school students from across the U.S. won individual and team honors last week at the seventh annual International Olympiad in Linguistics held in Wroclaw, Poland. The results reflect U.S. competence in computational linguistics, an emerging field that has applications in computer science, language processing, code breaking and other advanced arenas.

The U.S. fielded two teams at the Olympiad, which featured competitors from 17 different countries, including Australia, Germany, India, South Korea and Russia. Rebecca Jacobs of Los Angeles took the highest individual honor of any U.S. competitor with a silver medal, while John Berman of Wilmington, N.C., Sergei Bernstein of Boston, and Alan Huang of Beverly Hills, Mich., each took home bronze medals. Morris Alper of Palo Alto, Calif., Daryl Hansen of Sammamish, Wash., Anand Natarajan of San Jose, Calif. and Vivaek Shivakumar of Arlington, Va. received honorable mentions for their work. Berman and Huang were also recognized for their solutions to specific problems.

The U.S. Red team, comprised of Alper, Huang, Jacobs, and Natarajan took home the gold cup in team competition.

This year's U.S. teams were chosen from hundreds of students who competed in the third annual North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad (NACLO) that took place this past winter throughout the country. NACLO, and the U.S. teams that competed this summer, are sponsored by the National Science Foundation, Google, Cambridge University Press, Microsoft, Everyzing, M*Modal, JUST. Systems, The North American Chapter of the Association for Computational Linguistics (NAACL), Oxford University Press, Carnegie Mellon University's Language Technologies Institute, the University of Michigan, Brandeis University, and the University of Pittsburgh Linguistics Department.

The competitors faced a variety of challenges that tested their linguistics and problem-solving skills. The first question, for example, gave the teens the names and quantities of several common tropical fruits in Sulka, a language spoken by only 3,500 people in Papua New Guinea, and then asked them to translate other combinations of the words from English to Sulka and vice versa. The competitors then had to work on other problems featuring the West African languages of Bamana and Maninka as well as Burmese and Nahuatl, the language of the ancient Aztec Empire. In addition to providing translations, the teens were required to describe in detail the formulas and systems they developed to tackle each problem.

Aside from being a fun intellectual challenge, the Olympiad mimics the skills used by researchers and scholars in the field of computation linguistics, which is increasingly important for the United States and other countries. Using computational linguistics, these experts can develop automated translation technologies such as translation software that cut down on the time and training needed to work with other languages. In an increasingly global economy where businesses operate across borders and languages, having a strong pool of computational linguists is an important competitive advantage. With threats emerging from different parts of the world, developing computational linguistics skills has also been identified as a vital component of national defense in the 21st century.

While the linguistics competition is fun, it also requires dedication and hard work by many people, all of whom are volunteers. The organizing committee is headed by Dragomir Radev of the University of Michigan and Lori Levin of Carnegie Mellon University, and it also includes Mary Jo Bensasi, Eugene Fink, Adam Hesterberg, Patrick Littell, Ida Mayer, James Pustejovsky and Amy Troyani. Radev, Levin and Hesterberg also coached the U.S. team this year in Poland.

Organizers are already working on next year's NACLO competition and hope to repeat the U.S.'s success in the international competition. More information as well as problem sets and solutions can be found on the organization's Web site


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