How good is your West Tarangan, the language spoken by the inhabitants of the Aru Islands, located in the Arafura Sea between New Guinea and Australia?
Wesley Zhang, an incoming senior at Canyon Crest Academy, used his linguistic logic to win a gold medal and individual honors at the 2019 International Linguistics Olympiad, held in Yongin, South Korea on July 29-Aug. 2. The competition pitted 209 contestants from 36 countries and territories against each other, testing their ability to solve problems in language analysis drawn from languages all around the world.
Wesley’s team of students from the United States won the competition at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Yongin and he placed second overall individually.
Wesley was one of eight American students who qualified to represent the United States by finishing at the top of the North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad (NACLO). In NACLO, Wesley mastered a four-hour test with problems ranging across traditional and computational topics in linguistics from natural language processing in languages such as Maltese, Ndebele and Hanunó'o to topics including synchronic Begriffsschrift formulas, disambiguation, and character-level language modeling.
“The thing about this competition is that little knowledge of any linguistic concept is required to do well. The best preparation for this competition is to understand the logic behind the solution of each problem,” Wesley said.
The International Linguistics Olympiad (IOL) in Korea consisted of both an individual and team contest—
the eight U.S. students were on two teams. The individual contest was a six-hour exam with five problems featuring the languages and scripts of Yonggom, Yurok, Book Pahlavi script, West Tarangan, and Nooni.
Wesley said the most challenging part of the test was “trying to figure out how reduplication worked in the coast dialect of West Tarangan.”
In the team contest, team members had to collaborate to solve one particularly challenging problem. This year, the 53 teams were given three hours to work out the rules of the notation system used by rhythmic gymnastics judges. Problem solving at the IOL stresses the ability of contestants to decipher the mechanisms of languages by using logic and reasoning to explore a wide range of hypotheses.
Wesley’s team USA Red took gold in the individual contest team rankings, followed by Team Bulgaria and Canada Moose.
Wesley was second overall in the individual contest and was one of three contestants awarded best solution.
In addition to the competition, the IOL contestants participated in other enrichment activities such as a daylong excursion to Seoul, visiting the National Hangeul Museum, the Gyeongbokgung Palace and Myeongdong, the commercial district of Seoul.
“The 10 days I spent in Korea from the competition to the tourist attractions to the food and culture to just playing card games with teammates and competitors, certainly were the richest days of my life,” Wesley said. “While the tests were interesting and the excursions fun, the most enjoyable experience has to be meeting other people with an interest in linguistics, both within the nation and outside.”
Wesley said he would still like to do IOL next year although he is also interested in the Science Olympiad and the United States of America Math Olympiad.
“I’d certainly like to spread interest in linguistics,” Wesley said. “I met two teachers interested in creating an AP linguistics class and I feel that would go a long way toward promoting linguistics as a subject.”