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The International Linguistics Olympiad (IOL) is a contest for students up to secondary school level where they compete in solving problems based on the scientific study of languages - linguistics. The contest does not involve knowing lots of languages. Participants compete in teams representing their countries. They qualify by winning a national contest, organised by an accredited national organisation. The IOL has certain criteria that need to be met in order for the national organisation to gain accreditation and send a delegation, but IOL is not itself responsible for these individual national contests. Non-accredited delegations may sometimes participate as guests (at the discretion of the hosts), paying full expenses.
This is a document based on common questions and important information concerning the IOL, starting a new contest, applying, accreditation and more. We strongly advised anyone who’s interested in this to also read our rules. Please read this page before writing to us. If you contact us asking for information that is found here, we will take a longer time to get back to you - so please read this before contacting us.
My country does not have a contest (yet)/is not listed in the menu on IOLs website
In order to take part in the international contest, students need to qualify through a national contest. Non-accredited countries can take part for a limited time as guests while they’re starting up a contest. However, after 2 years the contest must be accredited. You can read more about starting up a contest and getting accredited below.
Please note that students CANNOT PARTICIPATE unless they have qualified through an accredited national contest or are associated with a serious enterprise to start one in a country. Students cannot participate on their own. No exceptions.
The IOL does not run the national contests. They are organised independently and are accredited by the IOL. Hence, we do not start up contests in new countries directly from the IOL.
This is the most common question we get, please read this page and our rules to learn more about our contest.
I am a teacher and I want to register my local school for the contest. How do I do this?
We’re very happy that you are interested. But please note that this is not a contest for local schools, this is an international contest where the contestants first qualify through a contest in the country or territory. Schools cannot directly apply to go to the IOL without a national/territory-wide contest.
Please remember that a national contest must be open to all students of secondary school in your country in order for you to become an accredited member of the IOL. This means that you cannot have a small contest exclusively for your class or school.
There is more information in this document as to how to set up a contest and become an accredited member of the IOL.
I have question about a specific country that has a national contest
Please contact the organisers of that contest directly. The IOL is not responsible for national contests, they are run independently from the IOL. You can find out the websites and contact details at https://ioling.org/local_organizers/.
As a student, how can I participate?
First, check if your country has a national contest already by viewing the listing https://ioling.org/local_organizers/. You can only participate in the IOL by qualifying through your national contest.
All questions about specific national contests need to be directed to said national contest, the IOL does not directly organise the national contests.
My country doesn’t have a national contest, I’m a student and very keen. What can I do?
If there is no contest and no attempt to start one up you cannot take part in the IOL.
While we welcome your enthusiasm, you cannot participate without being part of a national contest or associated with a serious effort to start one. If your country does not already have a national contest you can attempt to start one or join in efforts to create one. Participants are not allowed to go to the IOL on their own without being associated with a serious initiative to start up a continuous contest in their country.
See the following questions for more information. If you have any questions about languages or linguistics, you’re still welcome to write to us.
My country used to have a contest, but for some reason it’s not being held this year/it is not sending a delegation to IOL this year. I want to join. What can I do?
The rule that students cannot take part on their own still applies. However, you may be able to reach some sort of deal with the organisers of the national contest. Please contact them, or us if you can’t find their contact details, or are getting no reply from them.
It is unfortunate that there is no contest any more in your country, or that it doesn’t send a delegation this year. However, the rule that students cannot take part on their own entirely un-associated from a national contest still applies.
Can we start a new national contest?
Yes. You do not need to seek our approval to start a contest. However, if you seek to become a full accredited member of the IOL, you will need to adhere to our criteria. These are outlined in more detail below.
Until you have a full contest up and running, you may also be able take part as guests. It is up to the local organising committee (LOC) of each year?s international contest how many guests they can accommodate. Please contact them as soon as possible to let them know your intentions.
I’m an international/exchange student/on a gap year abroad, what can I do?
You should normally participate in the national contest of the country you are in. But if there is no such contest, or you are about to return to your home country, you may be able rather to participate in your home competition. It is up to each national contest to decide how to deal with situations like this, so please contact them directly. The IOL does not administrate the national contests, so we cannot tell you whether you can compete in a certain national contest or not.
Go to https://ioling.org/local_organizers/, click the country you want to compete in, follow the link to their own website for the national contest, find the contact information and send them a message.
Can I participate in a country’s national contest if I’m not a resident/citizen there?
Normally, no, but this is up to each national contest to decide, so please contact the contest you wish to participate in and discuss this issue with them. The norm however is that national contests should be open to anyone attending school in that country, regardless of their nationality, and that students living abroad participate in their local olympiad, not the one run by their country of citizenship. (In this respect, the IOL is NOT like sporting competitions). Exceptionally, ex-patriot nationals may be allowed to compete in the olympiad of their country of citizenship, but this is not encouraged.
How does it work, participating as guests (i.e. without an accredited contest)?
Non-accredited delegations may be allowed to participate as guests for a limited time, only if they represent a serious effort to start a national contest. They are guests and as such are welcome at the discretion of the local Organising committee (LOC) and pay full costs. This is an opportunity that the IOL offers in order to encourage starting up contests. Countries can only make use of this opportunity two years consecutively and participation in the IOL is only allowed if the LOC approves, and the International Board is persuaded that the organisation is bona fide and has a good prospect of becoming an accredited national Organisation. There is no guarantee that a non-accredited team will be allowed to participate. This has not yet happened, but the IOL grants the LOC the right to make this decision. The LOC of course needs to notify the countries and teams concerned as soon as possible. Non-accredited teams are liable for all their own expenses, including costs of accommodation, and participation in the social programme.
What does it cost to participate?
Each country’s delegation pays for their own transportation cost to the venue, visa fees (where applicable), medical insurance and sundry expenses, and also extra accommodation etc costs for arriving early or staying on after the contest. There is also (since 2010) a registration fee, which goes towards accommodation and board during the contest (5 nights for 1 team leader and 4 participants). This is paid to the LOC. Teams from accredited countries pay lower fees than those from non-accredited countries, who pay full costs. There will also be a higher fee if a country wishes to participate with more than one team. Please see the website for the current contest for more detailed information.
Who runs the IOL?
The IOL has several different bodies: the International Board, the Local Organising Committee (LOC), the Problem Committee (PC), the Jury and the International Organising Committee (IOC). They have different compositions and responsibilities. Knowing about them will help you get answers to your questions quicker.
Every year the international contest is in a different country. The organisation and administration surrounding each year’s specific event is carried out by the Local Organising Committee (LOC). They set up the website for each year’s event, manage the registration and other year-specific details.
The IOL Board handles issues spanning over longer time, such as evaluating new contests, supporting the LOC and coordinating efforts.
The Problem Committee creates the problem set and deals with the translation of the problems into the different languages. The Jury handles the grading of the solutions of the students during the contest.
During the IOL, representatives from each country, the Board and Jury meet and together they form the International Organising Committee. This committee deals with overarching issues surrounding the running of the IOL, and occasionally votes on proposals for rule changes made by the Board, which it elects annually. Representatives from accredited contests have a vote.
If you have questions about the organisation of a specific IOL olympiad or registration, contact the LOC. If you have questions about starting up a new contest, ask the IOL Board. If you have questions about the problem set, ask the Problem Committee. Read the rules for more details on these different bodies.
How can I get in contact with the Board of IOL?
Please use this contact form for questions concerning the IOL. Do make sure you’ve read through this page though, as the answer to your question may very well be here. For questions regarding details on specific details concerning the IOL of this year, please contact the Local Organising Committee of this year?s IOL.
For questions concerning specific existing national olympiads, please go to https://ioling.org/local_organizers/ and click the country you want to contact.
How do I get in contact with the Local Organising Committee (LOC) of this year?s event?
On the ioling.org frontpage you will find a link to the website of this year?s IOL, as soon as it exists: https://ioling.org/upcoming/. On that website will be contact information for getting in touch with the LOC.
Who runs the national contest in my country?
Go to https://ioling.org/local_organizers/ to see a list of all countries that have participated in the IOL. You can find your country and links to their website.
What are the criteria a national contest has to fulfil in order to be an accredited contest?
The IOL is not in charge of national contests, but still makes certain demands on how these are constructed in order to be eligible for the IOL. The national accredited contest needs to:
- be a contest that features problems about linguistics or a closely related field
- have an on-line presence that is not excluded from search engine results
- be open to all students up to secondary level in the country (i.e. not restricted to certain schools or programmes, and regardless of citizenship)
- display clear information about registration and competing well in advance, and preferably also announce this information in good time in a public forum (social media, email distribution, news announcements, etc)
- have the problem set in the language of the majority of the population or the language of education
- have details on how to contact the contest Organisers
It says that we must be open to all students, but the place where we are going to organise the national contest cannot hold all students of our country?
By stating that the contest is open to all students, it does not mean it necessarily needs to have the resources to let all students of the country physically compete. There can still be restrictions like number of seats - meaning that students need to register in time. Any rules which effectively restrict participation to students in a certain locality, or of a certain socioeconomic status (not to mention racial, religious, political or of course linguistic grounds) must be avoided. We understand that time and space are restricted, and it might be that not everyone can travel to the test site - but students cannot be excluded from registering.
For example, it is alright that the contest cannot take place in all schools and that some might have to travel to the location. It is however not alright that certain students are not allowed to register, travel to the test sites and compete if they can find the means to do so. This is not in the spirit of the IOL and is not allowed.
Is the IOL only for private schools?
No, this is not true. The IOL is open to all kinds of students, those from public schools and private schools are equally welcome, as well as urban and rural students.
Public schools cannot be systematically excluded because of the language of the contest: all students of secondary schools must be able to request the majority language of education both in private and public schools when they register. If no student requests a different language from the one the national contest had originally planned, the contest may move forward without a change in this regard.
It may be that for financial reasons, it is private students that are selected in a higher proportion because they have better funding, but this does not mean that public school students are not welcome.
How does a country get accredited?
Accreditation can be sought at any time by contacting the IOL Board, but the deadline of January 1st must be met to guarantee participation in the next Olympiad. The Board evaluates the contest according to our accreditation criteria, see above.
How do I get in contact with the Board of IOL in order to apply for accreditation?
You can use our regular contact form or, if you have been in contact with members of the Board previously, you can also contact them directly and they will forward the message to the entire Board for evaluation. Please provide a description of your contest?s organisation and the URL for your website. There is no need for a formal letter.
What is the difference between registration and accreditation?
Accreditation is a process by which the IOL Board evaluates your contest according to our criteria: if they are met you may participate in the IOL at lower rates and until further notice. Registration has to do with the year-specific event, and is open to accredited and non-accredited delegations. Accreditation is handled by the Board, registration by the Local Organising Committee (LOC). Different conditions apply for participating in the contest depending on whether you are accredited or not, and the LOC usually discusses such matters with the Board once the registrations come in.
I am not satisfied with the contest in my country, what do I do?
If you believe that the contest in your country is breaking the rules of the IOL, most importantly by excluding students from participating or in other ways treating students unfairly, contact the IOL Board.
How can I/we go about starting a national contest in my country?
In order to start a contest a national organising team of teachers, university staff and/or representatives from the appropriate government body (typically but not necessarily, Ministry of Education) will need to be formed. The organisation of the contest can differ in different countries. Technically the IOL does not require that the contest is sanctioned by the Ministry of Education - though this is commonly done anyway.
Running a national contest involves constructing problems, or collaborating with other countries on problems, finding the space and time for the students to do the test and scoring the tests fairly. The national contests that exist today do not all work in the same way and are not run by the IOL Board. Some contests take place out in the schools themselves in the first round - this requires close collaboration with many teachers. Other contests takes place at universities or other centres, involving close collaboration with linguists and the individual students themselves and less focus on teachers. Some contests are conducted online with an automatic scoring tool.
Countries that share a common language sometimes collaborate on producing problem sets and run broadly similar competitions. However, this involves a huge amount of cooperation and coordination to ensure there is no leakage of problems before all the contests have taken place. There is spontaneous international collaboration in the form of people sharing old problems and translating, but this is only done when it can be assured that it is sufficiently impossible for the contestants to acquire the original problem set before their contest takes place. It is up to each national contest to ensure the security of the problem set, and that cheating is not occurring. Contact the larger mailing list for the IOL and/or countries with whom you share language to learn more.
As long as the contest meets the criteria to be accredited it can be organised in any manner.
Running a national contest usually involves working with secondary school teachers, academics at the universities, not-for-profit Organisations which encourage students to take an interest in science and/or a government body such as the Ministry of Education. It is also usually necessary to seek funds in order to finance the national round as well as fees, flights and other expenses associated with participating in the IOL. If there are complications that result in the national contest not being able to cover the expenses to participate in the IOL and the participants themselves need to seek other funding, this should be notified and discussed with the IOL Board.
What languages are the national contests in?
The national contest needs to be in the language of the majority of the population or the language of education. Contests cannot be restricted to a particular language if this is not the majority language of the population or the language of education. The contest can also, in addition to the majority language/language of education, be held in any other languages that the organisers can comfortably arrange for, such as other widely spoken languages in the country (as long as the problems can be translated fairly). In general, there should be no requirement to speak a foreign language (e.g. English). Note that IOL is NOT a competition of students? foreign language ability.
If a national contest is not providing the test in the majority language of the education system or the population, this is cause for concern. Please contact the IOL Board if this is the case.
What languages can the participants compete in at the international level?
The participants may compete in the language of their national contest at the international level: that means both receiving the problem set in that language and handing in the solution in it. Participants may also in the individual round compete in another language that is represented in the IOL by another country, for example: one year an Estonian student took the individual competition in Russian. Competitors are not allowed to get the problems in more than one language.
The countries who wish to participate need to announce which language they prefer a minimum of ten weeks before the IOL (preferably long before that, especially for a new language). The Problem Committee (PC) consists of expert linguists from a wide variety of backgrounds, with an astonishing range of competence in many languages. No team is obliged or encouraged to work in a foreign language, and, given enough notice, you will almost certainly be allowed to compete at IOL in your own language.
The PC creates the problems and they are scored by the Jury. The PC does not work with a base version of the problem in English and then translate them. If you want to read more about multilingual editing of the IOL problems, we propose that you read this paper written by the chair of the PC: Derzhanski, Ivan (2013) Multilingual Editing of Linguistic Problems, In Proceedings of the Fourth Workshop on Teaching NLP and CL August 2013 Sofia, Bulgaria Association for Computational Linguistics 27–34 http://anthology.aclweb.org/W/W13/W13-3404.pdf [in English]
What are the problems like?
The problems can be very varied. They are based on linguistics in some way, and linguistics is a quite broad field. They are always based on a genuine language. There are approximately 7,000 languages in the world: in order to not give an advantage to speakers of any particular language, often the problems are based on one or several of the not so well-known ones and an interesting phenomenon there. Why not have a look at some sample problems?
Do I need to know about linguistics in order to participate?
No, not technically - but it’s very useful. The problems are constructed in such a way that all you need to solve the problem is found in the text given to you, you don’t need to know complicated linguistic jargon or terms. However, knowledge of how languages tend to work, and the ways in which they differ from each other, will help you know what to expect, and to explain your answers better. This is not a contest in logical thinking only, we will test your skills at thinking linguistically. We do not expect you to have formal training in linguistics since we know this is not provided at many secondary schools.
Do I need to know a lot of languages in order to participate? Do I need to know English?
No, you will need to know the language that your national contest is in. Problem sets at the international level are given in the language of your national contest.
Linguistics is not about learning as many languages as possible: besides, the problems are typically about little-known languages that you are unlikely to be able to read about prior to the contest. This is a contest about thinking like a language scientist, not about being a polyglot. That said, of course knowing more languages can be an advantage since it makes you aware of how they can work.
For social interaction with other participants of course knowledge of a lingua franca such as English, French, Russian, Spanish etc will most likely be useful, but this is not at all a requirement. Knowledge of English or any other language is not mandatory for participants. However, at least one team leader from each country needs to be proficient in English (or other lingua franca of the Local Organising Committee and the Jury) in order for communications surrounding the participation to work smoothly.
How old are the contestants?
Contestants must be under 20 years old on the opening day of the IOL, and must attend (or have only just finished attending) secondary school (“high school”) or lower grades in their respective countries. There is no lower age limit, but typically contestants are 15-20 years old. Younger students sometimes get through to the international final. Some countries have local versions of their national contest specially aimed at younger students, even down to primary-school age, and an exceptional student not yet at high school would be eligible, but it is not typically the case.
There is no restriction of the IOL on how young participants can be, only that they must attend secondary school or lower grades. It is unusual that students in grades lower than secondary school qualify, but they may take part in the IOL if they qualify.
When was the first Linguistics Olympiad held?
The first Linguistics Olympiad for secondary school students was organised in 1965 in Moscow on the initiative of Alfred Zhurinsky (1938-1991), eventually a prominent philologist but then only a fifth-year student of linguistics, and under the guidance of the mathematician Vladimir Uspensky. The Olympiad, farsightedly called Traditional since its very beginning, was regularly held at the Moscow State University from 1965 until 1982. In 1988 the Olympiad was resumed at the Moscow State Institute for History and Archives (now the Russian State University for the Humanities), and since 1989 it has been organised jointly by the two institutions. Since 1996 a mirror of Moscow’s Traditional Olympiad in Linguistics has been held in Russia’s northern capital by St Petersburg State University.
Linguistic contests have also been held regularly in Bulgaria since 1982, being organised by the Union of Bulgarian Mathematicians and the Ministry of Education. In more recent years analogous events were launched in Oregon (US) and the Netherlands. At the same time teams of award-holders of the Moscow Olympiad in Linguistics competed successfully in Bulgaria and vice versa, which demonstrated the potential for international co-operation in this field. Thus was born the idea of the IOL.
When and how was the IOL founded?
The idea of an International Linguistics Olympiad was proposed in 2002 by Iliyana Raeva (Bulgaria) and first elaborated at a meeting also attended by Ivan Derzhanski and three members of the organising committee of the Moscow Linguistics Olympiad, namely Boris Iomdin, Elena Muravenko and Maria Rubinstein. There were more people involved, and the IOL built on traditions from the Russian and Bulgarian contests. Not everyone who had an impact on the IOL is listed by name here.
Around that time, there were linguistic olympiads held in Russia, Bulgaria, the Netherlands and the US. The IOL borrowed many of its procedures from the Moscow contest (e.g. that there are precisely five problems at the individual contest) and others from Bulgaria (e.g. that there is a team contest as well). Also from the Moscow and Bulgarian contests came the idea of guest participation, that not full members can take part at their own cost, which still exists in the IOL today.
The participating countries of the first contest in 2003 were: Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, the Netherlands and Russia. For a full list of how many countries have taken part each year, please follow this link.
Why was this not around when I was a kid?!
Are you really sure it wasn’t? It might not have existed, it’s rather new in many places in the world. Why not make a currently young person happy by recommending this to them, or get involved in your own country’s national linguistic olympiad?
Why is the International Linguistics Olympiad abbreviated as IOL?
The abbreviated name of the Olympiad was expressly chosen so as not to represent its name in any particular language. Each language has its own name (in its own language) for the Olympiad, but none of them (so far) matches the initials IOL. In case you think this strange, it was modelled on the similar policy of the ISO (International Organisation for Standardisation). As you might expect from an organisation concerned with languages and linguistics, the IOL is firmly committed to equality of opportunity as regards use of participants’ own language.
Who creates the problem set for the IOL?
The Problem Committee, a group of scholars from all over the world with expertise in constructing problems.
Who corrects the problems?
The Jury of the IOL typically consists of a subset of the Problem Committee. The Local Organising Committee pays for the Jury’s expenses (including travel) during the contest.
How does the multilingual creation of problems work?
The problems are not drafted wholly in one language, so to help authors writing in different languages come up with something consistent, the problem writers use a number of templates (often recurring phrases based on previous problems) which guarantee the translation between languages.
If you want to read more about how this works, read this: Derzhanski, Ivan (2013) Multilingual Editing of Linguistic Problems, In Proceedings of the Fourth Workshop on Teaching NLP and CL, Sofia, Bulgaria: Association for Computational Linguistics 27–34. Avaiable at http://aclweb.org/anthology/W13-3404. [in English] Ivan Derzhanski is one of the founders of the international contest, a constant member of the Problem Committee and Jury and co-chair of the Board of the IOL. (He is also an impressive polyglot.)
How does the multilingual correcting work?
As well as receiving the problem set in their own language, the contestants also submit (in handwriting) their solutions in their own language. The Jury is not divided into different subsections by language, but by problem. So a group of Jury members grade all solutions for one problem, in all languages. There is of course collaboration within the Jury so that people with more knowledge of certain languages help in correction of all problems in that language.
Isn’t there a slight risk that someone knows a language that occurs in the problem?
Yes, there is a risk that this might happen. The Problem Committee tries its best to avoid this, but of course they cannot correctly guess all the languages known by all participants. There are, however, more than 7,000 languages in the world and grammars for at least 2,500 of them. In other words there are lots of options to choose from!
This is not a test of knowing many languages, but it is worth knowing that knowing many languages will most likely improve your performance in this contest.
Isn’t there a slight chance that the different versions aren’t identical, giving some participants an advantage and others a disadvantage?
Yes, this possibility exists and the Problem Committee works hard at making the contest as fair as possible. Team leaders typically read the problem set critically after it has been given out and forward any complaints to the Jury. Complaints are however very rare.
What are the rules during the individual contest at the IOL?
During the individual contest contestants are sat in a large room together with fellow participants. Each has their own writing space and seat. They should bring pencils, sharpeners and erasers, but paper is provided. They may use coloured pens, but not red coloured pen as this is used by the Jury later.
The competition takes place under familiar ?exam conditions?. During the entire contest time contestants must be quiet and not disturb their fellow participants. Eating and drinking are allowed, but under the condition that it is done as quietly as possible. The local organisers provide some kind of sustenance during the contest. Most dietary requirements can be catered for if notified in advance.
The time for the individual contest is normally six hours. During this time contestants are not allowed any contact with anyone else but invigilators and Jury members. That means no contact with fellow participants, team leaders, people in the outside world, books or internet resources. Contestants are to use their skills and the information in the problem set to construct the solutions. Mobile phones, smartphones, tablets, laptops etc are entirely forbidden. Needless to say, anyone found cheating will be disqualified from the contest.
If anyone needs to leave the contest locale for toilet visits, they can indicate this to the invigilator. They may also ask questions about the problem set, but only if a typo or ambiguity in the problem set is suspected. The invigilator will contact a Jury member to pass on the question. But any other sort of question, in particular to explain the meaning of any unknown words, or to clarify what is requested, will probably not be answered. This is another reason why contestants are recommended to request the problem set in their own language.
The Jury members have a lot of solutions to correct, so answers should be written clearly and legibly. Separate sheets should be used for each problem: the Jury is divided up into teams per problem and if the solutions to two different problems are written on the same sheet this causes difficulties. A piece of advice: solutions should include not only the “answer” but also observations about what regularities, patterns and rules have been observed, though the Jury is interested in “how” the problem was solved as such. Multiple alternative answers will not get any credit, even if one of them is correct.
Contestants may keep the sheets with the problem set afterwards. They are only allowed to see the problem set in one language during the individual contest, even if they understand more than one language.
What are the rules during the team contest at the IOL?
The same rules apply at the team contest as at the individual, with a few changes. Please read the rules for the individual contest thoroughly.
Contestants work in teams, which means that they are allowed to talk to up to 3 more people. Only one solution per team is handed in. The problem set will exist in several languages, but teams are only allowed one language during the team contest. So, if members of the team can understand several languages, they are still only allowed to see the problem set for the team contest in one of these languages.
Teams are accommodated in their own room with an invigilator, who may be asked about toilet visits or questions about the problem set. The Jury will be walking around answering questions, similarly to the individual contest. The invigilator can call their attention or the attention of local organisers if needed.