NACLO Frequently Asked Questions

You may also find these questions, along with all other essential information about the contest, in the printer-friendly NACLO Handbook (Word file).

What is NACLO?

The North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad (NACLO) is a competition for middle-school and high-school students, which involes solving problems on linguistics and compuational linguistics. It consists of two rounds, called the Open Round (February 2) and Invitational Round (March 10). The first round is open to all interested students, while the second if for the contestants who have advanced from the first round. The winners of the second around will be invited to participate in the International Linguistics Olympiad.

Can middle-school and even younger students participate in the competition?

Yes. We welcome and encourage their participation, and we plan to have a separate ranking and special prize for the "young" contestants who are in the eight grade or below.

How do I register for the competition?

You should register through the NACLO web site; you may choose one of the two options:

  • Online / High School: Participate at your high school under the direction of a teacher.
  • Live / University: Participate at a local site under the direction of a professor.
If your city has a live site, we encourage you to participate at this site; a list of live sites is available at the NACLO web site.

Is there a registration fee for participating in the Open Round (February 2) or Invitational Round (March 10)?

The participation is free of charge, which means that students and teachers do not need to pay for the registration.

Note however that, if teachers organize a local competition site at their high school, rather than participating at one of the university sites, then they will incur expenses for printing the booklets and then either scanning the solutions or hard-mailing them to the conference organizers. The NACLO committee normally does not cover these local expenses.

How long is the competition?

The Open Round (February 2) will be three hours long; however, note that the judges have the authority to lengthen it in the event of unforeseen circumstances. The start time of the Open Round depends on the time zone:

Time zone Start End
Pacific 9:00am 12:00noon
Mountain 10:00am 1:00pm
Central 9:00am 12:00noon
Eastern 10:00am 1:00pm

Note that these start times are the beginning of the actual competition. The registration and other administrative activities happen earlier, and you should arrive at least thirty minutes before the start time.

The Invitational Round (March 10) will be five hours long; again, the judges have the authority to lengthen it.

What is the format of the competition?

It is similar to a typical written test or exam. The contestants get handouts with competition problems, and they submit their solutions in writing at the end of the competition.

How many problems should I expect?

You should expect 3-5 problems during the Open Round (February 2) and 5-7 harder problems during the Invitational Round (March 10).

What problem types should I expect?

You may encounter the following problem types; however, this list is not exhaustive, and you may also get problems of other types. The problems will contain all information required for solving them, and you do not need any specialized linguistic knowledge.

  • Translation problems: A problem includes a set of sentences in a foreign language and their translations into English, which may be in order or out of order. Your task is to learn as much as possible from these translations and then translate other given sentences to or from English. Note that the foreign language may have "tricky" structure and grammar. For example, German sentences often end in verbs. Japanese people talk differently about their family and about someone else's family. Some languages do not use articles or any equivalent of "to be." Others treat animate and inanimate objects differently. Be prepared to figure out these unusual features.
  • Number problems: A problem includes foreign sentences that describe basic arithmetic facts, such as "six times four is twenty-four," and your task is to figure out how to translate different numbers and expressions. Some languages use bases other than ten; others use different words for the same number depending on the objects being counted, etc.
  • Writing systems: Your task is to figure out how a particular writing system works, and then use it to write out a given text, such as an ancient inscription. Some languages are written right to left or top to bottom, others do not use vowels, etc.
  • Calendar systems: Your task is to figure out what calendar was used by a particular civilization based on sentences that refer to it.
  • Formal problems: In this context, "formal" means that you have to build a logical model of a language phenomenon. For example, a transformation rule may say "to convert an active voice sentence to passive voice, make the object of the former sentence the subject of the latter one, convert the verb to passive by using an appropriate form of the verb "to be" with the past participle of the verb, and add "by" before the word that was the subject of the former sentence." If we apply this rule to "Maya ate an apple," we get "An apple was eaten by Maya."
  • Phonological problems: Your task is to figure out the relationship between the sounds of a language and its writing system.
  • Computational problems: Your task is to develop a procedure to perform a particular linguistic task in a way that can be carried out by a computer.
  • Other types: Deciphering kinship systems, transcribing spoken dialog, associating sentences with images, and many other types.

Where can I find example problems and related reading materials?

You may find some reading materials on the NACLO website; note that these readings are not required for participation. You may also find example problems in the following archives:

You may find even more problems by searching the web for "ILO" or "linguistics olympiad", where "ILO" stands for "International Linguistics Olympiad".

What knowledge and skills do I need?

You mostly need logical thinking, as well as basic general knowledge, such as arithmetic and standard calendar. Since the competition is on a subject not taught in most schools, we have designed it for students with no prior training in linguistics, computer science, programming, or foreign languages.

What happens if I do well?

If you earn a high score at the Open Round (February 2), you will advance to the Invitational Round (March 10). The winners of the Invitational Round will represent the United States and Canada at the International Linguistics Olympiad.

If I advance to the International Linguistics Olympiad, will I have to pay for my trip?

We are working on the funding for participating in the international competition, and we will probably be able to provide funding for all teams; at the very least, the top team of the United States will have full funding. If you are a member of a team that does not have full funding, you would need to pay for your trip; of course, you may decline to participate if you are unable to make this payment.

How well did the United States do before?

2008: Two teams from the United States participated in the 2008 International Linguistics Olympiad, which was held in Sunny Beach, Bulgaria. The top US team tied for the first/second place, and the second team tied for the third/fourth place. Furthermore, one of the US contestants, Hanzhi Zhu, tied for the first/second/third place in the individual contest and received one of the three gold medals; two US contestants (Morris Alper and Anand Natarajan) received silver medals; and three US contestants (Rebecca Jacobs, Jeffrey Lim, and Guy Tabachnik) received bronze medals. You may find more information about the results at the web site of the International Linguistics Olympiad and related NSF press release.

2007: The United States participated in the International Linguistics Olympiad for the first time. The top US team tied for first place; furthermore, one of the US contestants, Adam Hesterberg, earned the highest score in the individual contest and won one of two "first diplomas".

How well did Canada do before?

In 2008, Canada participated in the NACLO competition for the first time; it has not yet participated in the International Linguistics Olympiad. We hope to send a Canadian team to the international competition in 2009, but its participation depends on the funding availability.

Questions about the site? Email azure [at] umich [dot] edu