Friday, July 28, 2017

Non-european countries in the IOL - more wanted please



It is well-known that most of the delegations that partake in the IOL are from Europe. I'd like to give a little background to this, and also invite more non-european delegations in. If you can help, be in touch. 

This is something I've thought a lot about before, and it was recently brought to the forefront of my mind by the funny blog post "Relief As Registration Closes Before Any African Countries Sign Up" by the satire blog Linguistics Olympiad News Network (yes, we're apparently famous enough to spawn satire and memes).


After the announcement of the countries participating in IOL in Dublin, there was relief visible on the faces of the IOL Problem Committee, who had been waiting in dread at the possibility of a team from Africa going to the competition.
 [...]
 In an LNNO exclusive, IOL media correspondent Hedvig Skirgård told us about the last minute panic when Simona Klemenčič opened her email account to see a registration request from a linguistics professor at the University of Dar es Salaam. She told us, “Having consulted with the problem committee who had written three out of the five problems on languages from Tanzania, we regrettably realised that the deadline for registration happened to fall just prior to the email. We wish Tanzania all the best for Prague 2018.” 

The blog post was very funny, as someone who has worked with the IOL for quite some time now I found it unusually spot-on. It clearly plays on the fact that since Africa as a continent and Papua New Guinea as a country contains a VAST amount of linguistic diversity, languages from these areas of the world make for great material for linguistic puzzles. I fully understand that the message was not that we would exclude participants from these countries on any other basis than "to make it easier for our Problem Committee and Jury". Now, I'll get to why that isn't true later, but first some background to the bias.

Map from Worldmapper where the countries size have been scaled to represent the relative number of languages within that country compared to the rest of the world.
© Copyright Sasi Group (University of Sheffield) and Mark Newman (University of Michigan).
This satirical blog post did make me think of the more pertinent and serious issue of dominance of European countries. There are reasons for this bias, they're mainly historical, but also in part economical. The contest started in Russia and the first international contests were dominated by slavic countries (IOL history is here). The contest later grew to include first non-slavic countries and then non-european countries. The IOL does not run each contest, it's run by local organizers. This means that it is significantly harder for developing countries and countries lacking the necessary infrastructure.

Countries and territories of the IOL

Nowadays, we don't speak of "countries" of the IOL as much as "countries and territories", in order to accurately represent participating delegations like those from Anglo- and Francophone Canada respectively and Isle of Man.

Here is a list of all 43 countries and territories that have partaken at least once:  Canada Francophone, France, Israel, Lithuania, Norway, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, Vietnam, Finland, Greece, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Turkey, Germany, Isle of Man, Japan, Spain, Taiwan, Brazil, China, Hungary, Singapore, Canada Anglophone, Czech Republic, Romania, Australia, India, Ireland, UK, Republic of Korea, Slovenia, Serbia, Sweden, USA, Poland , Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Netherlands and Russia.


Of those, 30 have an accredited contest. Meaning, there's a contest in that country or territory that the IOL-board has deemed lives up to our criteria and can receive lower registration fees and participate for more than 2 years.


The criteria for being accredited are:



  1. be a contest that features problems about linguistics or a closely related field
  2. have a working website that is not excluded from search engine results
  3. be open to all students up to secondary level in the country (i.e not restricted to certain schools or programmes)
  4. display clear information about registration and competing well in advance
  5. have the problem set in the language of the majority of the population or the language of education
  6. have details on how to contact the contest organizers on the website

IOL does not run each contest - the economical problem

In order to understand this situation, you also need to understand that the IOL does not directly run each and every national or territory-wide contest. There are separate organisations who do that, they create their own problems and seek their own funding. In order to do this, there needs to be serious enthusiasm and involvement from a group of people and backing from either a non-profit organisation, universities or the ministry of education. On the problem-creating-front, it's worth noting that several national/territory-contest collaborate with each other and share problems.

Contrary to what you might think, we actually often receive messages from people in non-european countries who are not yet part of IOL, but who want to join. They contact us here and we try and help as best we can. 
There's been messages from Uganda, Egypt, Nigeria, Guatemala, Nepal, Kenya, Malaysia and more countries. We then tell them about what would be needed in order to start up a contest, and most of the time they can't meet those requirements and we lose contact. This is sad, and now you know.

In particular, the obstacle is often finding the funds to organise a contest that is
 open too all secondary school students of the country/territory (not just one school) and paying the air fares etc for the international contest.

The economical bit isn't the only factor though, there are countries that partake every year that have lower GDP than some who have never partaken (cough, Italy, cough). There is also the matter of there being hard working volunteers and the infrastructure (support from ministry of education, companies or non-profits).

The Maths Olympiad can, so why can't we?
The International Mathematical Olympiad covers 100 countries and is in some ways similar to the IOL (though much older). My hope is that we will also become as large. The obstacles we're facing are partly economical, but there's also the fact that linguistics isn't taught as a basic subject in schools. We won't let this deter us though, we'll keep aiming high and spreading knowledge about languages, linguistics and our olympiad!

Would the Problem Committee (PC) really prefer that fewer non-european countries join?

Of course not, I take that as a given.

First let's talk about the languages the problems are in, not aboutThe PC has in the past shown great talent in scouting out language experts to help with translation of problem sets for the participants (all without the knowledge of the national/territory team leaders or organisers). I have no doubt they can take anything we throw at them. Note that the languages of the IOL need to be dominant or official in the country of the contest, so we are not selecting from all 7,000+ languages of the world.


For those who might not know: the problem committee does not work with a base version of the problem in English and then translates into the others. They work with a version in a between language Ivan chooses to call "solverese". If you want to read more about multilingual editing of the IOL problems, we propose that you read this paper written by the Ivan:




Now to the issue of the language the problems are about, rather than in. It is true that the PC seeks to make problems about languages that the contestants are unlikely to know.


(The closest we've come in the past to the issue of participants knowing the language of the problem must have been when Australia competed and there was a problem in Vietnamese. That turned out alright in the end, phew!)


Furthermore, most languages are spoken by few people. This is a sad fact, but necessary to relate. This makes it easier to pick a language the contestants do not know, even if they're from language dense areas. Here's a diagram showing the population per language, based on the 19th edition of Ethnologue.







Here is a table from Ethnologue that tries to explain this as well, a bit niftier.


Table from Ethnologue summarising the number of speakers per language.

For further background, of the 7,000+ languages in the world there are grammars or grammar sketches of approximately 3,500 of them (Glottolog). Participants of the IOL are not likely to know all of these, even if participants from Africa or PNG would make the scope smaller there's still plenty left. If we then add to that that most grammars of languages of the world are written in languages the PC knows, that makes it even "easier" for them. Not that this is an easy task, but you get my drift.
Languages, coloured by which language the grammar of it is in. By Harald Hammarström, based on Glottolog.org. Read more here.
Help us spread the contest to more places
Finally, we do want there to be linguistic olympiads in more places than there currently are. If you think you can lend a hand with that, do let us know. Perhaps you're a local linguist who would like to make problems? An employee at Google/Apple/Microsoft who could persuade the company to allocate some funds for a local contest? A keen student or teacher who'd like to get together a group and set something up? Or a  meming former contestant who would like to give even more back?

Be in touch!

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