The North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad is an annual competition open to US high school students that introduces kids to computational linguistics at a much younger age than people normally hear about it. I didn’t hear about CL until I was three years into my undergrad program. The instant I did hear about it, I knew I wanted to do it. Most people I talk to about it, look like I’ve just uttered a phrase of Klingon. I suspect most people don’t hear about it at all, or if they do, it’s sometime during their undergrad program and not at the beginning, when they might be better able to plan their educational career path. Also, CL is pretty much a graduate program and rarely taught before then. Granted, a lot of the maths involved are beyond what’s taught to high school students and early undergrads, but the linguistics is not. And thinking about linguistics computationally is not. So NACLO is doing an extremely valuable service which I support completely. And not just because one of my professors is one of the General Chairs of the organizing committee for it. She no longer can affect my grade and I have no need to suck up — so this is genuine. How’s that for full disclosure?
One of my google alerts popped up a post on a spam blog I tracked down to this original post, which talks about a lot of young kids doing some great things in science. In the post is an interview with last year’s winner, Adam Hesterberg. He said, “I’d never studied linguistics, and ‘computation’ sounded like boring calculation.” That reminded me of the fact that computation might mean a different thing for most people than it does for scientists. I’m no corpus linguist, so I’m not gonna try to find out right here. What I suspect is that computation has a more “hard work” connotation for people outside of science: it’s the “plugging and chugging” meaning. Inside science, it’s tacked onto the beginning of some other field to mean anything in that field that can be computed. Computational linguistics deals with the computable aspects of linguistic theories. A very quick search on wikipedia finds at least a dozen other computational fields:
Is it a good idea to use this name when approaching high school students? What about language technologies? Well, the competition isn’t about language technologies, it’s about critical problem solving in a linguistics setting. And trying to fit that into a competition name isn’t going to work, either. North American Critical Problem Solving about Linguistics Olympiad (NACPSLO)? It makes me think of narcolepsy.
So my proposal is North American Logic and Language Olympiad (NALLO). It’s easy to say (rhymes with hallow) and accurately describes the subject matter. Plus, I think it has broader appeal. A lot of kids are interested in logic, language, or both. It shakes free of the negative connotation of computation and draws kids where they can be introduced to it a little more easily. The downside is that it doesn’t mention linguistics directly, so that might trouble some people who are a little more traditional about their outreach.
What do you think?