How IIITH Is Putting The Accent On The Science Of Languages

The Indian contingent is back from the International Linguistics Olympiad 2023 with an individual silver medal and three honourable mentions. Year after year, IIITH plays a significant role – from organising the national selection program in partnership with Microsoft Research India to mentoring the Indian team for the international finale.  

If you play a word association game where the term ‘Olympiad’ is given, chances are that it will elicit instantaneous responses of ‘Maths’, ‘Science’, ‘English’ and even ‘Informatics’ among others but ‘Linguistics’ will probably not be one of them. It is rather unfortunate because the International Linguistics Olympiad (IOL) is one of the 12 International Science Olympiads that has been conducted since 2003. In India, a national level program began to be held from 2009, titled the Panini Linguistics Olympiad (PLO) from which top performing high school students (from Grade 9 to 12) are selected to represent India at the IOL. After round 1 of the PLO, a select cohort of students from across India is invited to a 10-day residential camp conducted jointly by the International Institute of Information Technology Hyderabad (IIITH) in collaboration with Microsoft Research, JNU Delhi, and the University of Mumbai with active support from regional coordinators such as the Chennai Mathematical Institute, IIT Guwahati, SNLTR Kolkata and IIT Patna

Selection Camp
On IIITH campus, all participants are mentored and trained by experts in linguistics and computational linguistics. “IIITH is a research leader in Natural Language Processing, Machine Translation, Speech Processing, Information Extraction and so on, with an emphasis on Indian languages. Hence it’s natural for us to host the final round of PLO on our campus. Plus, it’s a pleasure to have such kids on campus anyway!,” exclaims Prof. P J Narayanan, Director, IIITH. Students clearing the first level of the Panini Olympiad come armed with only an informal level of preparation. Hence the camp organised by IIITH helps them in reaching a common formal base level required for international participation. Apart from knowledgeable faculty from the Linguistics lab, there’s a mix of guest speakers who take lectures on various topics such as phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, and so on. Each day culminates with a problem solving session with problems pertaining to that day’s topic. 

What makes the Linguistics Olympiads particularly appealing to talented youngsters is that it does not rely on any previous knowledge of a language, or any kind of educational background, so memorization of facts is pointless. Problem-solving instead relies on an innate logical ability to infer associations between familiar and unfamiliar words incidentally revealing novel insights into other cultures too. For instance, think of a word you have never heard of before. Now, imagine being asked to give its plural form. If you thought you only had to add an “s”, think again because it takes a combination of clever deduction, reasoning and cross-cultural perceptivity to solve problems such as this. 

Logical Hats On
The participating Linguistics Olympiad community however is so niche that there are only a couple of hundred registrations for PLO as opposed to the thousands and thousands of registrations that the other Olympiads typically receive. This is due to a lack of awareness of Linguistics in general. Often mistaken for polyglotism, its erroneous association with ‘Languages’ and the Humanities carries some stigma that goes along with it. “It’s just like a game or a puzzle that you need to solve, for which one has to look for patterns in it,” explains Srija Mukhopadyaya, 3rd year BTech in Computer Science and Master of Science in Computational Linguistics by Research. As one of the team leaders who accompanied the 2023 Indian contingent to the International Linguistics Olympiad held at Bulgaria from July 23-29 along with Prof. Manish Shrivastava from the Language Translation Research Centre at IIITH, Srija is on an awareness mission. “My long standing joke is that the hardest part of the IOL or the PLO is discovering the Olympiad itself! Because the moment you find it, you start getting interested and that becomes fun and there’s no turning back really,” she says. 

IIITH and the Olympiad Mode of Admissions
Anshul Krishnadas Bhagwat may have been all of 5 or 6 when he cracked his first ‘linguistic puzzle’. “It was the realisation that Indo-Aryan languages and Dravidian languages belonged to different language families,” he states, quickly adding that he may not have been able to phrase it so well back then. The understanding was definitely there though and it sparked the youngster’s tryst with the scientific field of the study of language. Anshul is one of three participants from India who won an Individual Honourable Mention at the IOL. He is also now a freshman at IIITH studying a BTech in Computer Science. IIITH offers a special mode of admission to students who are selected for training to represent India at the International Olympiads in Mathematics, Science, Informatics or Linguistics. Speaking about why IIITH was the best choice for him, Anshul mentions, “It is reputed for innovation and openness. I knew I did not want to be held back by a rigid curriculum and conservative policies”. Incidentally, Srija’s admission to IIITH too happened via the Olympiad mode. “Unfortunately, I was from the Covid batch and that year the IOL was cancelled. But I got a chance to live the experience by being a team leader for this year’s IOL at Bulgaria,” she smiles. Srija makes a compelling point when she mentions that while high school students with a single-minded focus on obtaining admission into reputed engineering colleges typically stay away from competitions promising fun, it is ironic that the same “puzzle-solving” competition can actually help in securing a coveted seat at IIITH.  

Awareness Is Key
While there is an informal Linguistics community that thrives on the IIITH campus, it’s heartening to note that many students from other disciplines (non-Linguistics) volunteered during the camp held for national selection. “So many of those with no background in Linguistics wanted to help out just because they found it interesting,” recounts Srija. As a highschooler who represented India globally, Anshul hopes to have spread awareness about Linguistics and the IOL amongst his juniors in school and elsewhere around him. “But I do not yet know how to motivate more young Indians to participate,” he rues. 

To learn more about the Olympiad, click here.

Sarita Chebbi is a compulsive early riser. Devourer of all news. Kettlebell enthusiast. Nit-picker of the written word especially when it’s not her own.



  1. When will be plo 24 held?

    Abhay says:

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