Ma opening eyes to rhythms of language

Jan Garrison

Linguistics club recognized in China


January 29, 2021

Every language has a rhythm, a pattern. Whether it is Latin or Choctaw or Mayan or braille. Identifying those patterns is the basis behind computational linguistics. And, once a person unlocks those patterns,  she can start to translate one language into another.

Thursday, six masked Culver Academies students sat around a large circular table in Huffington Library for three hours participating in the North America Computational Linguistics Open. They were joined by two more Culver students still at home in China taking a specially designed home test, despite the 12-hour time difference.


Olivia Ma taking the test on Thursday.


For the second straight year, it was CGA junior Xinran (Olivia) Ma who pulled this group together even though she spent the first half of the school year at home in Shanghai. She arrived on campus after break and in time to take the test. In March, Ma and five other Chinese students will take the first round exam of the China Linguistics Olympiad.

Ma describes computational linguistics as “Soduko for language.” It uses logic skills to solve linguistic puzzles. No knowledge of linguistics or different languages is needed. By focusing on the patterns and rhythms of a language – including braille – people are able to figure out the translations. That is why a strong math and science background can be beneficial, she explained.

Speaking multiple languages can actually be a detriment, Ma added. Multilingual people often get bogged down in the details of conjugating verbs and declining nouns. That can cost you precious minutes during the timed test, she said. “It’s really easy to overthink this.”

Culver served as one of the regional testing sites due to the COVID-19 pandemic with Latin instructor with club sponsor Evan Dutmer serving as the proctor. The top 10 percent of all the American and Canadian students participating in Thursday’s competition will be invited to an invitational round this spring. Then, based on the results of that four-hour exam, teams representing the United States and Canada will be selected to participate in the international competition.

Last year, Ma didn’t finish in that top 10 percent. But when school closed in mid-March because of the pandemic and she returned to Shanghai, Ma still had time to sign up for the Chinese competition. Having taken the U.S. test and knowing what to expect, Ma qualified for the Chinese national final in mid-July, where she received an individual silver award and a group bronze award.

Starting the 2020-2021 school year online, Ma organized bi-weekly meetings with several of the other Asia-Pacific students. She would talk about linguistic background information and then lead everyone through different problems. With Dutmer as the sponsor and more than half of the club membership residing in China, Ma officially applied to have the Linguistics Olympiad Club of Culver Academies officially recognized. It is now the first linguistics club in China to include foreign members, she said.


Culver's official international certification


After she finished taking the NACLO test on Thursday, Ma said it “was much easier and more fun than last year, probably because I was better prepared.” Now she is hoping she and other Culver students can break into the top 10 percent in the U.S.; then repeat that performance when the Chinese Linguistics Olympiad is held in a couple of months.

“And if not,” she added, “I am hoping that next year we will!”

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