Bringing linguistics to schools

One of the recurring questions discussed during the last week’s event on multilingualism in Finland and in Russia was how to make people see the significance of multilingualism. University lecturer Ekaterina Protassova, a specialist on multilingualism in education, suggested that one of the ways would be to introduce linguistics as a separate discipline to the school curriculum. Indeed, school children learn so much about various aspects of the world they live in, but their exposure to languages is usually limited to learning how to speak a couple of foreign ones and where to put a comma when writing in their mother tongue. A theoretical course in linguistics would provide students with the understanding of how diverse languages are and how important it is to preserve and promote multilingualism in all its forms to the greatest possible extent.

To my knowledge, this idea has not yet been implemented anywhere in the world. The realization would require a huge number of specially trained teachers, brand new teaching materials and, of course, the will of those in charge to make changes in the educational system. However, some 50 years ago in Moscow, a relatively simple way to familiarize school students with new and exciting language phenomena was found, which became known as olympiads in linguistics. The tasks in these competitions require no prior knowledge of linguistics or languages, but rather test participants’ logical abilities and willingness to think around corners to unveil linguistic mysteries. National olympiads have become a tradition in many countries, including Russia, US, UK, Sweden, Estonia, Netherlands, Brazil, and many others. In Poland, over 3500 students take part in the competition every year. Since 2003, an International Linguistics Olympiad has also been organized, and over 40 teams are expected to participate in the upcoming one, which will take place this summer in Mysore, India.

Last year we organized the first linguistic competition in Finland focusing on linguistic diversity. The languages that featured in the competition ranged from endangered aboriginal languages spoken in Australia and Papua New Guinea, to Tagalog, an official language of the Philippines, and even the special language of gestures employed by the stockbrokers in exchange trading. The competition was held online, and attracted 57 participants from over 20 municipalities all over Finland. The tasks also aroused interest among school teachers, who asked for more tasks to use them during the lessons.

This year’s competition will take place this weekend, April 16‒17. More information can be found at the webpage of the olympiad. If you know high school students who might be interested, tell them to join the fun!


Ksenia Shagal

PhD student in general linguistics at the University of Helsinki Project worker at Kone Foundation Organizer of the Finnish Olympiad in Linguistics