Friday, October 19, 2018

Undergraduate Linguistics Competition

When I was an undergraduate one of the most popular events at MIT was the robot building contest. 

Each team got an identical set of equipment and parts, and they had to build a robot. Then the robots competed with one another (this is as I remember it, it has been a while) in some task. This seemed like the ultimate experience of hands-on education. I have thought for a while about what would be a good parallel in linguistics. 

Obviously, for human subjects reasons, we cannot unleash two competitive teams onto two consultants. I am not sure it would be ethical to use consultants at all in this kind of competition. A particular problem is that the consultants would not be identical, and so one team might have an unfair advantage over the other. Also, better known languages could not be used, because they are widely available on the internet.

One possibility would be to choose some little known language (that lacked an internet presence). Teams would consist of 3 to 5 undergraduates, not necessarily from the same universities. Each team would be supplied with an hour long audio recording (or a set of recordings), and a loose translation of that recording into English. The teams would receive identical materials and no other materials would be provided. On the basis of these materials, each team would be asked to discover the basic phonetic, phonological, lexical, syntactic and semantic structure of the language. Perhaps the output could be a glossed translation of the audio file, a grammatical sketch (including a phonetics/phonology section) and a dictionary. The teams would be evaluated on the basis of these materials.

Teams would be able to use any kinds of technology and literature available. There would be no constraints. How could there be? They would be encouraged to use everything that they have ever learned about linguistics to complete the tasks. And they would be given a certain time to perform the tasks, e.g., two weeks to one month (or some similar length of time). 

The final products (and the evaluation of them) would be made available at a public presentation. The audience would get a chance to listen to the sound file (some part of it), the identity and location of the language would be revealed (as well as its classification). And parts of the grammatical sketch and dictionary would be showcased. 

Teams would be evaluated on how accurate the grammatical sketch and dictionary are, compared to an already completed grammatical sketch and dictionary.

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