Pupils pit wits against language puzzles

It might look like Chinese — in fact, it is — but the students who figure out this problem could be making online shopping or computer gaming much easier within a few years.

This is the kind of question that was attempted by 100 teenagers at the finals of a national linguistics competition yesterday. But, rather than being about expertise in languages, the idea is to develop second- level students’ skills in logic and recognising patterns in unknown languages.

The end result of the efforts by the Centre for Next Generation Localisation (CNGL) at Dublin City University (DCU) should be to find researchers to design computer coding that will allow websites better recognise your buying patterns, or to offer quick and accurate translation of online content from a range of international languages.

“The All-Ireland Linguistics Olympiad challenges students to unlock information in unfamiliar languages, be it deciphering ancient Oriental scripts, interpreting old Norse expressions or translating genealogical terms in Hawaiian,” said CNGL education and outreach manager Cara Greene.

The centre is responding to the needs of a localisation sector worth around €680 million to the Irish economy. It will depend on the next generation of talented minds to further develop systems used by some of the world’s leaders in technology, such as Microsoft and IBM, and top gaming companies already operating in Ireland.

Ms Greene said the problem-solving puzzles require students to use logic and reasoning skills without having to understand the language at all.

“For online support manuals, it would take a million years to translate some of them, but adapting these skills can be used to translate things quickly and accurately. Or if you buy a book on a site like Amazon, the recommendations it will give you for future purchases are generated based on localisation codes we develop here,” she said.

Students from more than 30 schools were in DCU yesterday to test their skills, with a range of individual and team rounds set for them, and the results should be known later in the week.

Ailbhe Murray from Milltown Malbay, Co Clare, said she is not a maths or languages enthusiast but she enjoys puzzles.

“We just started it this year because we’re in transition year but it’s interesting, and it does make me think about other languages now,” said Ailbhe, one of six students at the finals from St Joseph’s Secondary School in Spanish Point.

The top four students from yesterday’s finals will represent Ireland at the International Linguistics Olympiad in Slovenia in July.

The CNGL is a collaboration between 10 industry partners and four colleges, DCU, Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin and University of Limerick. Its 150 researchers work with Irish and multi-national companies to advance how computers adapt and personalise software and digital content to different languages, cultures and the needs of individual users.

For the answers to the Chinese puzzle, see page 4.

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