Linguistics, Arrogance, KGB

The computational linguistics Olympiad started in Moscow in 1962. I first participated when I was in seventh grade. The Olympiad had two sets of problems: the first set was more difficult and meant for seniors, and the second set was for everyone else. Although the sets overlapped, they were significantly different. I should mention that the Soviet Union had 10 grades at that time and prizes were awarded by grade.

I achieved my best result when I was in ninth grade, just below the senior level. During the competition, I solved all the problems for non-seniors and still had a lot of time left. Luckily for me, both sets of problems were in the same booklet, so I proceeded to solve the problems for seniors.

I won two first place prizes: for my ninth grade and for the tenth grade, too.

The following year I was in tenth grade and I felt strange. I couldn’t compete on two levels as I was overqualified for non-seniors. So it was impossible to repeat my result. I could only go downhill — winning only one first place in the best case. So, I didn’t go to the competition at all.

Someone told me that I was arrogant not to go. But what they didn’t know was that I hadn’t been able to stop worrying: what if I didn’t win first place? All my friends cheered me on during my competitions, and I was afraid to let them down. To this day I can remember my fear of performing worse than the year before.

The organizers of the computational linguistics Olympiad had another reason to think I was arrogant. After my successes, they tried to persuade me to go into linguistics. I actually considered that until someone told me that all the computational linguistics majors are later employed by the KGB. The minute I heard that, I lost all interest in linguistics for many years to come. I told the organizers that all my success was due to my impeccable logic, not to my linguistics ability, so there was no point for me to go into linguistics. My arrogance was reaffirmed.

Recently my son Sergei started to compete in the computational linguistics Olympiad, which reminded me of how interesting linguistics can be. I wonder if Sergei will get a call from the CIA.


One Comment

  1. Felipe Pait:

    Great story! Thanks.

Leave a comment