How To Advance In the North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

How To Advance In the North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad

Computational Linguistics is an interdisciplinary field that uses computers to process and analyze human language. This rapidly growing field has numerous applications in various industries. The North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad (NACLO) is an annual competition to inspire high school students to pursue Computational Linguistics and related fields.

What is the North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad? A Quick Look

NACLO is a contest where high school students solve linguistic problems, enhancing their logic skills and understanding of language diversity and consistency. No prior knowledge of linguistics or second languages is needed. 

Experts in linguistics and computational language technologies create problems using various languages, reflecting current field issues. The competition attracts top students to pursue studies and careers in these areas, offering them a glimpse into 21st-century natural-language processing.

NACLO, first held in 2006, has grown into a popular competition with thousands of high school students from North America participating each year. It is organized by dedicated volunteers, including university professors, high school teachers, and industry professionals. They create challenging problems that test students’ skills in areas like syntax, morphology, semantics, and pragmatics.

Participating in NACLO is a fantastic way for high school students to explore their interest in Computational Linguistics and related fields. The problems are designed to be tough but also accessible, even if you have no prior experience. NACLO offers a fun and engaging way to learn about the field and its applications.

NACLO also allows students to compete with their peers and showcase their skills. The competition is well-respected by universities and industry professionals, and top-performing students can earn recognition and prizes. Besides the competition, NACLO supports teachers who want to introduce computational linguistics to their classrooms. They offer training materials, sample problems, and online resources to help teach these concepts.

How to Qualify for the North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad

To qualify for the North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad (NACLO), high school students must start by taking the Open Round. This is a 3-hour online test open to any high school student, typically held in January or February. Students can register for the test on the NACLO website.

a group of students studying together

The Open Round features linguistics problems in areas like syntax, morphology, semantics, and pragmatics. These problems are challenging but designed to be accessible, even for students without prior experience.

Top performers from the Open Round are invited to the Invitational Round, a 4.5-hour in-person test held at various locations across North America. This round includes more advanced linguistics problems.

The best students from the Invitational Round can qualify for the International Linguistics Olympiad (ILO), an annual event held in different countries. The ILO brings together top students from around the world to compete in linguistics problem-solving.

There are three rounds in total for the North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad:

  • Open Round: The initial 3-hour online test is open to all high school students.
  • Invitational Round: A 4.5-hour in-person test for top performers from the Open Round.
  • International Linguistics Olympiad (ILO): The final round for top performers from the Invitational Round, held annually in different countries.

Open Round

The Open Round is available to all interested middle and high school students. Its purpose is to introduce students to linguistics and computational linguistics while identifying those who will advance to the Invitational Round.

The Open Round will take place on January 25, 2024.

Invitational Round

This round offers a fun and educational challenge with more difficult problems for students who did well in the Open Round. NACLO also uses this round to identify students for the North American teams competing in the International Linguistics Olympiad (IOL), provided they meet IOL eligibility requirements.

If your school is closed for Spring Break on this date, you can participate at a nearby university or secondary school. Check naclo.org for a list of NACLO host sites. Only locations with students invited to the Invitational Round may be available. If you can’t find a nearby site, please contact [email protected] for assistance.

The Invitational Round was on March 14, 2024. 

International Linguistics Olympiad 

The International Linguistics Olympiad (IOL) is a global competition where high school students solve complex linguistic problems. It’s one of the 13 International Science Olympiads. Students qualify by excelling in regional contests like NACLO in North America. The IOL has two rounds: an individual round where students work alone on problems and a team round where they solve more complex problems together. These problems cover areas like grammar, sounds, meanings, and writing systems.

Top performers receive awards based on their solutions’ accuracy and creativity. Besides competing, students get to meet peers from different countries and learn about various languages and cultures. The IOL takes place in a different country each year, making it an exciting and diverse experience. It not only tests linguistic skills but also promotes international friendship and learning.

Young man talking to his teacher in the hallway.

The International Linguistics Olympiad (IOL) 2024 will take place from July 23 to July 31 in Brasília, Brazil. 

Location Details: University Sites

Many colleges and universities host the NACLO contest. You can find available locations listed on the NACLO website. To participate at one of these sites, select the location when you register online. The site host will contact registered students with directions and important information about the contest day. Most university sites also have a NACLO webpage with relevant details.

If your school is sending several students to a university site, they might arrange a school bus. If not, you’ll need to arrange your own transportation with the help of your parents and teachers.

On contest day, the contest booklets are handed out at the designated starting time, and the facilitator will announce when to start working on the problems.

Some universities may use the contest to reach out to students interested in studying linguistics or computer science. They may provide information on careers in linguistics and language technologies and how you can study these fields in college.

Location Details: High School Sites

Over 130 high schools host NACLO. If your high school isn’t a registered site but wants to host NACLO 2024, you and your teacher need to register. Here’s how:

  • Teacher Preparation: Ask your teacher to read the Coordinator Handbook available at NACLO Coordinator Handbook.
  • School Registration: Your teacher should register the school here.
  • Host Registration: Your teacher should then register as a High School Host here.
  • Student Registration: Students can register to participate here.

For a list of high school site locations, visit the North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad website.

NOTE: Please only register to participate at a high school site if you are enrolled there, unless the site specifically states it is open to all students.

University sites are open to all eligible contestants. Most high school sites are only open to their own students unless otherwise specified. If your high school is not on the list and there is no nearby university site, please contact a teacher or staff member at your school to host NACLO. Ask them to register your school and share the Coordinator Handbook with them.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Who is qualified to join the North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad?

To participate in NACLO, you must meet all of the following criteria:

  • Educational Status: You have never been enrolled as a full-time college or university student.
  • Age Limit: You must be less than 20 years old on the first day of the IOL. Check the exact dates at IOL Upcoming Dates.
  • Citizenship or Residency: You must be a citizen of the US or Canada, or a student in a secondary school in the US or Canada.
  • Availability: You must be available to participate in the contest at one of the times it’s offered.
  • Participation Location: You can either participate at a registered university site or find a teacher or librarian who can run a high school site.

2. Can homeschooled students participate?

If you are homeschooled (according to the official rules of your state or province), you can still register for NACLO. Ask your parents to follow the instructions in the NACLO Coordinator Handbook.

three students studying outside

3. Is NACLO prestigious?

Yes, NACLO (North American Computational Linguistics Open) is prestigious because it challenges high school students with complex linguistic problems, serves as a qualifier for the International Linguistics Olympiad (IOL), and is recognized by universities and industry professionals.

4. What are the prizes awarded during the North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad?

During the North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad (NACLO), participants can win various prizes and recognitions.

  • Top Performers: The highest-scoring students in both the Open Round and the Invitational Round receive certificates and medals.
  • Advancement to the International Linguistics Olympiad (IOL): The best-performing students in the Invitational Round are selected to represent their countries at the IOL.
  • Special Awards: NACLO also gives special awards for the best solutions to particular problems.

5. Is there an online option for the competition?

NACLO will not offer an online option in 2024. However, US and Canadian students living abroad can inquire about participation by contacting [email protected].

6. How is the competition scored? 

Each problem in the competition is assigned a specific point value, with harder problems generally worth more points. Judges will evaluate each solution based on correctness, quality, and clarity, and the overall score will be the sum of the individual solution scores. The scoring process will be completed, and results announced, ideally within three to six weeks after the competition. The judges have the sole authority to score the solutions, make rulings on unforeseen situations, and select the winners; their decisions are final.

7. Is North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad easy?

NACLO is definitely not easy. NACLO is designed to challenge and engage high school students interested in language and technology. The problems cover areas like syntax, morphology, semantics, and pragmatics. They are accessible even without prior experience, but the difficulty can vary each year.

Some students may find the problems challenging, while others may find them easier. The competition’s goal is not just to solve problems correctly but also to inspire students to explore computational linguistics. Even if you don’t perform as well as you hoped, participating in NACLO is a valuable learning experience that can spark your interest in language and

Female students smiling while writing on the board during an activity.

8. Are there costs involved?

Participation in NACLO is generally free for students. However, there may be some costs associated with specific circumstances:

  • Travel and Accommodation: If students need to travel to a university or high school site to participate, they might incur travel and accommodation expenses. Some schools might arrange transportation, but this is not guaranteed.
  • Hosting Fees: If a school or organization is hosting a NACLO site, there might be some administrative or logistical costs, though these are usually minimal.
  • Materials and Resources: While participation itself is free, students or schools might choose to purchase additional study materials or resources for preparation, but this is optional.

9. What type of problems should I expect at the North American Computational Linguistics Open (NACLO)?

At the North American Computational Linguistics Open (NACLO), you’ll encounter various types of questions designed to test your problem-solving skills in linguistics. Here are some common question types you might face:

  • Translation Problems: You’ll be given sentences in a foreign language and their English translations. Your task is to learn from these translations and then translate new sentences either to or from English. The foreign languages may have unfamiliar structures or grammar.
  • Calendar Systems: These questions involve figuring out the calendar system used by a specific civilization based on provided sentences.
  • Number Problems: You’ll see sentences in a foreign language that display arithmetic facts (e.g., “four times four is sixteen”). Your job is to figure out how to translate different numbers and expressions, keeping in mind that different languages represent numbers in various ways.
  • Writing Systems: These problems require you to understand a particular writing system and use it to transcribe given texts. The languages might have writing formats very different from English.
  • Formal Problems: Here, “formal” refers to building a logical model of language. For example, you might need to convert passive voice sentences to active voice by using the correct verb forms.
  • Phonological Problems: You’ll need to determine the relationship between the sounds of a language and its writing system.
  • Computational Problems: These questions involve developing a procedure for a specific linguistic task that could be performed by a computer.

While these are some common types of questions, be prepared for unexpected challenges that may not fit neatly into these categories. The NACLO website has a dedicated page where you can find past problems.

Maximizing Your North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad Experience and Advancing

To maximize your NACLO experience and increase your chances of advancing, follow these practical steps:

Step 1: Understand the Competition

  • Familiarize Yourself with NACLO: Read the official NACLO student handbook to understand the competition format, types of problems, and scoring criteria.
  • Know the Rules: Ensure you are aware of all the rules and requirements, including eligibility criteria and important dates.

Step 2: Build a Strong Foundation in Linguistics

  • Learn Basic Linguistics Concepts: Understanding fundamental linguistic concepts such as syntax, morphology, semantics, phonology, and pragmatics is crucial.

Books to Read:

  • “The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language” by John H. McWhorter
  • “An Introduction to Language” by Victoria Fromkin, Robert Rodman, and Nina Hyams

Online Resources:

  • “Linguistics 101” on YouTube channels like “The Ling Space” and CrashCourse Linguistics
  • Online courses on Coursera, such as “Miracles of Human Language: An Introduction to Linguistics”

Step 3: Practice Problem-Solving Skills

  • Work on Practice Problems: Regularly solve past NACLO problems and other computational linguistics puzzles to improve your problem-solving skills.
  • NACLO Practice Problems: Available on the NACLO website
  • Sample Problems: Websites like LingClub offer additional practice problems.


  • “How to Solve It: Modern Heuristics” by Zbigniew Michalewicz and David B. Fogel

Step 4: Engage with the Linguistics Community

  • Join Online Forums and Groups: Participate in online forums such as the NACLO Discord server or Reddit communities like r/linguistics to discuss problems and share solutions.
  • Attend Workshops and Webinars: Look for workshops or webinars related to computational linguistics and problem-solving.

Step 5: Develop Computational Skills

  • Learn Basic Programming: Familiarize yourself with basic programming concepts, as computational linguistics often involves coding.


  • “Python for Linguists: Introduction to Programming for Language Analysis” by Mike Kestemont

Online Courses:

Step 6: Take Mock Tests

  • Simulate the Exam Environment: Regularly take timed mock tests to get used to the pressure and improve your time management skills.

Resources for Mock Tests:

  • Use past NACLO problems available on the NACLO website and simulate the testing environment at home.

Step 7: Analyze and Learn from Mistakes

  • Review Past Solutions: After solving practice problems or taking mock tests, review the solutions and understand any mistakes you made.


  • Detailed solutions to past NACLO problems, often discussed in forums or provided by teachers and mentors.

Step 8: Read Widely

  • Expand Your Knowledge: Read widely about different languages, their structures, and writing systems to build a broad understanding.


  • “The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language” by Steven Pinker

Blogs and Websites:

  • “Language Log” and “All Things Linguistic”

By following these steps and utilizing the recommended resources, you can enhance your preparation for NACLO, improve your problem-solving skills, and increase your chances of advancing to the next round.

Is the North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad worth the time and effort?

Participating in NACLO is worth your time and effort for several reasons. Firstly, the competition is prestigious. NACLO is known for its challenging problems and serves as a qualifier for the International Linguistics Olympiad (IOL), where top-performing students compete globally. Success in NACLO shows advanced analytical and problem-solving skills, making it a notable achievement on your academic record.

a female student in a library

While NACLO itself doesn’t offer monetary awards or scholarships, the skills and recognition you gain can indirectly benefit you financially. High-performing students often attract attention from universities and scholarship committees, leading to scholarship opportunities. Being a NACLO participant or winner strengthens your college application, showcasing your dedication, intellectual curiosity, and ability to tackle complex problems—qualities highly valued by admissions officers.

Lastly, NACLO promotes significant self-improvement. The competition helps you develop critical thinking, logical reasoning, and computational skills. It encourages a deep understanding of linguistics and exposes you to new languages and problem-solving techniques. Even if you don’t win, the process of preparing for and participating in NACLO is an enriching educational experience that fosters a love for learning and personal growth.


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