All-Ireland Linguistics Olympiad

Public Theatre, Trinity College

25 March 2014

Good afternoon and welcome everybody to Trinity College.

As Provost, it gives me great pleasure to welcome you, the top 100 performers in the Irish Linguistics Olympiad, and your teachers and form masters. I’m delighted that Trinity is hosting this wonderful event, together with the Centre for Global Intelligent Content, or CNGL, which, as you know, is a Centre run by Trinity’s School of Computer Science together with DCU and is located here on campus.

As adults, there are some things which you really wish had been around when you were young. It’s not necessarily the obvious things. For example,I don’t particularly wish that we’d had mobile phones when I was at school. But I do envy you this competition. I’m an engineer by profession, and engineering is very much focused on problem-solving. And I always enjoyed languages. I know exactly how excited I would have been by a competition aimed at linguistic code-breaking, and problem-solving.

And of course the beauty of it is that it doesn’t require prior knowledge or having to study reams of material. It’s all down to reasoning, logic, lateral thinking, and patience.

As you may know, code-breaking was one of the skills that helped the Allies win the Second World War. The people recruiting code-breakers took an unusual approach. They didn’t just seek out those who came top in exams – they asked applicants whether they played crosswords and chess, and how quick they were at learning new languages. They were looking for people who could find patterns, and make surprising connections between pieces of information. Most of the people eventually hired had no previous experience of code-breaking but they turned out to be able to crack the toughest codes, and they helped win the war. People, I expect, very like you.

In Trinity, we want such students, which is why we’re delighted to be hosting the final of the Irish leg of the Olympiad.

A Trinity education has never been just about preparing students for their first job, it’s always been about preparing for life. We want our students to develop skills at critical thinking, and to learn communication, leadership, reasoning and teamwork skills – and to do this with an education that occurs both inside the lecture-room, and outside it in co-curricular activities

We want students who can think independently and are ready to look beyond the obvious ways of doing things – students, that is, who excel at the Linguistics Olympiad. All of you have seen off considerable competition to be here today - I understand that 2,700 people started out in the early rounds. Your route to this final was not easy; it was hard won.

It’s a considerable achievement which you deserve full credit for.

Trinity is also a big supporter of the Olympiad because of the emphasis we have on interdisciplinary education. Those who excel at the Olympiad are ideal candidates for studying linguistics, languages and maths, but also other subjects including engineering and indeed other humanities subjects such as philosophy.

Traditionally modern languages and maths were seen as different branches of knowledge. The Olympiad brings out the similarities between the two subjects, and it encourages the premise that developing a logical and problem-solving approach will help in the study of any discipline.

In Trinity we encourage all our Schools and departments to link up and share expertise. We have a high number of interdisciplinary centres and institutes, such as our Centre for Nanoscience and our Biomedical Sciences Institute where we bring together researchers across different disciplines to meet contemporary challenges.  The Olympiad is inspiring the next generation of multilingual technology graduates, who will be uniquely placed to confront these challenges of the future.

Another inspiration for problem-solvers and code-crackers everywhere is, of course, Sherlock Holmes, who is now undergoing a revival thanks to the brilliant on-going BBC series, Sherlock. You may be interested to know that the actor who plays Moriarty in that series – who pits his own code-cracking against Sherlock’s – is a Dubliner, Andrew Scott, who is a former Trinity student. He didn’t graduate – he left college to start his acting career. But while here he studied semantics, which is, as you will know, very good preparation for problem-solving. 

Let me finish now by congratulating all of you, and especially the winners who will be going to Beijing to compete internationally in July. We will all be following your progress.

Thank you.

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