THE highly endangered language of the Menominee Indians of Wisconsin in the US is spoken by only a handful of elderly people. But last year secondary students competing in the International Olympiad in Linguistics were asked to translate ''I begin to eat'', ''He digs a hole'' and ''he walks out'' into Menominee.
They were also tested on their knowledge of the barcode language EAN-13, which is used in almost every country in the world, yet nobody speaks it.
These are the types of questions that will confront four year 11 students from Presbyterian Ladies' College in Melbourne who will represent Australia in the 10th International Olympiad in Linguistics in Slovenia next week.
There is no point in the girls swotting up on Menominee or EAN-13. Problems could cover anything from the relation between grammar and morphology in classical Nahuatl (spoken in central Mexico since the 7th century), to Blissymbolics, an international language of symbols used to teach people with disabilities to communicate.
Mind you, speaking more than one language is an advantage, according to Team 700, who speak a total of seven.
''Being bilingual helps because you have an understanding of different grammar patterns and how grammar could possibly work,'' said one team member, Catherine Perry, who speaks French, Japanese, English and a bit of Chinese.
Competition organisers say the sciences of language are scantily represented in school curriculums, and the olympiad helps attract students to careers in theoretical, mathematical and computational linguistics.
International teams will compete in a six-hour individual contest and a three-hour team contest.
Team 700 qualified to represent Australia after winning the Australian Computational and Linguistics Olympiad in April.
Team member Kai-Xing Goh said the girls had been working on their strategies and training with mentors who had PhDs in linguistics.
''They showed us the different things language could do and how language could behave,'' Kai-Xing said.