Escape the airport with less-commonly taught languages


Kaycee Orwig | Senior Staff Photographer

Student’s complete language-based puzzles at the Office of Less Commonly Taught Languages’ “Talk Your Way Out: Escape the Airport!” event in Hillman on Wednesday evening.

By Vikram Sundar, Staff Writer

Only 10.5 million people speak Swedish world wide, and as I struggled to decipher Swedish numbers to recover secret government documents, I desperately wished I was one of them.

The nefarious Society for the Preservation of Monolingualism stole four secret documents which belonged to the Less Commonly Taught Languages department at the Library International Airport last Wednesday night.

There was only one way to retrieve them. Four other students and I took on the challenge of solving the intricate language puzzles SPOM left behind in order to obtain the missing documents.

This was the theme of the LCTL departments’s first-ever escape room event, which took place in Hillman Library on Wednesday night as a way to welcome students new and old to Pitt’s diverse selection of language classes.

The escape room began at the entrance of the library-turned-airport. We were assembled into teams of five and escorted into the Digital Scholarship Commons, which acted as the airport gates — accessible with a laminated boarding pass. From this checkpoint, every team’s experience varied depending on their starting location.

My team was given a boarding pass to Budapest. As we entered the Digital Scholarship Commons to find our gate, we were met with our first challenge at the Budapest terminal. The first missing document was locked in a box and the combination could only be obtained through deciphering a Quipu puzzle.

Quipu is a form of communication from the South American region of Quechua in which sets of colored threads, each containing a different number of knots, correlate to letters and numbers. Surprisingly, translating knots to number wasn’t the difficult part. Figuring out which knots out of a hundred were a part of the four-number combination was much more challenging.

After laboring away at the puzzle, we had overlooked what we thought was a trivial detail, but turned out to be more than a coincidence. The lock was purple and, miraculously, there were only four purple threads in the Quipu. We weren’t out of the woods yet, though, because we spent 10 of our 30 allotted minutes solving the puzzle.

The secret document revealed two clues — the location of the next document and a Hungarian bathhouse, as well as a list contrasting the American units for time, distance and temperature with European units.

When we arrived at the bathhouse, located in a bath towel-infested Virtual Reality room, the attendants asked us to find a suitable locker before we could enter the hot springs. One person was given a VR headset and asked to look around the virtual bathhouse for details to help select the right locker. We quickly noticed two things— a sign that read 40 degrees Celcius and a clock bearing the time 8 p.m.

Initially, we thought the code was 840, but that locker was taken. Looking more carefully at our clues, we remembered that Europe used a 24-hour clock, meaning that the time was actually 20:00. We looked for locker 2040 and sure enough, it contained the second missing document and a clue for the next puzzle.

The clue was a bunch of scattered puzzle pieces with various markings, accompanied by a sheet containing the last names of four authors in Hebrew letters. This was undoubtedly the most difficult part of the escape room. Many of the letters were nearly identical to one another and, while arranging the puzzle pieces, we noticed that most of the combinations we came up with were legible upside down.

With some minor help from the staff and a couple of mental breakdowns, we were able to make out a name that matched one of the four from the sheet. At this point, we only had around five minutes left to find two more documents.

On the back of the sheet was a list of books from which we had to find the specific book written by our author. Luckily, the library’s search system was the same as ever, so we were able to locate the book quickly. After making a brisk jog to the spot, we noticed an envelope in the place where the book should be. Inside was the third missing document and a newspaper clipping about a Swedish ambassador.

Looking at the map, we noticed there was an ambassador room on the second floor of Library International Airport. With only around two minutes left, we raced through the library and into the ambassador room, where we were met with out final obstacle.

The Swedish ambassador congratulated us for making it this far, then immediately challenged us to a game of Ludo, a board game where players race to get their tokens from start to finish, for the last document.

Unfortunately for us, she was a world champion Ludo player. Our game of Ludo followed standard rules, except that we had to count in Swedish every time we moved our game piece a step.

With a little bit of luck, and the help of a girl on our team who was well-versed in Norweigan — a language similar to Swedish — she was able to nail down the Swedish pronunciation and secure us the win to obtain the final document. After turning in all four documents to the LCTL department, we were rewarded with a hearty packet of Goldfish and Belvita biscuits for defeating the threat of monolingualism.

Dr. Gretchen Aiyangar, program coordinator for the LCTL department, said she was hopeful the event would spark student interest in taking a new language course they may not have been aware of prior to the event.

“We want students to be aware of these opportunities from the minute they set foot on campus,” she said via email. “That’s why we rolled out this event in the first week of classes … interested students still have time to enroll!”

The LCTL department is dedicated to enriching multilingual proficiency among undergraduate and graduate students at Pitt. As their name suggests, the LCTL department offers courses that teach students relatively less-spoken languages around the world — including Turkish, Quechua, Irish, Amharic, Vietnamese and Haitian Creole.

Dr. Claude Mauk, director of the LCTL department, said he is proud of the scope of languages the department offers.

“Not many institutions can boast of the same breadth and depth in language programming that we offer.” Mauk said via email.

Although the escape room left me a bit more exhausted than the others, it still got me excited about the topic of linguistics. One of the members of my group, Jaden Mcmillian, a junior architecture student at Pitt, was very vocal about how great the escape room was.

“This was definitely one of the more fun events I’ve been to at Pitt,” said Mcmillian, “I think the escape room was a really fun and interactive way to introduce foreign languages to students from different backgrounds.”