Posted by: patenttranslator | February 13, 2011

The Strange American Phenomenon of Spelling Bee Competitions

In my neck of the woods here in Eastern Virginia, not only are most kids monolingual, but if they can spell English words, they are celebrated as little geniuses. If they can spell fairly simple English words, stories are written about them in newspapers and films are made about them. As you can see from this article, the kid who won a “spelling bee” competition here knew how to spell the word “manteau”, which is considered an English word although it is a loan word from French, of course. The kid did not know what the word meant but he “took a guess” and won the first place in the regional competition. He will be representing Eastern Virginia at the national spelling bee competition in Washington D.C.

Other kid geniuses who excelled in this competition had to spell extremely obscure words with very complicated spelling such as “taciturn” and “virtuoso”. The article does not say whether the kids knew what the words meant. What’s the point of being able to “guess” the spelling of a word in your own language if you don’t even know what the word means? It would seem to me that this kind of “knowledge” is pretty useless. It’s sort of like having a car without knowing how to drive it, is it not?

As far as I know, the concept of “spelling bee competitions” is mostly an American phenomenon, or at least it is practiced mostly in countries where English is the national language. I have never heard of a “spelling bee” in Japan, for instance, or in Germany. Although my information is rather dated because it has been 30 years since I lived in Europe and 25 since I lived in Japan, I never heard of a spelling bee competition when I lived on two other continents. Do they have them now? (I hope not).

I do know that when I was a child, it would have been considered kind of silly to celebrate a youngster who can spell words in his or her own language. Obviously, if you can’t even spell words in your own language and you are already in your teens …. well, you have not learned much yet, young man or young lady, you have a long way to go and God knows whether you’ll ever make it.

Some people might say that unlike some other languages, English has very complicated and inconsistent spelling, which is why kids whose native language is English have to work extra hard on spelling. This is true to some degree – for instance unlike in English, in languages such as German, Czech, or Russian, the spelling is mostly pretty clear from the pronunciation (I almost spelled it “pronounciation” again). But if you know something about your native language, it is actually not that hard to remember the correct spelling of words, even in English. In some other European languages, such as French, the spelling is about as inconsistent and even harder to remember than in English since you have to remember also various accents (accent aigu (é), accent grave (è), accent circonflexe (ê), diaerisis (ë) and cédille (ç) as a part of correct spelling. In fact, you really have to know something about the etymology of the words in French, such as their origin in  Latin, if you want to be able to remember the proper spelling. Do they celebrate kids who can spell words in their own language in France the way they celebrate them in America? I kind of doubt it.

If you are a kid whose first language is for example Chinese or Japanese, it is much more difficult to memorize the correct “spelling” (or writing) of characters. And yet, they don’t seem to have spelling bee competitions in Japan. Parents simply expect their kids to learn how to write words properly in their own language, including the correct way to write very complicated characters consisting of 5, 10, 15, or 20 or more strokes. On the other hand, it is true that kids and adults in Japan have been losing the ability to write more complicated characters by hand after about three decades of writing with a word processor. They even have a word for it in Japanese “wahpro baka”, which means “wordprocessing idiot”. The competitions that they do have or used to have in Japan for kids were basically talent shows – competitions for kids who are smart and have a special talent. In other words, you are kind of automatically expected to be able to write correctly the words in your own language in Japan unless you are a “baka” (idiot).

An idiot, in Japan, is somebody who cannot spell (or write) words properly in his or her own language.

In Eastern Virgnia, if you are a kid who knows how to spell really complicated and obscure words, such as “manteau, “taciturn”, and “virtuoso”, even if you don’t know what they mean, you are a regular kid genius who will go far one day, perhaps as far as Washington, D.C.

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Responses

  1. http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dicos_d%27or

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  2. Hi Steve-san,

    Yes, we have no speling bee In Japan. At least it is not common. We have 漢字検定(Kanji-kentei) or 漢検(Kanken). It’s a kind of certificate exam but not a competition.
    http://www.kanken.or.jp/about/

    Indeed we are losing the ability to write more complicated characters by hand. Even though we still need the ability to choose the right character when we use word-processing software, since we have lots of homonyms….

    Best regards,

    Kimura

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  3. Hi Kimura-san:

    Good to hear from you again.

    I clicked on the link posted in your e-mail and here is the difference between Kanken and the spelling bee mentioned in my local newspaper: “単に漢字を「読む」「書く」という知識量のみを測るのではなく、漢字の意味を理解し、 文章の中で適切に使える能力も測ります” (The purpose of the competition is not only to measure your ability to “read” and “write”, but also your understanding of the meaning of the characters and your ability to use them well in a sentence.)

    That is a competition that makes sense to me. The kid in the newspaper article won the competition because he knew how to spell the word “manteau”, which is not a very complicated word to spell, although he did not know the meaning of the word.

    Best regards,

    Steve Vitek

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  4. Hi Steve,

    There is a (possibly) comparable event in Poland: a nation-wide dictation championship: http://www.dyktando.info.pl/

    There was a Polish tv show where teams would compete in a grammar competition – I could not find anything about it on the Internet so I assume it has been canceled a while ago.

    Best regards,
    Sebastian

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  5. Hi Sebastian:

    Thank you for your contribution.

    I looked at the Polish information but I could not find anything that would indicate whether this competition is more like the US version (the participants simply need to know the correct spelling of words and they may be completely and proudly ignorant of the meaning of the words), or more like the Japanese version, (the purpose of the competition is not only to measure your ability to “read” and “write”, but also your understanding of the meaning of the characters and your ability to use them well in a sentence), my translation from Japanese.

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  6. I stumbled upon your site while “googleing” “americans actually have spelling competitions”. English is my second language whilst Romanian is my native one. I thought I was the only non-narrow headed person who doesn’t see any potential benefits from winning a spelling bee competition. I for instance know to spell in both Romanian (the same rule applies here, if you can’t spell correctly you are considered an illiterate/idiot) and English, although I sometimes make mistakes in the latter one. I am overall satisfied with my level of knowledge and understanding in English and if I were to participate in a spelling bee competition a few years back I am quite sure I’d win.
    PS: There isn’t, hasn’t been and most definitely won’t be a spelling bee competition in Romania.
    PPS: A few days back as I recall I watched a movie entitled “Waiting for Superman”, it’s a documentary about the public school system in the US, and Education in general, which makes perfect sense with their mediocre competitions and low expectations.

    Andrei Jitca

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  7. […] Spelling words out. Foreigners struggle to spell words out especially confusing the letters ‘e’ and ‘i’. They are also surprised at the concept of a spelling bee competition.  […]

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  8. I agree. Words NOT in the English language, (Loan words) or words of origin other than Celtic languages should be left out of spelling bees. No latin, greek, french, spanish, portugues, chinese, japanese, etc. words should be allowed in the competitions. Also, if it is an obscure word that is not used in everyday life, it should not be included. I have a feeling, with rules like that, spelling bees would quickly become a thing of the past.
    Limit the words in the competition to those everyone knows!
    Also, include the option to spell the words phonetically (as all words SHOULD be spelled) in English.
    Spelling bees are stupid and pointless, let alone boring.

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    • or, “Portuguese” I suppose. It has been corrupted from the native form. (Inglês/Portuguê dictionary says so. Yes, if we allow foreign words, you should be able to spell “English” as “Ingles” in the spelling bee, pronouncing the letter “i” as “ee” as in Spanish,
      making it much more clear what letter you are saying: AH (a), BAY (b), SAY (c), DAY (d), EY (e), EH-fay (f), HAY (g), AH-chay (h), EE (i), HOH-tah (j), KAH (k), EH-lay (l), EH-may (m), EH-nay (n), EH-nyay (ñ), OH (o), PAY (p), COO (q), EH-rray (r), EH-say (s), TAY (t), OOH (u), OOH-bay (v), DOH-blay OOH-bay (w), EH-kees (x),…)

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  9. Traiteur Rabat Regal; Traiteur de ronome au Maroc

    Traiteur Rabat Regal au Maroc

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