Essays

Casting Spells: Spelling Bees Around the World

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It’s a persistent source of joy to follow spelling bee news. With Zaila Avant-garde’s star-making turn last year and this year’s exciting spell-off in which Harini Logan won the day, the Scripps National Spelling Bee allows us to marvel at the vastness of the English language and the youngsters who wield it with such aplomb. But it made me wonder where else in the world has turned spelling into a sport.

It’s not surprising to see that spelling competitions are popular outside the United States. It seems to be a nearly universal human drive to make a competition out of just about anything. Eating hot dogs. Solving Rubik’s cubes. Building dry stone walls (full-size or miniature). What’s somewhat surprising is that the majority of international spelling competitions also use the English language.

It’s a Small World After All

English is uniquely good for spelling competitions precisely because it’s such a messy language. Anyone who has learned English as a new language could tell you that. In English, a word’s spelling doesn’t always relate to its pronunciation — how fun is it that the three C’s in “Pacific Ocean” are all pronounced differently? Moreover, English has borrowed tons of words from so many other languages. Quinoa comes from Quechua, a language spoken primarily in Peru. Banjo is borrowed from the Mandinka language spoken in western Africa. English: it’s a true hodge-podge!

Because many other languages have more consistency between sound and spelling, English is arguably the best language for spelling bees. Moreover, English has become something of a lingua franca globally, and young people are encouraged to learn it. So it makes sense that most spelling bees around the globe are in English. The MaRRS International Spelling Bee, for example, allows students from Asia to compete at spelling English words. The African Spelling Bee, also in English, currently includes 16 member nations. Countries like Benin compete, even though French and Indigenous languages are more commonly spoken there than English.

Keeping the Home Fires Burning

One notable African country in the world of spelling bees is Uganda. Enjuba, an education organization, counts a spelling bee among its efforts to improve literacy and retain students in schools. While they do host English spelling bees, they also have competitions in sign language and local languages, acknowledging the duality students face navigating local culture and global society.

While spelling bees are not the only way to spur young kids into developing language skills, they will certainly attract the kids with a competitive drive. That makes them one of many possible avenues to get kids engaged. For languages that have dwindling numbers of speakers, spelling bees can be a fun way to connect the keepers of the language with young learners. This is the case in Alaska, where spelling bees in Yup’ik and Iñupiaq are helping keep those languages alive.

Native Alaskan languages are not the only Indigenous languages in the United States for competitive spellers. Farmington, New Mexico hosts the Diné Spelling Bee for students of the Navajo language. Unsurprising to anyone familiar with its history as an unbreakable code during the Second World War, Navajo uses vowels and consonants not represented in English orthography or not used in the English language at all. This means spellers have to go beyond the English alphabet. They will, for example, identify glottal stops (the sound in the middle of “uh-oh”) and the sound represented in Navajo writing by ł. That sound is a voiceless alveolar lateral fricative for my fellow phonology nerds.

Indeed, if you can think of a place where people were subjugated into learning English, you may be able to now find spelling bees in a local language. That even includes the British Isles. There’s at least one Irish language spelling bee, and the now defunct Word Wizard competition incorporated Scottish Gaelic. Let’s pause to reflect on the irony of promoting language learning by borrowing a competition style best suited for the language that has tried to extinguish so many others. Nevertheless, spelling competitions are great fun and I will never knock them.

What Else Can You Do?

For languages ill-suited to spelling bees, how else can one test their language mettle? One way is competitive dictation. That is to say, correctly writing down a word or passage spoken aloud. This is a competition that works well in French, for example. In French, some grammatical elements, like the conjugations of some verbs, appear in spelling but not in the sound of the word. Likewise, Chinese, a language that uses characters for words instead of an alphabet, requires intense study to master the language fully. Most people know and use around 4,000 characters, but the language contains upwards of 100,000.

Like the Scripps National Spelling Bee, these competitions can even draw in television audiences. From 1990-2016, there was a televised dictation contest for adult Dutch speakers. While viewership shrank, ending that show’s run, China has kept their dictation competition show going. Chinese Characters Dictation Competition has been on the air since 2013.

The Final Word

If you want to know more about spelling bees, check out our own history of the bee. American Bee is an older nonfiction book that profiles top spellers, as the fantastic documentary Spellbound also does. Beeline is a more recent book that connects spelling bees to Gen-Z culture. I will always hold a soft spot in my heart for Myla Goldberg’s novel Bee Season. And I’ve seen the musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee twice and laughed all the way through it both times.

Additionally, if you get a chance to compete in a spelling bee at any age in any language, I suggest that you do. I will never forget the glory of winning my classroom spelling bee in 4th grade, dazzling everyone with my ability to spell “extinguisher.” And I’m forever humbled by publicly misspelling the word “butyraceous” (of or pertaining to butter) at an adult spelling bee. The ties I have to these particular words are everlasting and unique, my personal lexicon of agony and ecstasy. I love to think of the words all these spellers around the world have, correctly spelled or not, in a home language or one they’re learning, etched onto their souls.

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