Close to 300 boys and girls will be stepping up to the mic at this week’s Scripps National Spelling Bee. They hail from across the United States, as well as from countries like Germany, Jamaica, the Bahamas, New Zealand, and Canada. Wait, do non-English-speaking countries have spelling bees, too?
Not exactly. Spelling bees are a particularly British and American phenomenon. The orthography of some Romance languages, like Spanish, is so regular that one can easily figure out the spelling of a word just by hearing the way it sounds. English, on the other hand, contains Latin, Greek, Germanic, and other roots, not to mention whole words borrowed from other languages. That’s why an American schoolchild might get stuck with tricky words like ursprache and appoggiatura.
Francophone nations aren’t satisfied with mere spelling; they test for correct grammar, too. French speakers around the world enter Quebec’s Dictée des Amériques, an international competition started in 1994. Contestants take a local multiple-choice test on grammar before moving on to the next rounds. At the finals, they’ll hear a passage—composed for the contest by a famous author—read aloud four times. Each contestant must scribble down the text of the passage (word for word) in about an hour. Each mistake is a point, so zero—the score of Bruno Dewaele, one of the 2006 champions—is the best possible outcome. (Who says Americans are monolingual? The United States sends about 10 finalists to the dictée each year.) The Canadian dictée takes after France’s Dicos d’Or, a contest that was discontinued a couple of years ago after more than two decades. The televised contest was so popular in France that families often took the dictée together. The Dutch also have a similar contest called Het Groot Dictee, which pits 30 regular folks and 30 celebrities against one another.
Nonalphabetic languages have their own competitions. Chinese kids join dictionary contests, where they look up words as fast as they can. Unlike English, you can’t completely decipher a Chinese character’s pronunciation just by looking at it, and characters can have many components. Thus there are several ways to find words in dictionaries. Students can look for the character’s radical, or semantic, root and search by the number of strokes in the character. If they know what the word sounds like, they can choose instead to look up the pinyin, or Romanized version, of the character. A third way involves a sort of Dewey Decimal System of words: By examining the strokes in the four “corners” of the character, expressing each corner as a number (a square is a six, for example), they can then use the resulting four-digit code to find a word in a special dictionary. Students also enter typing contests, where again the complexity of Chinese characters poses challenges.
In Japan, where Chinese characters known as kanji are part of the language, you might see entire families entering the Kanji proficiency exam, known as the Kanken. There are 10 levels, each testing for skills like writing, pronunciation, and stroke order. Level 1 is the hardest and requires knowledge of about 6,000 kanji; in 2000 just 208 people passed this test.
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Explainer thanks James Maguire, author of American Bee: The National Spelling Bee and the Culture of Word Nerds; Sylvio Morin of Dictée des Amériques; Corinne Noirot-Maguire of Goucher College; and Jeff Wang of Asia Society.
Correction, May 30, 2007: The caption on the photograph accompanying the piece originally misspelled the name of 2006 spelling bee champion Katharine Close.