Spelling bees are only fun in English. So here’s what other countries do instead.

May 30, 2013

The Scripps National Spelling Bee is underway this week in Maryland, with contestants tackling words like cynosure, grobian and scrunchie. And that got some of us wondering... Why are spelling bees mainly an American phenomenon?


(Cliff Owen / AP)

One major reason is that spelling bees are only really challenging in English, a language that has borrowed lots of roots and words from other languages and has all sorts of odd vowel sounds and spelling irregularities. By contrast, a Spanish or German or Russian spelling bee would be boring — as soon as you can sound out a word, you can probably spell it.

But other countries still have their own contests, as this fascinating 2007 piece by Michelle Tsai details. They're just a bit different:

-- "French speakers around the world enter Quebec's Dictée des Amériques, an international competition started in 1994. ... 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." (Update: This contest sadly appears to have ended in 2009, though there's still the Dutch Het Groot Dictee.)

-- "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."

-- "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."

On a related note, here's a great old thread on The Straight Dope from 2003 considering the same question. One highlight: "Of all languages, Tibetan would lend itself well to spelling bees. ... Most Tibetan words are spelled as they were pronounced centuries ago, so there are a lot of extra, silent letters."

Meanwhile, here's an excellent Wall Street Journal piece on the spelling reformers, who are sick of the irregularities in English spelling and want to standardize the whole thing. They've organized pickets outside the Scripps National Spelling Bee in years past. Key quote from Edward Rondthaler, the father of the modern American spelling-reform movement: "We have 42 different sounds in English, and we spell them 400 different ways. Isn't that a rather silly thing to do?"

Maybe. But it makes for great TV.

Related: Sarah Kliff recaps the five best moments from the National Spelling Bee. (And no, we can't promise this is the last of our spelling bee coverage.)

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Dylan Matthews · May 30, 2013