Spelling Bee: It's a phenomenon in the U.S., but will it ever catch on in Britain?

Nermin Oomer
The Scripps National Spelling Bee trophy sits in wait for a winner at the start of the second round of competition in Oxon Hill, Md., Wednesday, May 29, 2013. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

The water cooler chat in America this week has centred around the Scripps National Spelling Bee. More than a million viewers are expected to tune in to Friday’s live televised final. Spelling bees are hugely popular in America but haven’t yet caught on in the UK. Yahoo! News looks into the relevance of the spelling bee and the importance of spelling in this day and age.

Anyone heard of the word ‘Guetapens’ before? For one young lady in America last year, it was one of the most significant words of her life. Fourteen-year-old Snigdha Nandipati spelled it correctly to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee. (Incidentally it means ambush or trap.)

This week has seen 281 children from across the US compete in the national spelling bee.

These youngsters are the crème de la crème of the spelling world. Their progress in this well-known competition has been closely watched by thousands of TV viewers, gripped by who will stumble over their letters and be eliminated from the contest and who will go on to be crowned the king or queen bee of spelling.

Twelve children will make it through to Friday’s final but there will only be one winner who, for a couple of weeks after the competition, will become a minor celebrity in the States.

The organisers of the contest estimate that 11 million students in the US have participated in spelling bees over the course of the year. Smaller class and school spelling bees lead to the regional rounds and then ultimately the national finals.

The national competition is now in its 86th year and has grown tremendously from its humble beginnings with only nine contestants.

Chris Kemper, spokesman for the contest, said: “The sheer quantity of participants speaks for the size and scale of the bee in the States. Everyone has competed at some level or another and it’s amazing, years later, how many people still remember the word they misspelled in a bee.”

Kemper puts the popularity of spelling bees in the US down to the drama, the talent of the children who participate and also the fact that many people can relate to the youngsters.

He said: “The TV audience is significant. These kids are absolutely amazing; to see them spell words that many of us have never even heard of. There’s so much drama involved. It’s TV which pulls you in. We can all relate to what the kids are going through.”

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Dr Catherine Brown, a senior lecturer in English at London’s New College of Humanities, claims part of the attraction of the national spelling bee in the US is that it ‘binds the huge country together.’

Professor David Crystal, author of ‘Spell it Out: the Singular Story of English Spelling’ thinks the popularity of spelling bees could be down to the ‘American temperament.’ He said: “It’s all part of the American dream. Everyone can achieve and show off their abilities.”

Kemper agrees: “What we hear from spellers is that it’s an opportunity to shine. These are incredibly talented and smart kids. They are athletes of the English language.”

Scripps states that the purpose of the spelling bee is to help children improve their spelling, increase their vocabularies, learn concepts and develop the correct use of English which will help them all their lives.

However spelling bees in the States have also been criticised for putting too much pressure on children.
Kemper said: “Kids put a lot of pressure on themselves, but by large they are so excited to be on national TV. We try to give them a good experience and show them fun.”

Crystal concurs: “Spelling bees are great fun. Kids love it.”

It appears that on the whole spelling bees are a good thing for America, but they just haven’t taken off in the UK. The Times newspaper ran one for four years with the last one taking place in 2012, in an attempt to ‘help children improve their spelling, acquire lifelong skills and make spelling fun’. But there are no definite plans to schedule any more.

Therefore are British children missing out on the concept of spelling bees and with the onset of text and Twitter abbreviations, when you only have a certain number of characters to express yourself and make your message understood, is accurate spelling even important anymore?

Brown said: “Spelling bees are easier in the US. There’s a far wider range of pronunciation of individual words in the UK than in the US. They rely on individual contestants hearing the word pronounced and knowing how to spell it. It’s a huge help if there are fewer variations of pronunciation.”

For example the word ‘garage’ can be pronounced many different ways in the UK with varied vowel sounds and stress on letters.

Brown believes that rather than spelling bees we should have ‘definition bees’ in this country. She said: “Spelling is nowhere as interesting as the meaning of words. That would enrich vocabulary and therefore enrich your ability to think.”

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Brown believes that these days it is still important to spell correctly to eliminate confusion. “Where there’s clearly a right or wrong spelling people should make the effort to get it correct. There’s a difference in meaning between words such as ‘their’ and ‘there’. Getting it wrong can lead to miscommunication.”

Crystal says it is acceptable not to use standard or correct English spellings in some situations; a view shared by Dr Chris Christie, a lecturer in English at Loughborough University,

Christie said: “No I don’t think people should spell correctly all the time. They should spell correctly where it’s expected of them in formal letters or essays. Errors in an informal context are fine but we don’t tolerate poor spelling in academic essays.”

She said she did notice a change in the standard of spelling in students’ work at one point in the past, but it seems to have corrected itself now. “Students were writing ‘u’ instead of ‘you’. It was an error students made in their first year, but it wasn’t because they didn’t know how to spell, they were making a mistake about when it was appropriate to use such spellings.”

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Crystal agrees that there are different standards of language for different situations.

He said: “For 100 years, people have been spelling differently in different situations. The internet has made it more widespread. Society thinks it’s ok. Standard spelling is needed in some circumstances but not others. Children have to be taught the difference between the two and not mix them up.”

Crystal says that ‘text speak’ isn’t a problem these days. He said: “It’s a huge myth that ‘text speak’ has affected language, but it hasn’t. There was a huge panic about it around seven years ago, but it isn’t true. Kids don’t abbreviate. One child said they stopped using abbreviations when their parents started to. It was a fashion which has rather gone off now.”

Twenty-year-old student Leigh Harrington agrees: “When I was a teenager and people started to get phones, the standard of spelling dropped. I used to write ‘U’ instead of ‘you and ‘R’ instead of ‘are’, but don’t do it any more. I’ve grown out of that. I’m aware it’s appropriate to use more informal language in certain situations, but I do spell correctly across the board and so do most of my friends.”

The correct spelling of words can also give information about the history of language; something that is sometimes lost in American English. As Christie explains: “The silent b in comb tells you the word is of Anglo-Saxon origin. In America they’ve standardised spelling and taken the history out of the language. They’ve simplified it so it’s lost the complexities of English spelling. For example the word colour is spelled without the u.”

All three academics agree that people make judgments about others based on spelling ability. Crystal said that while researching his book he spoke to several employers about what they would do with a letter with spelling errors and they indicated it would go straight in the bin.

Brown said: “People tend to correlate spelling with intelligence or assumptions of levels of trustworthiness and morality if you’re selling something on the internet for instance.”

Scripps has explored the possibility of organising an international spelling bee, which undoubtedly, is one situation where it would be important to spell correctly.

However with so many variations between the British version of English and the American version, it could lead to an interesting debate about which words are spelled accurately and who the eventual winner is.