Why Americans Need Spelling Bees and Vocabulary Tests

Until we have a better appreciation for the English language, we need all the help we can get

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Spelling bees have always been cute. But they’re about to get cuter, because now they will actually be about something. The National Spelling Bee has announced that hereafter, contestants will have to know the definitions of words as well as how to write them out. The latter is brute mechanics, which only became a thing to master and compete in because of English’s awkward and random spelling system. In countries where writing actually corresponds regularly with how words are pronounced, there is no such thing as a spelling bee.

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Yet in those countries, there is often more of a love for the language itself, even among less educated people. And loving your language means a command of its vocabulary beyond the level of the everyday. This appreciation shows up in things they say that would not “translate” into American. A Russian friend of mine once said she fell in love with her husband because of “his Russian.” Note how hard it is to imagine an American woman saying what hooked her on her hubby was “his English.” “The way he talked,” maybe. But not something as specific as his command of the language in an artistic sense. Russians tend to have strophes of Pushkin memorized, including modern, “hip” Russians with no leaning towards the antiquarian.

I recently attended a conference where Castillians gave the opening addresses, in a distinctly formal layer of Spanish. In English this would have sounded extremely stuffy even at a university. You can buy volumes of high literature and poetry at an ordinary train station in Spain. At Long Island railroad stops, not.

(VIDEO: National Spelling Bee: Can You Compete?)

Yet even in America, there was once a richer love of English for its own sake. H.L. Mencken knocked Warren Harding for “the worst English that I have ever encountered.” Today we have knocked George W. Bush for “the way he talks” but not something as formal as “his English.”

Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote that she thought her mother would be good for a newspaper job because “She writes such beautiful English.” We wouldn’t put a recommendation that way today. Today we live in a society where in 2001, then President of the University of California Richard Atkinson got good press with his announced horror that high school students “spend hours each month — directly and indirectly — preparing for the SAT, studying long lists of verbal analogies such as ‘untruthful is to mendaciousness’ as ‘circumspect is to caution’.” In the old days, that tableau was called, well, school.

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Currently, America’s love of language focuses on the informal. Rap and spoken word have reawakened the country to poetry in itself. Texting and Twitter encourage creative uses of casual language, in ways I have celebrated widely. But we’ve fallen behind on savoring the formal layer of our language. Critics such as Stefan Fatsis at Slate have argued that adding a comprehension component to the spelling bee is, ironically, “small-minded.” It isn’t. It’s getting back in touch with loving our native language, something ordinary in most cultures on earth—but so long unknown to us that the Fatsises and Atkinsons among us can barely imagine it.

26 comments
SpellingCityMay
SpellingCityMay

I'm thrilled that Scripps is moving forward. Spelling bess, at that level have only a weak case as being a worthwhile part of education. Sure, you need to know about where the words come from and the spelling rules associated with that but frankly, it's pretty weak.    Spelling for most students is part of learning phonics, learning to read, and learning basic vocabulary so it's great that they're moving that way.  The enthusiasm for word games in recent years leaves me upbeat how technology can help us progress here. For instance:  http://www.spellingcity.com/sound-alikes.html?demo=matchIt

The article also points out that the English language carries a great deal of overhead in it. If I could make one improvement in the language, I'd rename the numbers:  I'd change "ten" to:"onety" and then count from "onety" to "twenty" like this: onety, onety-one, onety-two, onety-three, onety-four, onety-five, onety-six, onety-seven, onety-eight, onety-nine, and then, twenty. Anybody need me to explain how this would help?

 But, while the British and others might make this bold step forward, we are still too complacent to step up to even metric.sigh.

CarrieJB
CarrieJB

Research over decades has shown that the best way for humans to acquire language is through reading--vocabulary, spelling, grammar, style (including esoteric and formal style), even good writing. Spelling and vocabulary bees are indeed cute, but they won't do anything to expand Americans' literacy and language use. Actually, spelling bees make me really nervous. And for those kids, it's probably more about winning than it is about loving English. With self selected reading, everyone wins. Kids and adults need time to read, good things to read, and a quiet place to read. Schools would provide that for kids if we really understood how important it is.

nrkrishna
nrkrishna

Being able to spell esoteric words has nothing to do with having good command of the English language. The spelling bee is an exercise that consumes an enormous amount of time for very little personality development.

mashabell
mashabell

Learning French helps with English vocabulary too. Learning Spanish reveals how needlessly complex English spelling often is: apparent - aparente, applaud - aplaudir, commence - comenzar. By using doubled consonant to indicate defunct Latin prefixes and also exempting many words of Latin origin from the English consonant doubling rule for indicating short stressed vowels (ballad, poppy, rabbit - cf. salad, copy, habit), Samuel Johnson severely undermine the English method of spelling long and and short vowels as in 'diner - dinner' - http://improvingenglishspelling.blogspot.co.uk/2010/06/long-and-short-vowels.html

wilscombe
wilscombe

Oddly enough, I found a few years of studying Latin to be an enormous help in understanding my mother tongue.  Possibly because it is largely a regular language.  Many English words have a Latin root as do the three "Romance" languages (French, Spanish, Italian) and an understanding of construction is important in any language.

buckeyegal
buckeyegal

I wholeheartedly agree. English is a beautiful language, by turns poetic, comic, soaring, earthy. Over the years, we've seen an almost aggressive attack on teaching the depth and breadth of English, as though a thorough command of the language is somehow "elitist." The result is that many people, even those with pricey educations, are tongue-tied and unable to express themselves. Spelling bees are okay, I guess, but what we really need are vocabulary bees.

mashabell
mashabell

Children improve their vocabulary with reading. Unfortunately, the English habit of allowing letters to spell more than one sound (on – only, once, other) makes not only learning to spell but learning to read more difficult too - http://englishspellingproblems.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/english-spelling-system.html  Because of this English-speaking countries have not only many poor spellers but also many poor readers with a very limited vocabulary.

langmag
langmag

Diversity within languages is just as important as diversity of languages. As a Brit who has lived in Canada, France, and Spain, and is now in California, I appreciate many of the 'layers' or tones of English, Spanish, and French. English owes much of its international success to its adaptability - one minute formal, the next casual, to the point, meandering -  I agree with McWhorter that the world would be a poorer place without the beauty of formal English. 

Daniel Ward - editor, Language Magazine, www.languagemagazine.com

NappyEyelashes
NappyEyelashes

@TIME it is like watching the apprentice...some cannot speak some cannot spell...

aponchelle
aponchelle

As a French native speaker and U.S. resident for over 12 years I have always been frustrated with the dumbing down of the English language in America. A lot of people use the exact same expressions and adjectives to describe their experiences. English has been reduced to a mere skill, just like math or woodworking.

I believe a change is necessary as a language not only shapes our dialogues but also our thought process and the way we express our emotions. I personally have a deep connection to French. There is an intimacy and specificity in the way we express ourselves and choose our words. Any francophile would certainly agree.  

I remember writing countless "dictées" at school which are long passages of text narrated by the teacher. The words were in context which helped our understanding of their meaning too. That may be an alternate approach to this issue. 


GaurangaPérezRivas
GaurangaPérezRivas

This, it grieves me to say, is the case of many languages and the causes are many. In Peru and other Spanish-speaking countries, many people are quite comformist for they use the same, if you'll pardon the expression, damn words and expressions for everything. I take pity on my mother tongue because it is poorly exploited by most of its native users. However, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that the solution is quite obvious. In my opinion, schools MUST make students aware of the paramount importance and benefits of having a rich vocabulary plus the strategies they can use to develop it and, equally important, retain it.    

leelueck
leelueck

@jessielueck Those finalists would wax me in spelling AND defining! But I did win my 2nd-grade spelling bee with the word "during."

mashabell
mashabell

In languages which have a more reliable relationship between their sounds and their spellings there is not only a greater love of language and reading. The two countries with the world's simplest spelling systems regularly outshine all others in overall educational attainment.

If we reduced the number of 3,700 common words with tricky spellings – http://englishspellingproblems.blogspot.com/2010/11/english-spelling-rules.html - such as 'friend, said, head, though, through' and 'xylophone', we would enable far more pupils to fall in love with reading and to acquire a better vocabulary too.

This would, however, make spelling bees a little harder to organise. When American forces tried to introduce to Germany after WW2 as a gesture of good will, they failed because of the regularity of German spelling.

dvarets
dvarets

@TIME @TIMEIdeas Best thing to have is an electronic dictionary,you have spell check and a Thesarus.

hummingbird
hummingbird

The dumbing down of America is not a myth. The message has been sent to many that it's fine to just be pretty or just have money and that education is the least. When I studied overseas, I was so impressed with the speech/command of English that a professor had that I was just enthralled in his classes.

atecelia
atecelia

@TIME @TIMEIdeas Now more than ever, when people are freely interchanging "to", "too", and "two" and other such things.

dj_nebulae
dj_nebulae

@TIME @TIMEIdeas it's obvious americans have overall lost their sense of grammar & spelling. can't be number one if you can't spell it.

spellingmom
spellingmom

@CarrieJB My daughter was a participant in the National Bee this year, and she is so much more than a kid who studies spelling to win a contest - as are the other kids there - even the winner. They are intelligent, ordinary, slightly awkward middle school kids who LOVE words and they know how to use them. They really do have an impressive command of the language. They are also full of personality. Winning is a bonus they get for loving language. They read extensively too - which is where many of them acquire rich vocabularies in the first place. Your comment makes gross assumptions about hundreds of young people you have obviously never met. :)

mashabell
mashabell

@CarrieJB

I agree completely. And if at least learning to read English was made substantially easier, by reducing baffling inconsistencies like 'save - have', 'man - many', 'on - once', literacy standards would improve dramatically in a very short time.

This would involve making English spelling more regular too, but the highest priority for any modernisation of English spelling should be to make learning to read the language easier - http://improvingenglishspelling.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/modernising-english-spelling.html . English is the only alphabetically written language which not only spells most of its sounds unpredictably in many words (speak, speech, shriek, eke ... blue, shoe, flew, through, too ...) but presents learners with decoding difficulties as well (on, only, once, other...). 

spellingmom
spellingmom

@nrkrishnaYou assume much about young people you don't even know. The kids who advance to the National level bee do spend a lot of time preparing. They prepare by reading great literature and non-fiction on a variety of interesting topics. They even play games to learn words - they actually have fun at it! As for personality - they have tons of it. Just like every other kid who is well rounded and through language has acquired a surprising amount of depth for their age. You see, I know this because my daughter was a participant in the National Bee this year. She and her friends (I deliberately chose that word over competitors) really do have an impressive command of the language. Many of them speak more than one language fluently, can give you a grammar lesson and teach you a thing or two about math, science, sports, and music as well.