Slate answers the question "Do non-English-speaking countries have
Bees Overseas: How do spelling contests work in other
By Michelle Tsai
Posted Tuesday, May 29, 2007, at 6:55 PM ET
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.
Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.
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
There are lots of links to the contests mentioned in the article, if you
click the link above.
So, those of you from countries outside the US, what language competitions
do your countries have for the national language? Are there any other
English-language competitions other than spelling?