An article in today's Want China Times entitled "Audience of Chinese 'spelling bee' forget how to write" begins thus:
Chinese characters are difficult to learn not only for non-native speakers but also for natives as well. This was made evident in a contest held by China's state broadcaster CCTV to test teenagers on their ability to write Chinese characters, reports the internet portal Tencent.
The show, which is clearly a clone (like so many other things in China today) of American spelling bees, is referred to by the first source above as a tīngxiě dàhuì 听写大会 ("dictation conference") and by the third source as Zhōngguó hànzì tīngxiě dàhuì 中国汉字听写大会 ("China conference on Chinese character dictation"). Parenthetically, I should mention that tīngxiě 听写 (lit., "hear-write", i.e., "dictation") is one of the most common devices in the Chinese language teacher's toolkit.
The second mainland source cited above bemoans the fact that "tí bǐ wàng zì chéng dāngxià Zhōngguó rén tōngbìng" 提笔忘字成当下中国人通病 ("'picking up a pen and forgetting how to write a character' has become a common failing of contemporary Chinese").
Before proceeding, it is worth mentioning that the characters displayed in front of the table behind which the judges sit (as seen in the photo at the top of the Want China Times article) are oddly misshapen, despite the fact that the characters are positioned within large squares divided into quadrants to help keep the elements in proper proportions. In any event, they read: qiātóuqùwěi 掐头去尾 ("break off both ends; leave out the beginning and the end; do away with unnecessary parts [details] at both ends; nip off unwanted parts"). Presumably this was one of the items that a contestant had to "spell", and he / she did so by writing the characters on a panel that displayed in front of the judges and elsewhere in the hall.
Among other tidbits related in the Want China Times article, we learn that only 30% of the contestants and 10% (!!!) of the adult audience were able to correctly write the characters for làiháma 癞蛤蟆 ("toad"). Never mind that this is not a particularly obscure word; the inability to write even more common words has become epidemic among "literate" Chinese. I have referred to this phenomenon as "character amnesia" and have explained why it is happening in this post, where I pointed out — among other things — that very few people can write the Chinese characters for "sneeze", even though it is a common word.
One of the beauties of the dictionaries in the ABC Chinese Dictionary Series published by the University of Hawai'i Press is that — because they are arranged according to a single sort alphabetical order — you can look up a word by its sound even if you do not know how to write any of the characters of which it is composed. In fact, the ABC-Wenlin Chinese data base, which has well over 200,000 entries and is growing rapidly, has become the mainstay of many IT products because of its alphabetical ordering and overall high level of lexicographical standards.
It goes without saying that the overwhelming majority of all Chinese character inputting nowadays is done with Romanization (Hanyu Pinyin).
In closing, I'd like to mention a related phenomenon that I discovered recently, namely, the overwhelming dominance of students of Indian (South Asian) descent in English spelling bees. Over the years, I've noticed that a conspicuously large proportion of the top contestants (including the number one position) of the Spelling Bee have been of Indian descent (somebody told me that it's as much as 60% [though I'm not sure 60% of what -- I presume that he meant of the overall top winners]) — and how few are of Chinese descent. I wonder what that tells us. I've often thought about it.
The last six national winners were all of Indian descent (!), and there were others before that. The sheer numbers of entrants and the highly competitive nature of the contest ensure that the Indian superiority in spelling competitions could not be accidental. In an effort to determine what the secrets of the Indian students are and to demonstrate that their winning ways are not pure coincidence (in other words, to understand the reasons for their excellence in spelling), I asked a number of Indians and non-Indians what they attribute Indian spelling excellence to. Here are just a couple of the responses that I received.
From a colleague of Indian descent:
I was the CYO Spelling Bee champion of New Jersey in 1986. I arrived late, prepared very little with the other students of my school, and won handily on the word 'bayou' because my brother introduced me to Creedence Clearwater Revivial when I was a kid (and I remembered their song Born on the Bayou spelled on the album cover). I am not sure what the facility with spelling is but my parents never pushed me AT ALL. In fact, they still don't have any idea what I really do for a living as a professor and never really took interest in my education hands-on. They just took care of me and gave me a lot of encouragement. I think that, as you are suggesting, Victor, there is something about Indians' ability to hear words, work with language, and perhaps enjoy word games that is acculturated and somehow passively socialized (think antyAkSari, an ancient Sanskrit game still played with Hindi film songs, where the last or penultimate syllable of the third or last quarter of a verse leads others to recite the next one).
From one of my graduate students who is married to a Bengali woman:
Spelling in Bengali is often considered difficult and confusing – there are 3 ways to write s, two for j, a short and a long i that are pronounced the same, and several other vestigial holdovers from Sanskrit that are no longer differentiated in pronunciation. But as far as I know, there are no bees like we have here. One Bengali speaker says that the spelling is "so hard that we wouldn't even think of having a competition for it", but the same could of course be said for English – there just already exists an infrastructure and culture in the US for spelling bees. Maybe it has something to do with a higher degree of bilingualism, even among second generation learners? It is common for Bengali children in India to learn the English alphabet before the Bengali abugida. Since the question is why Indians dominate spelling bees, it might also be interesting to look at where in India the winners' heritage is.
Indians have traditionally been capable of incredible feats of memory. The Vedas, dating back thousands of years, were meant to be chanted, not written, and were recited backwards and forwards.
The Aṣṭādhyāyī of Pāṇini (fl. 4th century BCE), which established the foundations of Sanskrit grammar, consisted of 3,959 rules concerning morphology, syntax, and semantics. They are extremely terse and almost mathematical in their precision, yet they have customarily been recited aloud.
When Indian Buddhist monks brought sutras (scriptures) to China, they carried them in their heads, not in manuscripts, which astonished their Chinese hosts who asked them, in essence, "Where's the book?"
The Mahabharata and Ramayana are vast epics, yet bards could recite them without reference to promptbooks. The same is true of folk epics like that about Pabuji.
There is even a term for this kind of religiously inspired memorization, and it is called smṛti ("that which is remembered").
Prodigious energy was expended by ancient Indian culture in ensuring that these texts were transmitted from generation to generation with inordinate fidelity. For example, memorization of the sacred Vedas included up to eleven forms of recitation of the same text. The texts were subsequently "proof-read" by comparing the different recited versions.
Forms of recitation included the jaṭā-pāṭha (literally "mesh recitation") in which every two adjacent words in the text were first recited in their original order, then repeated in the reverse order, and finally repeated again in the original order. The recitation thus proceeded as:
word1word2, word2word1, word1word2; word2word3, word3word2, word2word3; …
In another form of recitation, dhvaja-pāṭha (literally "flag recitation") a sequence of N words were recited (and memorized) by pairing the first two and last two words and then proceeding as:
word1word2, word(N-1)wordN; word2word3, word(N-3)word(N-2); …; word(N-1)wordN, word1word2;
The most complex form of recitation, ghana-pāṭha (literally "dense recitation"), according to (Filliozat 2004, p. 139), took the form:
word1word2, word2word1, word1word2word3, word3word2word1, word1word2word3; word2word3, word3word2, word2word3word4, word4word3word2, word2word3word4; …
That these methods have been effective, is testified to by the preservation of the most ancient Indian religious text, the Rigveda (ca. 1500 BCE), as a single text, without any variant readings. Similar methods were used for memorizing mathematical texts, whose transmission remained exclusively oral until the end of the Vedic period (ca. 500 BCE).
Perhaps today's English spelling bee champions of Indian descent are the heirs to these traditions and techniques, whether consciously or not.
Since I am not a pukka (Hindi पक्का / Urdu پكّا pakkā ["proper; real; genuine"]) Sanskritist, I may have gotten some of the details wrong, but I hope that I have at least conveyed a sense of the nature and importance of memorization in Indian culture.
[Thanks to David Moser, Deven Patel, Sunny Singh, Ben Zimmer, Philip Lutgendorf, Fred Smith, Leopold Eisenlohr, and Arif Dirlik]