Spelling Bee 2019



16 Comments

  1. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    May 31, 2019 @ 2:08 pm

    http://spellingsociety.org

  2. Doctor Science said,

    May 31, 2019 @ 3:15 pm

    Contestants #307 and #427 are using an interesting methodology: writing on themselves with a finger as they spell. This finger-writing method would have helped me, too, back in the day, I think.

    Both of those kids are from NJ, though from different parts. I wonder if finger-writing is a method that's been developed in this region and is mostly used here (I'm in NJ, too), or if it's part of the arsenal of spelling methods nationwide, and it's just coincidence that the 2 kids for whom it happens to work well are in the same state.

    This amazing 8-way tie suggests to me that the "spelling bee culture" that's grown up in the Indian-American community has made a pedagogical breakthrough: they've "cracked" English spelling, at least in this format. They've developed methods for teaching memorization and recall that *work*, that can repeatedly solve this particular problem.

    I'm sure a combination of factors have been involved: the way spelling learning is family-based, but there are lots of levels of competition so more effective pedagogical methods can be noticed and refined. And then the parents come out of a culture with an *extremely* long history of complex rote learning and (I assume) memorization methods.

    Dr. Mair, do you know if the Chinese developed a comparable arsenal of methods for reading and writing pedagogy during the centuries when the Imperial civil service exams were crucial? Did they use flashcards, for instance?

  3. DavidP said,

    May 31, 2019 @ 7:48 pm

    Despite their caution, asking for language of origin, etc., the contestants in most cases seem to be already familiar with the words. For "cernous" the moderator sounds like he's saying "cernulous.," but the contestant pronounced it more clearly as "cernuous" just before spelling it.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    May 31, 2019 @ 10:24 pm

    From Arvind Kumar:

    I also noticed your old post linking to an article from Popular Science on Chinese. It mentions that most input systems require typing in pinyin with the software guessing the character and providing options to the typist. That is terrible and will kill the language.

    People developing software in Indian languages too have embraced this bad method. The first attack on Indian languages was when the government standardized various languages swiftly killing the many rich dialects. Once the government standardizes languages and imposes one version by requiring it for admission to educational institutions, all other versions are done for. Now we have the software industry playing a role.

    I'm interested in this because I'm working on creating a full-fledged computer in Indian languages. The main reason it doesn't already exist is that Unicode is a bad system for Indian languages. The surest way of coming up with a half-baked solution is to restrict oneself to the Unicode Standard.

  5. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 31, 2019 @ 10:44 pm

    Doctor Science: This amazing 8-way tie suggests to me that the "spelling bee culture" that's grown up in the Indian-American community has made a pedagogical breakthrough: they've "cracked" English spelling, at least in this format. They've developed methods for teaching memorization and recall that *work*, that can repeatedly solve this particular problem.

    They've developed methods that work for exceptional kids. I don't think we know much about how well the methods work on the whole.

  6. Doctor Science said,

    May 31, 2019 @ 11:06 pm

    @Jerry Friedman:

    Yes, these kids are obviously talented. But it reminds me of the 4-minute mile: people thought it would take a unique talent to do it, but after it was done, improved training methods made it accessible to a wider pool of talented runners.

    It looks to me as though American spelling bee culture has developed methods that can train talented children to have lexical arsenals on the order of 100,000 words. The fact that 6 of the 8 co-winners seem to be from South Asian families (I guess that Christopher Serrao is probably Filipino-American, but his family may be from Goa), not a large group in the US, suggests that they are *not* super-exceptional, they've got some natural talent and have been trained really, really well.

  7. Ken said,

    June 1, 2019 @ 12:19 am

    @Doctor Science: So you're saying that someday English spelling might be as easy as climbing Mount Everest?

  8. Doctor Science said,

    June 1, 2019 @ 8:45 am

    @Ken:

    Oh, MUCH easier: spelling has no risk of death! And there isn't a lot of expensive equipment involved.

    But yes, "as easy" in the sense that it's a solved problem, and that the Spelling Bee organizers are going to have to think of ways to prevent a traffic jam at the top.

  9. Doctor Science said,

    June 1, 2019 @ 9:03 am

    @Victor:
    Unicode is a bad system for Indian languages

    I don't understand. Unicode is only about scripts; how does limiting the number of scripts limit what languages people use? I mean, Indo-European languages and pinyin use the same script.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    June 1, 2019 @ 9:35 am

    @Doctor Science

    That comment came from Arvind Kumar, not me.

  11. Rodger C said,

    June 1, 2019 @ 10:26 am

    Doctor Science, my understanding is that each Indian language has its own script variant that's an important part of its definition.

  12. Doctor Science said,

    June 1, 2019 @ 11:52 am

    @Victor:
    I'm sorry, I assumed you were implicitly agreeing with him. Made an ass, etc.

    @Rodger C:
    So not unlike Hindi & Urdu, then.

  13. Doctor Science said,

    June 2, 2019 @ 9:20 am

    I just put up a post on Obsidian Wings, "Breaking the Dictionary", linking to this discussion.

  14. Kate Gladstone said,

    June 4, 2019 @ 12:30 am

    This somehow reminds me of something that reportedly occurred education in USA-occupied Germany in the years right after WWII. The Americans, wishing to remodel the Jermin school system so as to reward individual accomplishments rather than ethnic privilege, decided that a splendid tool for the purpose would be to import into the elementary schools that grand old democratic American institution, the spelling bee. Long lists of German words were carefully drawn up, beginning with quite short words and extending to 11-syllable jawbreakers, And the school teachers in USA-occupied Germany where carefully taught how to have class-wide and school-wide oral spelling contests based on these lists of words, just as it was and is done in the USA. To the consternation of the Americans organizing these German spelling bees, but not at all to the share price of the classroom teachers, it was impossible in any classroom ever to find a single winner as the rules dictated: in a classroom of 30 children, typically at least 25 would be able to spell any and every word that could be thrown at them: it became obvious, shortly after spelling bees have been instituted, that there simply weren't enough spelling failures to make spelling bees a success! Therefore (or at least so I've been told, by people who were school children in USA-occupied Germany at the time, the bees were Therefore (or at least so I've been told), by people who were school children in USA-occupied Germany at the time, the bees were quickly discontinued — not immediately as soon as the teachers were able to demonstrate to the American higher-ups why the requirement for spelling bees could not be obeyed.
    The German story (if true),and this year's consternation over finding as many as eight accurate spellers out of several hundred students assembled in Washington, must reflect very oddly on the cultural assumptions which support the spelling of written English. In what other alphabet-using language would a nation of its speakers (whole boasting of their literacy rate) regard having _one_ accurate speller per year as a noteworthy success and grounds for annual celebration,, and would regard having any more accurate spellers as a cause for alarm?
    The expectation that spelling shouldn't work — except for the very, very few — becomes even more strikingly anomalous when one considers that the kids who make it to Washington for the Bee (and who are expected to mostly fail) are selected from around ten million, annually, who participate in preliminary rounds of the Bee at local, state, and regional levels.

    In other words, when people throw up their hands in shock at having as many as eight Bee-winners — as if such a multitude of successes were culturally unconscionable and must, somehow, be prevented in future years of Bee-dom — what they are really saying is that, when it comes to using the written form of our language according to its spelling conventions, a success-rate of eight-in-ten-million — .00008% — is eight times too high, is far too-TOO-successful for proper education, and must be stopped! It is as if people WANTED correct spelling to be kept unmasterable.

  15. Andrew Usher said,

    June 5, 2019 @ 7:26 am

    That, however, ignores the fact that many if not most of the most difficult bee words are foreign words that don't follow any English spelling conventions – as English, like many other languages, attempts to borrow both the spelling and pronunciation of foreign words. As no one, especially at that age, can 'know' all those foreign words, a great deal of memorisation is still required. I suspect this problem would have arisen much earlier if non-anglicised foreign words were excluded.

    English spelling as used in the real world is not actually tough enough to do such a competition – attested by the fact that I don't recall ever making a misspelling (as opposed to a typo or muscle-memory failure) in anything I have ever written, and I can't be alone. So in reality the spelling bee is artificial to begin with, and is not a true test of merit. This only makes the fact undeniable to everyone that's paying attention.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  16. David Marjanović said,

    June 9, 2019 @ 11:26 am

    The first attack on Indian languages was when the government standardized various languages swiftly killing the many rich dialects. Once the government standardizes languages and imposes one version by requiring it for admission to educational institutions, all other versions are done for.

    This does not automatically follow. Diglossia can be stable for centuries. I myself speak Standard German in some situations, my quite different dialect in others, and hardly ever feel uncertain about how to classify a situation; I can't remember having learned Standard German, because it's used on TV and radio among other things.

    The German story (if true)

    I have no idea if it's true, but it could easily be true. Spelling bees are unknown outside the English-speaking world today, except that there's something similar in Poland that focuses on dictation in general rather than just spelling.

    many if not most of the most difficult bee words are foreign words that don't follow any English spelling conventions –

    Comparable words don't follow German spelling conventions either, but that still leaves a lot fewer possible ways to spell each sound or sequence of sounds. Part of the reason for that, though, really does lie with the language and not with the orthography: we tolerate a lot of the Greek clusters (ps- and x- [ks] for instance) and don't merge all unstressed vowels.

    as English, like many other languages, attempts to borrow both the spelling and pronunciation of foreign words.

    In cases like cernuous, English borrows just the spelling and then creates a pronunciation based entirely on its own spelling rules.

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