To Bee or not to Bee


the happy hive Sameer Mishra, 13 (C) hugs his father after winning the 2008 Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington. REUTERSThe Spelling Bee used to be the buzzword for any NRI, the yardstick of his child’s success. Now, this annoying bug has infected India. In the last academic year, Spelling Bees were held in many cities, setting a trend for the competition in future.

On the surface, such a competition seems like any other that today’s child has to participate in. Even my five-year-old son has to take a ‘dictation’ test which ensures that he knows the correct spelling of words used over the academic year. All this makes perfect sense since he uses those words to build simple sentences. And thus will be laid the foundation for his understanding of the usage of words in the English language.

Unfortunately, English is a not a phonetic language and its words are derived from Latin, Greek, French or German. Of course, the little fellow doesn’t know this and cannot understand why l-u-n-g is lung, but t-u-n-g does not automatically become the spelling of ‘tongue’. What he does know is that to get a perfect score in this paper he has to memorise the spellings.

Parents pitch in

Learning by rote has always been advocated in India. Then the American method of learning by observation nudged itsway into our educational systems. All the new-age schools that wanted to ‘make a difference’ took this up seriously and designed projects in various subjects so that the child would read and find out more on his own. However, what with projects in every subject, the child is left with no option but to ask his parents for help. Many times, as child sleeps, the parent stoically surfs the net or pastes pictures for the ‘project’.

Schooling, in a sense, has become one big family project. Added to this, children have to take the National Talent Search Exam, the Science Olympiad, the Math Olympiad whether he/she likes it or not. One might question the relevance of these exams since a true scientist or mathematician should have an aptitude for the subject. In some students, a special knack is detected fairly early in childhood, but most of us remain confused through school and college. The average person is happy to find a place in the sun when he/she is well into adulthood.

For the average child, failing to do well in these competitive exams just adds to a feeling of worthlessness. Conversely, a child who excels in these exams need not necessarily become a good scientist/mathematician.

Extra-curricular activities culminating in intra- and inter-school competitions are a welcome distraction in the academic year. But again, any school worth its name aspires to churn out ace debaters, eloquent speakers and four-feet tall know -it- alls. Students should be great painters, dancers, singers and know enough karate/ taekwondo to give the local goonda a run for his money. Anything for the one-upmanship that is the way of life today.

And now, some people have a ‘Bee’ in their bonnets that will burden kids with spelling competitions. We are living in a world where a dictionary or thesaurus is available at the click of a mouse. Then what is the relevance of a Spelling Bee?

The Scripps Spelling Bee in the USA was instituted in the 1920s ostensibly to enable students to improve their vocabulary. The obsession of that country with vocabulary is obvious from their insistence of good TOEFL scores for admission into US universities. So the only reason India should encourage a Spelling Bee would be to identify future US students. Whether the words asked in the tests - Bee or TOEFL - are useful for everyday conversation or technical explanations is open for debate.

Look at the words Kavya Shivshankar had to spell out. However Laodicean I may be, I have managed half my life without using ergasia, escritoire, hydrargyrum, baignoire, huisache, ecosaise, diacoele, bouquiniste, isagoge and phoresy (even the computer has put a red worm under those words!) And I am quite confident I shall be happy for the rest of my days without making their acquaintance. Maybe children with a fascination for words should just write purple prose!

In the Scripps Spelling Bee most of the words asked in the final round are scientific/ technical. Perhaps that is why there is a Brain Bee, presumably limited to the workings of that fascinating but least understood organ. It is to be hoped that schools hive off such competitions, however honey-coated the glory of winning one may seem. Learning to spell ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ just to be precocious can really be quite atrocious.

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