Are ten-year-olds everywhere tormented with spelling tests?
January 16, 2012 7:58 PM   Subscribe

Do spelling bees or tests exist in languages other than English?

A two-part question about language. Firstly: do spelling bees (or spelling tests) exist in non-English languages? I'm thinking it's probably fairly pointless in a really phonetic language - but are there languages besides English where being able to spell correctly is enough of a skill to be worth testing?

Anyway, thinking about this has also got me to a second question: if spelling isn't much of a challenge, do other languages have public competitions similar to spelling bees that test kids' understanding of something that IS a complicated part of their language? Verb-conjugation bees? Noun-declension bees? Distinguish-the-meaning-of-these-otherwise-identical-tonal-words bees?

posted by catesbie to Society & Culture (19 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
A previous question about spelling bees.
posted by katemonster at 8:06 PM on January 16, 2012

Depends on how you define spelling, but the Kanji kentei is a pretty big deal in Japan - the upper levels are extremely difficult even for native speakers. You have to write and read kanji (Chinese characters used in Japanese), including a lot of very complicated and obscure characters and usages.
posted by ripley_ at 8:14 PM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ugh, yes. And if you think English tests are a PITA, try spelling in a language with three n's and two l's. (Tamil, for the record.)
posted by Tamanna at 8:54 PM on January 16, 2012

It's not exactly a spelling bee, but the Dictee is something similar in French.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 9:38 PM on January 16, 2012

I was going to mention the Dictée, too. It's an international competition, and French language professionals from around the world compete. When I was in university, one of my French professors finished second with four or five errors. First place had one or two! It made me feel better about my own crappy spelling in French, what with a world champion only getting 97% or something.

In answer to your second question, a French spelling test is also de facto a grammar test since so much of verb/object agreement is indicated with cursedly silent letters.
posted by looli at 10:16 PM on January 16, 2012

There's what is known as a "counter word'. English has virtually none of them; about the only common example is "500 head of cattle".

Japanese has hundreds, and no one knows them all. You use hon for long, thin objects: rivers, roads, train tracks, ties, pencils, bottles, guitars; or chou for tools, scissors, saws, trousers, pistols, cakes of tofu, town blocks; and so on.

There was a game show in Japan for a while where contestants were shown a picture of some things, and had to count them. That meant they had to remember the proper counter word, and it meant they had to remember whether to use on- or kun- numbers. (Which is kind of like the way we use either "quadra-" or "tetra-" for 4 of something.)

If they got it wrong, they'd be mildly roughed up by a couple of sumo wrestlers. Thus is comedy made.

I don't know specifically that 10 year olds are tested on this (minus the sumo wrestlers), but I bet they are.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:42 PM on January 16, 2012 [6 favorites]

Surprisingly, one does exist in Chinese, which is a phonetic language.

Students are tested on the order of the "strokes" in which you write the character, which is comparable to spelling because you've got to input the correct "symbols" in the correct order.
posted by Conspire at 10:45 PM on January 16, 2012

There's the Dutch Groot Dictee.
posted by iviken at 11:42 PM on January 16, 2012

They're certainly rarer in languages where spellings are more predictable.

I just want to be pedantic and say that every spoken language is a "phonetic language", since they all use phonemes. Unfortunately, I don't think there's a concise term for the intended meaning of the term: a deterministic, one-to-one correspondence between written words and their pronunciations. This is probably because writing systems tend to fall on a spectrum along almost fully deterministic to less so.

posted by redlines at 11:46 PM on January 16, 2012

They're certainly rarer in languages where spellings are more predictable.

"Spelling contests are an English-language phenomenon and particularly an American one. German-speakers are usually unfamiliar with the idea of a spelling bee. Unlike English, German is spelled phonetically (except for its own "foreign" words, particularly from French and English!). (...) Germans see no need for a spelling bee, since its spelling is far too logical for that."
posted by iviken at 12:07 AM on January 17, 2012

My Mexican brother-in-law was completely perplexed the first time he saw the Scripps spelling bee on TV. Spanish is a phonetic language, so spelling is not that much of a challenge.
posted by maxim0512 at 2:32 AM on January 17, 2012

Wow, all fabulous answers! I see I have lots of nerdy reading ahead of me, for which I thank you all!
posted by catesbie at 5:03 AM on January 17, 2012

While Quran recital competitions are indeed common, they have no connection with spelling. Memory and correct pronunciation are the main target, with beauty a secondary but significant consideration.

While there aren't spelling bees, per se, in Urdu, Pakistani teachers of Urdu routinely administer spelling tests. Four z's, two h's, two s's, two t's... Spelling in Urdu is tough.
posted by bardophile at 6:43 AM on January 17, 2012

I keep seeing people claiming that spelling contests are moot in Spanish. However, I've seen them on Spanish (Spain) TV, as part of a larger test of kids' knowledge. I think "Saber y ganar" uses them when they have kid contestants. And yes, the kids make mistakes, usually involving b and v.
posted by ceiba at 8:47 AM on January 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Spanish is a phonetic language, so spelling is not that much of a challenge.

Not true. ceiba is right about b and v, but there are also issues with c and s (in many dialects you have homophones like censo "census" and senso "sense") and y and i (yerro "mistake" and hierro "iron"). My favorite example from stuying abroad in Argentina was seeing that a local wrote love letters to a classmate wherein he consistently spelled yo ("I") as llo.

The boy was not all that bright.
posted by psoas at 10:50 AM on January 17, 2012

Univision Nueva York has aired (and I believe still airs) a Spanish Spelling Bee (Concurso de Deletreo en Español) that takes place in New York City. I remember seeing this news segment about one of the winners.
posted by wiskunde at 1:52 PM on January 17, 2012

I'd just like to point out that anyone who has watched the Scripps Spelling Bee knows that a huge proportion of the English words that are used for top spellers are loan words from other languages, particularly those that don't use Greek and Latin roots. I'm not saying that English is a language with logical spelling -- it's pretty bizarre in its own right -- but at the highest levels, the real challenge ends up coming from entirely different languages.
posted by telegraph at 6:09 PM on January 17, 2012

From first grade to high school, I had weekly Kanji tests at my Japanese school. The word would be written out in hiragana (phonetically) in a sentence and I had to write the correct Kanji.

There are several words which are phonetically the same, plus I had to write the Kanji correctly, plus the okurigana...

English spelling tests were much easier for me.
posted by xmts at 5:11 PM on January 26, 2012

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