Keeping the Home Fires Burning
One notable African country in the world of spelling bees is Uganda. Enjuba, an education organization, counts a spelling bee among its efforts to improve literacy and retain students in schools. While they do host English spelling bees, they also have competitions in sign language and local languages, acknowledging the duality students face navigating local culture and global society.
While spelling bees are not the only way to spur young kids into developing language skills, they will certainly attract the kids with a competitive drive. That makes them one of many possible avenues to get kids engaged. For languages that have dwindling numbers of speakers, spelling bees can be a fun way to connect the keepers of the language with young learners. This is the case in Alaska, where spelling bees in Yup’ik and Iñupiaq are helping keep those languages alive.
Native Alaskan languages are not the only Indigenous languages in the United States for competitive spellers. Farmington, New Mexico hosts the Diné Spelling Bee for students of the Navajo language. Unsurprising to anyone familiar with its history as an unbreakable code during the Second World War, Navajo uses vowels and consonants not represented in English orthography or not used in the English language at all. This means spellers have to go beyond the English alphabet. They will, for example, identify glottal stops (the sound in the middle of “uh-oh”) and the sound represented in Navajo writing by ł. That sound is a voiceless alveolar lateral fricative for my fellow phonology nerds.
Indeed, if you can think of a place where people were subjugated into learning English, you may be able to now find spelling bees in a local language. That even includes the British Isles. There’s at least one Irish language spelling bee, and the now defunct Word Wizard competition incorporated Scottish Gaelic. Let’s pause to reflect on the irony of promoting language learning by borrowing a competition style best suited for the language that has tried to extinguish so many others. Nevertheless, spelling competitions are great fun and I will never knock them.