The spelling bee competition is interwoven into American culture. Even if you didn’t take part in one at your own school, you know probably that spelling competitions are a huge deal for students.
For American students, spelling bees are a source of entertainment (and no small amount of anxiety). If you aren’t constantly memorizing words from the dictionary, you better believe you’re getting knocked out by something like “antidisestablishmentarianism” in the first round.
But what about other countries? Does anyone else broadcast epic game show-esque challenges of children spelling?
History of the Spelling Bee
Scripps National Spelling Bee (SNSB) is the longest-running spelling competition. It was first started in 1925, and has held a competition every year since, except 1943-1945 during World War II (The 2020 competition was also canceled because of Covid 19 restrictions). Held in Washington D.C., this competition draws hundreds of competitive spellers from all over the world.
To make it to the Scripps stage, a speller must win a regional spelling competition, be enrolled in a SNSB affiliated school, not have passed beyond the eighth grade/have had their 15th birthday in the year leading up to the next competition, and cannot have won a SNSB national finals competition.
It’s estimated that over 11 million students compete each year for an SNSB placement, with over 500 students making it to the main competition.
Why English Works for Spelling Bees
While students from all around the world can compete in the SNSB, no other countries broadcast their spelling bees, and many countries don’t have spelling bees, period. The primary reason? No other language is as weird and complicated as English to warrant a competition on spelling out words.
English has borrowed a lot from other languages, and unlike German or Korean, most words aren’t phonetically spelled out. English has weird vowel sounds and placements, complicated spelling rules that vary depending on the word and usage, which creates a perfect situation to make people compete over the spelling of words.
Alternatives to Spelling Bees
Instead of spelling bees, other countries have made different language-based competitions. The French and Dutch have dictation challenges, where competitors listen to a passage read aloud, and then must write it down, word for word. Chinese children can enter dictionary contests, seeing who can locate specific words the fastest.
Way to go, English. You’re so complicated that people have contests to prove that they can use you. You’re a really great language, English.