What’s the buzz behind Spelling Bees? | Stillman Translations
What’s the buzz behind Spelling Bees?

Spelling presents many difficulties and different challenges depending on the language. Here are some examples of this…

Spelling is a very different challenge depending on the language.

A spelling bee is a competition in which contestants are asked to spell a broad selection of words. As you go through rounds, the level of difficulty escalates. They are a big thing in the US. But it doesn’t seem to resonate much in other countries. This is mostly due to sound correspondence. It doesn’t make much sense to have them in other languages other than English. Different languages bring forward a different range of difficulties.  

So, what is the big buzz around spelling bees? What is sound correspondence? How does this resonate in other languages? 


The concept is thought to have originated in the United States. Spelling bees are common only in countries where English is spoken because other languages have a more predictable spelling system. 

The earliest known evidence of a “spelling bee” dates back to 1850. Though spelling matches and other similar endeavors can be traced to 1808. And they became widespread as a method to motivate students to learn standardized spelling. The first national spelling bee had only nine contestants: six girls and three boys. 

Aren’t spelling bees simply about memorizing?  

Well, knowing how to spell requires knowledge about the sound structure of language, the system of written symbols used to represent spoken language, the smallest parts of words that carry meaning, and the origins of words. Phonology, orthography, morphology, and etymology respectively.  

This means there is more than one way to “memorize” spelling, and they involve a lot of comprehensions. When we know what the word means but can’t remember how to spell it, meaning can help us spell it. Think about “magician”. It sounds like it’s spelled “majishun”. But if you consider it is a person who does magic, the base word magic can be very helpful. 

Another way is through etymology: people in spelling bees can ask for the word’s origin. For example, if magician is a word of French origin, it is likely to be spelled with g rather than j. 

Photo by Dmitry Grigoriev on Unsplash  

So what is sound correspondence?  

English has a known to be a terrible letter-to-sound correspondence in the entire world. Usually, every letter or group of consecutive letters maps to one sound. And every sound maps to one letter or group of consecutive letters. 

English breaks this.  

The words “pan” and “pane” strike out the first rule. The vowel of both words is spelled the same yet pronounced differently. Like in “scent” and “scandal.” 

And words like “shed” and “head” violate the second rule. The vowel of both words is pronounced the same, yet spelled differently.  

This is because English has tried to preserve archaic spellings of English words as well as words from other languages. And as sound systems evolve, writing does so much more slowly, and eventually, it doesn’t resemble the sounds. 

In other languages, this happens much less. In Spanish, most fluent adults can sight-read without difficulty. What’s more, school children usually learn “orthography rules” that deal with the exceptions to this correspondence.  

Spanish, Italian, and German display relatively straightforward relationships between their written forms and their standard pronunciations. This is because of the history of these languages. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Latin took over. A language with a small number of sounds (phonemes). But in England, writing in the local language started much earlier than in the Romance-speaking countries and they insisted on keeping local customs.  

What do other countries have instead?  

So, because of all this, spelling bees are only challenging in English, a language that has borrowed lots of roots and words from other languages. But other countries still have their contests.  

French speakers around the world used to enter Quebec’s Dictée des Amériques: an international competition where candidates will hear a passage read aloud four times and each must transcript the passage (word for word) in an hour.” This contest ended in 2009, but the Dutch Het Groot Dictee still goes on.  

Chinese kids on the other hand join dictionary contests, where they look up words as fast as they can. To completely decipher a Chinese character’s pronunciation just by looking at it is hard, and characters can have many components. So there are several ways to find words in dictionaries. 

What does this have to do with my business?  

Poor spelling can create confusion, loss of clarity and meaning, and in extreme cases cost sales or job opportunities. People care about it, even at a personal level: a survey of 5,500 American singles in 2016 by online dating site Match.com found that 39% judged the suitability of candidates by their grasp of grammar. It was ranked more important than smiles or teeth. With this same criteria, people leave sites with typos because they seem fraudulent.  

So if you’re not a spelling bee genius, always remember to proofread your work with a language expert like ours at Stillman.