Anecdotes from My Spanish Teacher Part 1–…¿Cómo se deletrea…?

When my old Spanish teacher first came to the U.S. he was mystified by the notion of a spelling bee.  The Spanish spelling system is very faithful to the acoustic signal.  You spell words pretty much the way you say them.  (At least down to some level of allophonic fuzziness, which no one perceives anyway.)  Encountering a spelling bee would be like moving to another country and hearing about this competition where they stick a bunch of kids on stage and tell them, “I’m going to say a word and then you…pronounce it.”

Bonus spelling bee anecdote: On weekends the Center House at Seattle Center often plays host to this or that ethnic festival, so you can wander in, get a donut, and catch a bellydancing troupe’s routine, or watch Hmong in traditional costumes cheerfully explain over and over again to curious passersby that there is no country called Hmong.  One time a year or so back I wandered through on Vietnamese day and can report that Vietnamese spelling bees are a blast. In addition to the usual side business–cute kids squirming on stage while parents in the audience mouth along and turn to each other for whispered consultations, tracing diacritics in the air–it’s fun because even a non-Vietnamese speaker can participate.  You don’t know what any of the words mean, of course, and don’t have a hope of getting anything right, but there’s still a steady supply of a-ha moments along the lines of “Yep–sounded like a ‘b'” or “So that’s what the cedilla’s for”.  Plus the satisfaction of knowing that the Vietnamese writing system sucks just as much as what we have in English.

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