Thursday, June 01, 2006

US Spelling Bees Vs. French Dictées.

In English, a bee is not just an insect, it is also a “social gathering to hold competitions”, the most famous of which is the “spelling bee”. In North America it is a popular competition where contestants, usually children, are asked to spell English words. Spelling bees have existed since the early 19th century in the US, but they have recently regained popularity.

Every year more than 10 million American children between the ages of 8 and 15 compete in local spelling bees, and 275 of the best began competing Wednesday in the Scripps National Spelling Bee finals in Washington.

According to this IHT article, the success of spelling bees has soared partly thanks to the documentary “Spellbound”. In any case, this year, the championship round is broadcast in prime time on network television for the first time.
National Spelling Bee on prime time? Are you kidding? Personally I have always found those spelling competitions a bore. I also fail to understand why there is so much prestige attached to them. After all, it is a rather simple competition which does not require very complex linguistic skills.

The French closer equivalent might be the French dictée where students take down dictation in longhand in order to check their spelling. Contrary to simple spelling bees, French dictées thus include grammar check (complex tenses and different genders and agreements) and require a great knowledge of linguistic subtleties.

Undeniably, the French dictée reflects the complexity of the French grammar and pronunciation (many French words can be pronounced the same but are spelled differently) and it is a sacred icon of the French education. (also explained the French patriotic view of their language and culture). Televised dictation has also been a very popular show which has attracted millions of viewers. The presenter Bernard Pivot read a text containing grammatical traps and complex spellings to 176 finalists. The winners were those who made the fewest mistakes writing it down. Many viewers would take down the dictation and check their own mistakes.

As much as I find French dictées quite boring too, I find them more challenging than the US Spelling Bees. Even if English grammar and conjugation is more simple, American students would certainly greatly benefit from a competition requiring more than just memorizing the dictionary.

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