The Bee

No other co-curricular competition in Pakistan today is as big and as electric as the National Spelling Bee being conducted by the Dawn Media Group since 2005. For those new to the concept, the ‘Bee’, as it is fondly called, is basically a spelling contest in which participants have to spell words with varying levels of difficulty. The participants keep getting eliminated via different rounds until there is one speller left: the winner.

Records show that some form of the spelling bee was being held as long ago as 1850 in the U.S., with their biggest competition now held annually by the E.W. Scripps Company. The Pakistani variant of the competition takes place around October. Competitions are held at the city/regional level, with the finals usually culminating at the 3-day National competition in Islamabad.

The contestants, hailing from all corners of the country, are segmented into 3 age groups; 9 to 11, 12 to 14 and 15 to 17. English is a funny and confusing language, and nowhere is this more evident than at the Spelling Bee where as Pronouncer; I have had the opportunity to spell some of the most outrageous words ever.

It has never ceased to amaze me how some of the youngest participants don’t pull any punches when it comes to showing off their spelling prowess like rock stars, and would put some of their older counterparts to shame.

I know there have been instances when I’ve had to read words silently a couple of times to make sure I say them right, but a 10-year old standing centre-stage -with an auditorium full of parents, teachers and peers watching with the intensity of a Wimbledon audience- breezes through the spellings like a pro. Year after year some of these kids come back stronger, getting through more rounds, inching towards Regional and National championship glory.

The Amazing Moments

The most amazing moments are the ones when underdog teams from the most rural areas reach the final rounds in dramatic surprise upsets. The drama of the nervousness before the word is spelled, the exhilaration when the pronouncer says ‘correct’, and the disappointment when the pronouncer says ‘wrong’, is more tangible at the Pronouncer’s desk than anywhere else.

The pressure on the Pronouncer is no less as it is his (or her) responsibility to ensure that the word in pronounced clearly. Even more interesting is how some very well-trained students seem to try and reverse the pressure by responding with a volley of requests for hints and repetitions of the pronunciations.

Most disputes (or appeals) often arise from a difference in the understanding of any given word, which could be pronounced differently in American English, British English and Pakistani English. But this is only a small matter when compared to what the Spelling Bee has actually accomplished since its introduction in Pakistan. More and more students have picked up reading to help build their vocabulary and word recognition, improving their level of English language. Reading as a habit has been on the decline with the increase of other pastimes such as internet surfing, social networking and gaming, but competitions such as the Spelling Bee have renewed the importance of reading for fun.

Could-Not-Miss Mentions From the Spelling Bee

Any account of the Dawn National Spelling Bee would be incomplete without the mention of two exceptionally hardworking and talented young kids. The first is M. Ahsan Iqbal, winner of the 2012 National Championship in the 15 to 17 age group. The young man is said to have not spelled even a single word wrong throughout the competition, beating favorites such as Laaibah Ejaz, my other honorable mention.

The young lady has grown up with the competition, winning it 3 times. On the basis of this she was also awarded a full scholarship to attend a summer school programme at Oxford University. She is now a well-recognized Dawn Spelling Bee alumna, and helps students of her school prepare for the competition in her free time.

Update on 2013 Edition of the National Spelling Bee

The 2013 edition of the National Spelling Bee is underway, and participants are expected to awe once again with their prowess in spelling I-N-D-U-B-I-T-A-B-L-Y difficult words of a language that is not their own. I am indeed looking forward to being a part of the competition, and not only helping the younger generation of the country understand English better, but experiencing firsthand their quests for Spelling Bee glory – the drama and excitement of which is no less than Stallone’s Rocky movies.

I look forward to seeing the next generation of Pakistani kids shine as they take center-stage at the Islamabad Auditorium in October. This is a young Pakistan that proves that when it comes to spelling English words, they can give the best of the best a run for their money… And leave them spellbound!