James Maguire, the author of American Bee: The National Spelling Bee and the Culture Word Nerds, describes Spelling Bee as a “workaholic’s game. No weekend enthusiasts need apply” (The Wall Street Journal). And the contestants of HDFC Standard Life’s Spell Bee in India that completed its first season on ESPN Sports last month agree. “Preparing for a spelling contest is not about reading dictionaries cover to cover a week before the contest. Rather, you have to be constant reader,” says Ananya Das, a 14-year-old student at Springdales, New Delhi, who came third at the Spell Bee.
Piroune Balachandran of Doon School, Dehradun, who won the contest, is a prolific reader. The 15-year-old has just completed Joseph Heller’s Closing Time, Simon Reid-Henry’s Fidel and Che: A Revolutionary Friendship and Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim. Anshuman Mohan, who tied for the seventh position, goes to bookstores armed with a tiffin box so that he can “devour” books without taking a meal break. The 14-year-old student of St Xavier’s Collegiate School, Kolkata, reserves a seat for himself at the Crossword bookstore on Elgin Road and digs into whichever title takes his fancy. Das goes through “book phases”. She started with an Amelia Jane phase at the age of five and is experiencing a Khaled Hosseini-Jeffrey Archer phase right now. Hina Tolani, who came 25th and was the youngest contestant on the show, lives in the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust Colony, and has alternated between the tennis ground and library since she was 6. The latest word she’s shooting around is “triskaidekaphobia”, the fear of the number 13.
Hina Tolani (scribbling on the blackboard) was the youngest contestant at Spell Bee. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
These children insist that they never made a conscious effort to learn spellings before enlisting for the competition. “My school informed me only five days before the competition that I had made it to the show. So in those five days I did read parts of the Collins Dictionary that the organizers had recommended. But I did not spend every hour trying to memorize every word,” says Tolani.
According to Das, people who read and learn to pronounce words correctly tend to make a mental note of the arrangement of letters and are thus able to spell well. Balachandran’s mantra is “read a lot, talk a lot and pay attention to the way people speak”.
Tolani’s mother Neha, an English teacher in Navi Mumbai, says that she throws a random word at Hina during routine chores and asks her its meaning and spelling to “sharpen her language skills”.
Interesting words are part of these children’s lives. Tolani reads with a dictionary beside her so that she can look up every word she doesn’t know. She tries to “trick words into memory” by connecting them to everyday events or weaving stories around them. Das, on the other hand, plays word games with her friends. Each friend has a letter and they go on expanding the word to make a sensible but longest possible word. Hunting for amusing words is what spices up the English language for Mohan. Words such as “antidisestablishmentarianism”, which means opposition to the withdrawal of state support to the church, never cease to fascinate him.
Trawling through a dictionary to learn spellings might help win competitions but Das’ parents prefer using innovative ways to engage her with the language. Her mother, Madhavi, used to play the “nonsense story” game with her, where mother and daughter would alternately supply sentences and make up a story. Also, whenever Das was arguing with her younger sister and wanted to refuse her something, she’d just use “floccinaucinihilipilification” to disregard her demand as worthless. “This made our fights more interesting,” she says.
Anshuman Mohan came seventh at Spell Bee. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
While none of the children who made it to the final list of Spell Bee are rote learners, they come from “reading families”. Balachandran’s parents would read to him every night. When he was 6, his mother began reading out Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to him. After hearing half the book, he was so intrigued that he began reading it himself. He has finished writing 100 pages of his first book. “It’s set in an obscure town during World War II; the people of the town meet each other only once a year during a fair,” he says.
Mohan, too, is secretive about his book Potato Chips, which is scheduled to be released by HarperCollins next year. “It’s about a 12-year-old and his perspective,” is all he is willing to say. Mohan’s affair with books began at 3 with Enid Blyton’s Noddy series. His parents got him a library membership at 6, but he exhausted the children’s section soon and had to move to another library. He has changed four libraries so far.
Though each of them took home a different lesson from Spell Bee, there is one thing they collectively concluded: French should only be a spoken language.