Why celebrate a spelling champ in the digital age

Competitive spelling is a mind sport. Like watching any sportsman demonstrate excellence by besting another, it offers a glimpse of human drama at its most sublime.

I sat on a judging panel last weekend, gripped by Singapore's top young spellers during the zonal rounds of the RHB-The Straits Times National Spelling Championship.

I cheered inwardly when a child got a word right, his face lighting up with the satisfaction of a runner having cleared his heats. Far harder was watching the crushing blow of a misspelled word and the ensuing tears.

But I am convinced: To say that we do not need to spell well in a digital age of countless technological checks is to say we don't need the Olympics because there are Xbox simulations of sports.

Expert spellers demonstrate technical ability worthy of a national platform. The skill of holding a lengthy, often illogical string of letters in your head, then articulating them in their correct sequence, is a feat that calls for memory, study, strategy, intelligence and, most importantly, nerves of steel.

In a strong speller you will see not only an understanding of the definition of a word, but also its precise application. Such an expert is likely to be able to express that he is not merely happy, but describe exactly the degree of his elation, exuberance and felicity.

This may be why witnessing a young mind trying to discern how many 'Ls' there are in "dilettante", if "eking" contains another "e", or if "odyssey" needs an "i" or "y", is so addictive. You get to see how widely the speller has read, his command of semantics, and how deeply he loves the language.

No English language learner can be an exponent without mastery of spelling, in the same way no one can be a tennis champ without the ability to serve. What a competition like The Big Spell does is deepen the appreciation of what a young English expert is capable of under pressure, without any help from the Internet.

To give the curious a sense of just how tough spelling can be, I quizzed several adults on selected words from the 50 featured in the competition's preliminary round.

Can you spell "berserk", I asked.

How about "menagerie"?

Now, "diphtheria".

Not one of the 20 people I asked got all three correct. Some said flatly: "No, I cannot. I use Google."

Others said: "I can do it if I can write it down on paper."

Or: "Who says diphtheria has an extra 'h'?"

And: "You didn't even pronounce the word correctly!"

Then the sheepish admission: "Actually, this is quite hard."

Unlike the child competitors of The Big Spell, my peers and I, I fear, have been neglecting our fundamentals. Having drunk from the fountain of autocorrect, we have become spoiled, slack, uninterested - and worse, unabashed about it.

Educators rightly fret about the impact of the digital age on language skills. Pervasive technology is creating a paradox that they daily battle: At no point in history have young people done more writing by composing texts, exchanging e-mail and instant messages, and posting on social networks.

Yet few regard their informal communication as "real" writing, so they employ the lowest grades of language. Truncations, lax punctuation, acronyms, IM speak, slang and bad grammar are everywhere.

So reliant are we now on software that delivers us from errors and even feeds us synonyms, that our confidence in our own language skills is eroding.

Unlike champion spellers, adults no longer take pride in getting a word spelt right, or feel shame at getting it wrong. We expect some magical digital check to clean up the mess.

Unfortunately, without a healthy respect for the foundational elements of a language, experts believe, we can never develop a deep understanding of its heritage and culture. How can we ever love it fully, they say, when we cannot claim to know it intimately?

A platform that celebrates spelling in this era helps to keep standards from falling. It challenges English language learners to strive for expertise and be the best they can be. As for us adults, maybe it's time we started thinking of a grown-up version of the game.

sereneg@sph.com.sg