Socialist Worker

Bee with a nasty sting

by Martin Smith
Issue No. 1875

LET'S FACE it. The English language is crazy. There is neither apple nor pine in pineapple, nor ham in hamburger. Sweetmeats are confectionery. Sweetbreads, which definitely aren't sweet, are meat. We take English for granted. But if we explore its contradictions, we find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.

You cannot buy boots in Boots, you cannot buy threshers in Threshers, and the Superdrug chain is a disappointment. Language and spelling are made even more complicated by English teachers who bombard you with rules-I before E except after C, and their, there and they're. For many of us these rules only seem to be there to confuse us.

Is it any wonder that millions of children and adults in this country are fearful of language and dread spelling? If, like me, you have a phobia about spelling, you will be engrossed by a new documentary film, Spellbound.

It follows eight young schoolkids as they take part in the US nationwide spelling competition, called the Spelling Bee. This is a major national competition involving millions of kids with local, regional and state-wide rounds, and is covered by dozens of TV networks. The documentary looks at kids from different classes and backgrounds. One is a redneck who likes explosives and guns. Another comes from a rich immigrant Asian family, whose grandfather is going to feed 500 poor people in India if his grandson wins.

What makes it fascinating is that it reveals so much about US society. Firstly, it is all about competition. You feel the pain these young people go through as they are eliminated one by one from the contest. It is nothing short of mental cruelty. One mother even admits that it could be seen as 'child abuse'!

Spelling should be about being able to communicate, in writing, your ideas with others. It's part of us being social animals. But far from helping these kids become rounded humans, they parrot their word lists and become more and more cut off from their peers. This is not education. It doesn't expand the children's knowledge and understanding of the world. It is just an exercise in mechanical rote learning.

Shakespeare would not have even got through the first round of the Spelling Bee-he spelt his name in a variety of ways. To see children being drilled by pushy parents is horrifying. One boy was coached by several different language teachers to help him spell words with foreign roots, not to be able to speak or read the language better.

Many of the adults in the film see the Spelling Bee as proof that America is the land of opportunity-anyone can succeed if they work hard enough. But that belief is shown to be hollow as kids get knocked out of the contest because of the random allocation of words that they are asked to spell.

This is not a land of opportunity. It is a society that doesn't even provide a basic framework in which all can learn and develop. Instead it's all about power, wealth and, of course, luck. To me this sums up the shallowness of the so called American dream-remember the game, it's really a nightmare.


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Sat 1 Nov 2003, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1875
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