Sonia Ann Schlesinger, winner of the first spelling bee in Japan, will be shooting for the top when the three-day National Spelling Bee in Washington gets under way Wednesday.
If she does well in the championship, the 13-year-old American hopes to get on television by cracking the vaunted top 50.
“It’s hard to get there, but that’s when they start broadcasting on TV,” the student at Nishimachi International School said last week. “I want to get there.”
National Spelling Bee 2010 will draw 274 finalists from 12 countries and territories, including Japan, South Korea, Ghana and Puerto Rico, to the United States. The widely recognized competition challenges students from the ages of 6 to 15.
On March 13, Schlesinger defeated 54 other contestants from 28 international and U.S. military schools to win the first National Spelling Bee event ever held in Japan.
The winning word was “Croesus,” meaning a very rich man.
The contest was hosted by The Japan Times under authorization from E.W. Scripps Co., which organizes the annual contest.
The contest has a long history. According to Scripps, it was first held in 1925 with nine contestants in Washington.
To advance, the young participants must spell a given word out loud within a set time after it is read by the “pronouncer.”
The contestants are allowed to request hints, including a definition, example sentence, part of speech, language of origin and alternate pronunciation. The clues can be helpful because, for example, spelling patterns are sometimes based on the language of origin, such as Latin and Greek.
But once they begin spelling the word, the contestants can’t start over. One mistake and they’re out.
The National Spelling Bee is incredibly tough, even for adults, simply because any of the hundreds of thousands of words in the English language can be used in the contest as long as it is listed in a dictionary.
This includes not just words from Latin or Greek, but also words from Sanskrit, Arabic, Javanese and Hindi.
For instance, winning words in past finals included “Laodicean,” meaning lukewarm in religion or politics, “guerdon” (reward), and “serrefine” (a small forceps used to clamp a blood cell).
Though Schlesinger, who came to Japan in January, will face tough competitors from around the world, this is not the first time she’s made the finals. She represented a school in Washington at the contest last year, but she crashed out early because she didn’t have enough time to prepare.
“I want to do better,” she said.
Schlesinger, who turns 14 this week, first tried her hand at competitive spelling when she was a fourth-grader in Washington, coming in fourth in a schoolwide spelling bee. Soon after, she saw a documentary about the National Spelling Bee called “Spellbound” and became more interested. “It looked like a lot of fun,” she said.
Another one of her favorite movies is “Akeelah and the Bee,” about a girl in Los Angeles who makes it to the National Spelling Bee.
Schlesinger said she’s been trying to study her word lists for the past few months but had to concentrate on passing the final exams at her school until last week. Now her family is helping her.
“I try to study when I can. My parents and sister quiz me sometimes,” she said. “I also record all the words I get wrong so that I can study by myself. I listen to the words and write them down.”
She also tries to study the languages the words were derived from and the patterns in each one, undaunted by the sheer magnitude of the task.
“You can’t really memorize the whole thing,” she said, pointing at a thick English dictionary sitting on a table.
To prepare for The Japan Times contest in March, a list of about 1,500 words was provided to participants in advance.
Schlesinger said she memorized nearly every word.
She said she will be sad once she reaches the age limit and has to stop studying for the competition.
“I guess I’ll miss the spelling bee” she said. But it would be nice if her 11-year-old sister picks up where she left off, she said.
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