Wednesday, September 28, 2011

How To Say "Ding" In 41 Languages

We've talked about the Scripps National Spelling Bee more than once around here. And why not: it's bright young kids with equally bright futures powering their way through the filthiest knuckleballs the English language has to offer; struggling with etymology, every rule, every exception, until only one remains.

That's the thing, though. The spelling bee works precisely because English is such a mongrel language, willing to take any word from any language and steal it as its own, maybe changing the spelling in some way over the years. Some other major languages are far more rigid in their construction, and the speakers often far more adamant about maintaining the language's structural integrity. Spelling bees for these languages can't work, because once you're fluent and know the rules of the language, it becomes relatively easy to spell any given word. Dutch can pull it off, with the Grand Dictation of the Dutch Language, and the Spanish community got a bee up and running earlier this year, but hold a national spelling bee of, say, French or Japanese, and odds are you'll run out of words before you run out of spellers.

Foreign spellers do compete in spelling bees, but they compete in the Scripps bee, open to anyone from an English-speaking area that hosts a local qualifier. And English-language bees are held outside the United States, in such places as Canada, the United Kingdom, Nigeria, and a pan-Asian bee, the MsRRS International Spelling Bee.

More rigidly structured languages have language competitions. They just don't rely on spelling. French speakers, rather, opted to test grammar, with Quebec, like the Scripps bee, hosting an international field (including the odd American) in the Dictee des Ameriques. Held from 1994 to 2009, their final round consisted of a passage being red aloud and the contestants being asked to dictate it word-for-word.

The Japanese, with English spellings being simple and with kanji not spelling-friendly, conduct the Japanese Kanji Aptitude Test, aka the Kanken. Unlike the Scripps bee, it's not done for recreation. In fact, it shows up on your resume. The Kanken is split into 12 levels- 10 through 1, along with pre-2 and pre-1. 10 is easiest, 1 is toughest. Levels 10-4 are given to preschoolers and elementary schoolers, 3 is about high school level, and most people don't bother with anything past level 2. Which basically means level 1 is for people that have said 'come on, hit me with your best shot'. About 2000 people take up the challenge every year, with a pass rate of about 15%.

If you want to try the Kanken yourself, there are several Nintendo DS games for it, but you'll have to import them from Japan and they aren't going to translate anything into English for you.

Chinese asks more than just knowing the language. They ask you to know Chinese culture as well, in something popularly called the Chinese Bridge Competition. The Chinese Bridge competition asks that contestants display a wide range of skills, such as speech-making, poetry, singing, and even performing in a talent competition that can range from joke-telling to martial arts demonstrations. Turkish follows a similar model, with the Turkish Language Olympiads.

Italian and German proved problematic to find. I'm pretty sure they've got a competition of some sort, but I couldn't get the specifics on any wide-scale competition and what's required in them. But it's pretty likely that yhou--


--wouldn't be good at any of them.

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