An eighth-grader at Liberty Middle School tied for first place in a recent spelling bee. To get there, however, she had to spell words like “piel” — that’s “skin” in Spanish.
Catherine Weng shared top honors at the Spanish spelling bee held May 15 at the Roland Park magnet school. Roland Park was one of 16 Hillsborough County schools that participated in the event, which featured categories for beginners and second-tier Spanish speakers in both native and non-native divisions.
But this isn’t the first time Weng has found success in the spelling bee. She won first place last year while taking introductory Spanish classes.
Weng competed in the Spanish I category for non-native speakers this year, and earned the tie when she and another student exhausted all the words prepared for the bee.
“It’s really great getting to go back to school and say, ‘Hey guys, I won first!’” Weng said.
Weng’s first language is English, but she also speaks a little Mandarin at home. Being familiar with another language helps her acclimate to learning a new one, she said. And because Spanish words often are spelled the way they sound, Weng found success easier in the Spanish spelling bee.
But that doesn’t mean it’s a matter of just sounding out words and collecting a trophy. To spell Spanish words in the competition correctly, Weng also had to mention a letter’s accent mark by declaring “con acento” — or “with accent” — after that particular letter. Failing to designate the proper accents meant the spelling would be considered incorrect.
And, like all languages, some words don’t follow the expected protocol. For a non-native speaker, the challenge is knowing the foreign words well enough to recognize when to go with how the word sounds, and when the spelling is somewhat different.
According to Katie Smith, one of the Spanish teachers at Liberty Middle School, the Spanish spelling bee benefits students who are trying to grasp Spanish for the first time.
“The spelling bee itself helps the kids really recognize some of the nuances of the language,” she said.
By understanding where the words have accents, for example, they can improve their pronunciation and speak the language properly.
But it also helps those students who are native speakers, Smith said. Many children who come from Spanish-speaking households don’t necessarily get to write it. They grow up learning both Spanish words and English spelling rules, which can be confusing. The competition allows them to recognize the spelling protocol for Spanish, and helps keep the rules for both languages separate.
Weng joined fellow schoolmates Tania Sexauer and Jack Richardson, who competed in the beginning Spanish category. And while they didn’t finish as high as Weng, Smith said they should be very proud to have advanced through Liberty’s difficult internal competition to compete at the final event.
“That’s the thing I kept stressing to them,” she said. “Even though you may not have made it to the top five (in the spelling bee at Roland Park), it’s really OK, because the fact that you were able to go and represent the school is a big accomplishment in and of itself.”
The beginning Spanish classes are particularly large, with Weng, who has only been learning Spanish for a couple of years, plans to continue studying the language when she enters high school. But for now she’s excited that her studying paid off with another first-place finish, and the Spanish spelling bee has helped her learn a new language.
“I had done it last year so I knew it was coming up again this year, so I really made sure I knew how to spell the words correctly when we were learning them,” Weng said. “I think it’s a great experience. I think it really helps me focus on Spanish.”
Published June 4, 2014
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