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Feature Article of Thursday, 7 February 2013

Columnist: Sarpong, G. A.

Our Pupils…Our Spelling Bee…Our English

“The ability to speak and to write superior English is the first mark of an educated man, and your investment of time for acquiring this skill will be supremely worthwhile, whether for grace of conversation or for salesmanship, whether for dollar value or for social value.” – Alfred Funk

We cannot gainsay the fact that English has and will never be our mother tongue. Common knowledge it is, that this language occupies a prominent universal position as a great determiner of academic and social success. Evidently, this lovely mess of a language would continue to fascinate, flummox and even infuriate both native and non-native speakers. As the nation’s lingua franca, we are duty bound to study it as it is and not as we want it to be.

And so the gathering of 103 spelling champions from the southern and septentrional regions of Ghana was a step in the right direction. In fact, it really deserved the overwhelming patronage it received. The spelling bee, without question, remains an effective support to efforts at encouraging the effortless usage of standard pronunciation by pupils, the development of great lexical power and uncommon know-how in the use of the English language. For there is something disturbing about the kind of English taught in our classrooms. There is something fundamentally wrong with the position taken by educationists that the educational horizons of pupils should be confined to the narrow precincts of the almighty syllabus. And again, there is something disconcerting about the ubiquitous sameness of hackneyed words and expressions in student writings.

It is very easy to forget that the spelling bee comes with a package that goes beyond the mere act of students uttering out letters to match a word given out by an impartial pronouncer. The speller-brities were introduced to attention-grabbing lessons in word origins and phonetics by language experts and enthusiasts. There was a familiarization with the nuances of legion loan words from various languages and etymologies. It was an exciting time, a rigorous period of amusing discoveries and practical learning not just for pupils, but coaches as well. The confidence of a pupil has been boosted by virtue of his participation in the spelling bee. Another pupil has gone back home with a practical lesson on stage fright and how to deal with it. That smart speller who mastered a prodigious list of words with silent letters is now accoutered with the mental resource to war against the reigning menace of mispronunciation. In interacting with students of motley backgrounds, other spellers have had their life perspectives broadened to accommodate (even if not to accept) other worldviews.

The declining reading habits and the ever-decreasing interest in orthography (due mainly to the availability of spellcheckers) call for more spelling bee programs to target students at the secondary and tertiary institutions. The fact of the matter is that words spelled and for that matter understood by the various bee contestants are for the most part incomprehensible to our proud degree and diploma holders. As the privileged coach of three students at the competition, I conversed with educated parents who frankly admitted their inability to spell some of the words. Are you a parent to a bee participant? Then consult him or her the next time you wish to know the meaning of a mind-boggling word!

We can be rest assured that Kweku Twum, in the coming days would become an expert sleuth on the word braggadocio. His omission of a ‘g’ on the stage will be a constant reminder that braggadocio consists of two g letters. Perhaps, his forensic inclinations may lead him to discover fascinating facts about the origin of this mouth-filling word. His will be a discovery that this word was actually a character, a vain boaster in Edmund Spenser’s narrative poem, i.e. “The Faerie Queene”. His painstaking investigations may further lead him to other verbal behemoths synonymous with braggadocio like gasconade and rodomontade. As for Delalorm Abbah, he has experienced firsthand the woeful consequences of impatience and the importance of adhering to simple instructions and exhortations. I want to believe that he will take time to ask all necessary questions before attempting to spell a word the next time he ascends the spelling stage.

Surely, the labors of the bee organizers have not been in vain. It is plain as the day that many practical lessons have been assimilated by pupils and educators through diverse ways and situations related to the spelling bee. So let the disappointed parent or coach take consolation in the fact that the misspelling of a word does more than depriving a pupil of a cash prize and publicity. Yes, it goes beyond that even as it provides a positive avenue for increased word consciousness amongst pupils.

G.A Sarpong Brainbirds Academy, Israel Ayibge Junction, Accra / 0243354091 / bbirds2005@yahoo.com

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