By Mary Hunt Webb

Posted Monday, July 11, 2011

A photo of a curious baby.

Second language learning must begin early! [Photo courtesy of]

It’s the age-old question: How do parents prepare their children for the future when the parents don’t know what the coming years hold in store?

One of those unexpected events occurred in Albuquerque, New Mexico, this past week on July 9, 2011. Although the planners of the First Annual Santillana National Spanish Spelling Bee have been planning the event for years, the parents of the first participants can’t have known about it long enough to prepare their offspring to read Spanish and to spell long Spanish words.

A photo of a toddler reading.

Where is Ricitos de Oro y Los Tres Osos (Goldilocks and the Three Bears)? [Photo courtesy of]

The youngest participants of the inaugural competition had completed fourth grade while the oldest had finished eighth grade. Instructions during the competition were spoken in such rapid Spanish that I had difficulty following all of them although Spanish was my major in undergraduate school. That meant that their parents had begun teaching their children to understand Spanish soon after their births and to read that language long before the Spanish Spelling Bee was announced. Although foreign language classes in the United States currently begin at age 14, students are too old to participate in the National Spanish Spelling Bee by the time they reach that age. That means that their education as sophisticated language learners must have already begun much earlier.

When I first learned about the intended event, I remembered an article about the first National Spelling Bee in English, held in 1925, long before Scripps became the sponsor. At age 11, Frank Neuhauser won out over eight other competitors in the event that had initially attracted two million participants. Decades later, Mr. Neuhauser remained the hero of serious spellers. He appeared in the 2002 movie, Spellbound. When he died on March 21, 2011, at age 97, his death made the front page of The Washington Post.

Curious to see what a first-ever competition for school-age youngsters looked like, my husband and I went to the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico to find out.

Once the competition began in the Roy E. Disney Center for Performing Arts, I started writing down the words that were given to the participants to spell. I learned later that the students had earlier received an 18-page booklet that contained several categories of lists of words that they might encounter during the competition. Within each category were rounds, like a boxing match.

The first category was known as aficionado, meaning enthusiast. My husband watched me write down easy words in this first round, such as cuento (story) and carpintero (carpenter). The second through fifth rounds were in the capacitado category, or what we might term the qualifying rounds. Participants had to include all accent marks in the spelling of the words. As a result, one young man was disqualified in this category when he failed to include the accent in relámpago, the word for lightning flash.

The semi-professional category encompassed the sixth through tenth rounds. However, by the sixth round, only three participants remained: Lorenzo Curtis, a fifth-grade student from Portland, Oregon; Evelyn Juárez (Whar’-rez), a young lady in seventh grade from Santa Cruz, New Mexico; and Germán (Hair-mahn’) Rojero (Roh-hair’-roh), a fellow in eighth grade from Los Lunas, New Mexico. In the seventh round, Lorenzo misspelled a word, leaving Evelyn and Germán to finish the competition. Both of them survived the eleventh through fifteenth rounds of the professional level as well as the sixteenth through eighteenth rounds of the académico level.

Bilingual members of the audience later told me that they heard words during the nineteenth through twentieth rounds of the erudito level that they had never encountered before. Evelyn and Germán correctly spelled those words, including one long word that contained 20 letters, by my count.

Eventually, the moment arrived for which we had all been waiting when Germán misspelled a word. Then Evelyn had to spell that same word. After she did so correctly, she had to spell another long word. Don’t ask me what it was because I was trying not to bite my fingernails. I could hear the collective expulsion of breath from the audience when she spelled it correctly. After the briefest of pauses, the audience gave her a standing ovation to which she responded with a slight bow. Wearing a navy blue sundress and sparkling silver-colored sandals, Evelyn seemed prepared to be queen of the Bee with her long, brown hair flowing over her shoulders.

A photo of the contestants in the 2011 National Spanish Spelling Bee.

Evelyn Juárez appears on the far left in the back row while Germán Rojero stands on the far right of the same row. Lorenzo Curtis sits on the far right of the front row. [Photographer: Mary Hunt Webb]

One can only wonder if Evelyn Juárez will still be interviewed about her success as the first winner of the First National Spanish Spelling Bee when she is a grandmother or great-grandmother. Although all eyes are on her as the winner of the competition, the experience of standing before an audience as they exercised their brains will remain with all of the participants throughout their lives. They will call on that experience as they prepare for diverse careers such as teaching, medicine, botany, zoology, ministry, and the legal profession, to name a few. That’s because Spanish is the living legacy of Latin, and Latin is part of the foundation for the scientific and legal professions.

Whereas some may see the learning of a second language as rooted in politics, such a view appears short-sighted when we remember that English is not God’s first language. Nor is it His only one. His Kingdom extends beyond national or political borders. According to John 3:16, His love encompasses the entire world: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

To reach that world with His love, second and third languages become necessary.

An image of a glass globe.

                           [Photo courtesy of]

Juan 3:16 “Porque de tal manera amó Dios al mundo, que ha dado a su Hijo unigénito, para que todo aquel que en él cree, no se pierda, mas tenga vida eterna.” (Reina-Valera 1960)

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