Yesterday I finally got around to renting the DVD of the documentary (“D – O – C – U – M – E – N – T” um er “A – R – Y”) movie Spellbound, which is about a bunch of American kids selected for their variety of ethnic backgound – as well as unity of linguistic (“L – I – N – G” er “U – I – S – TIC”) foreground or course – who took part in the 1999 National Spelling Bee Championships in Washington DC. Until now I had not really appreciated what an important piece of Americana the institution of the Spelling Bee is. (And by the way, what does the “Bee” bit mean? Is that bee as in the insect, and if so, how did that come about?)
The spelling of English is notoriously perverse and difficult. Spelling Bees turn what might have been a horrible barrier to becoming an American into a patriotically shared ordeal, and this movie shows this process still to be in rude health. Spelling Bees for other languages would not make nearly so much sense, because other languages are so much easier to spell. Spanish spelling, for instance, is a doddle (doddle? – could you give me the language of origin please? – language unknown) compared to English spelling.
My favourite bit of Spellbound was watching an Indian-American boy who had sailed through hundreds of other words being struck dumb by “Darjeeling” (“DAR” – “D – A – R” pause, etc.). You could really see the American Dream and the American Melting Pot working at full power, melting the various ethnically diverse peoples who still now flood into America into Americans, in the heat of competition, gripped by a shared desire to Get Educated and to Get Ahead, and join in being Americans by competing with other Americans for the Good Life and the Glory of winning the National Spelling Bee Championship. Since competition is such a huge part of American culture, the psychological art of handling it is also central to being a successful American, and you could see them all learning about that also. (“Our daughter was a winner just by getting this far”, etc.)
The key quote probably came from the mother of the Indian-American girl who actually won it, in the form of the claim that she now felt that she “belonged”. Quite so. Americans, bound together by their shared struggle to spell the American language. Bound by spelling, that being the point of this movie’s title.
I know, I know, champion spellers are only a geeky freaky minority. But think how much trouble such intellectuals can make when they have some ethnic differences and resentments to work with. Getting the clever ones stirred really thoroughly into the Melting Pot counts for a lot more than their mere numbers would suggest. All this was further brought home by my coincidental reading today of an article by Samuel P. Huntington about the retreat of English in the American South West in the face of the advancing Spanish. Huntington’s point is that the linguistic unity of the USA is now in the process of being destroyed. The USA is being turned into a bilingual nation. Whatever that “U” in USA used to mean, it is no longer, in the future, going to mean linguistically united. Third and fourth generation immigrants from Mexico and from other parts of Latin America are growing up with no more knowledge of English than their grandparents or great grandparents had when they first arrived in America.
Huntington even alludes to the spelling bee tradition in this article, quoting the late California Republican Senator S. I. Hayakawa:
“Why is it that no Filipinos, no Koreans object to making English the official language? No Japanese have done so. And certainly not the Vietnamese, who are so damn happy to be here. They’re learning English as fast as they can and winning spelling bees all across the country. But the Hispanics alone have maintained there is a problem. There [has been] considerable movement to make Spanish the second official language.”
One of the kids in Spellboungwas a Mexican American, whose dad came into America as an illegal immigrant. The dad’s elderly employers, a couple far too old and grizzled to be bothering with political correctness, were shown opining that this Mexican dad illustrated that not all Mexicans were layabout good-for-nothings, or words to that tactless effect. And you couldn’t help wondering if this opinion was all mixed up with the fact that this particular Mexican family was learning English, so much so that one of their sons was proud to be a champion English speller. For they are exceptions, according to Huntington. Most incoming Mexicans are now quite consciously resisting being swept up in American values of competitiveness and educational advancement, and speaking English.
Author Robert Kaplan quotes Alex Villa, a third-generation Mexican American in Tucson, Arizona, as saying that he knows almost no one in the Mexican community of South Tucson who believes in “education and hard work” as the way to material prosperity and is thus willing to “buy into America.” Profound cultural differences clearly separate Mexicans and Americans, and the high level of immigration from Mexico sustains and reinforces the prevalence of Mexican values among Mexican Americans.
To put it unkindly: we are layabouts and we are proud of it.
Here in Britain, we have many problems associated with mass immigration, but a contiguous border with a Third World country, speaking one of the great non-English World Languages is not one of them. Our Muslim immigrants are a potential problem because we fear that they will not ever become culturally assimilated. But the biggest linguistic minority in Britain looks, for the foreseeable future, like being, and remaining – the Welsh! But imagine if the Welsh speakers of Britain were only the advance guard of another thirty million Welsh speakers in a separate and much poorer state right next to us, where Ireland actually is for instance, and of another two hundred million Welsh speakers elsewhere in the world. That would certainly change how we Anglos would feel about our Welsh minority, and how they would feel about themselves. It would also make the prospect of serious Anglo-Welsh conflict far more likely.
As it is, Britain looks, and no thanks to all the multi-culturalist in our midst, likely to continue with its ongoing project of linguistic assimilation. There are just no incoming linguistic groups big enough, relative to the rest of the population, to make not learning English a rational educational or economic choice. And indeed, there is something very turn of the century New York about London just now – which is all part of why I am so optimistic and excited about the immediate future of London.
Maybe language will prove more unifying in Britain than Muslim culture threatens to be divisive. And maybe the linguistic disunity of America could spell more trouble for them than we face from our Muslims-versus-the-Rest divide, because that linguistic divide threatens to bring with it cultural differences every bit as profound, but in addition to that, to freeze those cultural differences into a permanent pattern.
Talking of British linguistic unification, why don’t we in Britain have Spelling Bees? Because I say that we definitely should. Now would be an excellent time to make a big fuss of such clever kids, and about the art of spelling in general. Maybe we do, in which case, British commenters, please enlighten me about that. But although mention was made in Spellbound of how this Spelling Bee thing has gone global, I’m not aware of it having caught on here. If it hasn’t, yet, maybe Spellbound will change that – either by unleashing it from a standing start, or by fanning the flames of whatever Spelling Bee sparks are sputtering away here already, to mix the metaphors (“M E T A” – “PHOR”). I was quite surprised to see Spellbound in Blockbuster, which is not an enterprise given to sentimental, politically correct gestures. They only offer for rent what they reckon people will want to rent. And quite a lot of people besides me did seem to be renting it.
Before anybody else says it, let me say it. It doesn’t matter how many British schoolteachers would moan about excessive competition and try to stop the thing. It could all be run by a TV company. All that is needed is for some clever kids willing to participate to be rounded up and quizzed, and then for others to join in, and I reckon plenty would.
We in Britain could certainly use such a tradition. What’s the betting that in twenty years time, a British Muslim kid will be the Spelling Bee World Champion?