The BBC recently ran ‘The Hard Spell’ – a televised competition to find “Britain’s best young speller”. In short, contestants were read out a series of words, which they then had to spell aloud. There was much praise for all the contestants, and of course the finalists – but what exactly are they being praised for? I’ll happily give them credit for not succumbing to stage fright, but at the end of the day they’re just spelling words.
Words, I might add, that they don’t necessarily know the meaning of. Words, I dare say, that they probably couldn’t use in a conversation if their lives depended on it. Ok, so they don’t need to know what the word means, as long as they can spell it, but to me it seems utterly pointless to learn how to spell reams and reams of words that you’re not going to use. A well-trained parrot could do the same thing, and I’d probably be more impressed.
Is there a point to this particular rant? Probably not actually – there was a point when I first started writing, but I ended up taking an unscheduled break due to illness in the family.
Actually, perhaps there is a point. So the best speller in the UK can spell all manner of words, I’m sure they can spell ‘meningitis’ – but does being able to spell the name of an illness mean that they have even the slightest inkling of what the ramifications might be if they caught it? Does the ability to spell ‘alcoholism’ mean that they’ll be able to avoid suffering from it when they’re older? Does the actual spelling of ‘Alzheimer’s’ in any way suggest how painfully protracted and heart-rending it can be for both the afflicted and those around them? I don’t think so.
Words have power, we all know that, but merely being able to spell them doesn’t signify a thing. It doesn’t mean that you’re intelligent, it doesn’t confer any kind of superiority – all it means is that you’ve done as you were told. I thought that learning by rote was outdated and obsolete, but maybe we’ve just taken a step back to a time when knowing what something is was the same as knowing what it was actually like.
Experience is everything, words pale in comparison. Perhaps those who believe in the Hard Spell should try learning things the hard way instead.