National spelling bee may go international

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 1:19 PM

Carolyn McAtee Cerbin

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- Can you spell "international"?

Paige P. Kimble, director of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, announced to participants of the 85th annual event Tuesday evening that The E.W. Scripps Co. is in the early stages of launching a worldwide contest.

The international bee, which would be separate from the existing U.S. contest, would pit national teams -- likely made up of three children each -- against each other for global glory.

Kimble said the idea percolated last summer when she and her staff of seven looked over the requests from other countries wanting to join the Bee.

"We thought that we would find in our notes and in our records five to 10 countries asking us for participation, and what we found were 28," Kimble said. "And at that point, we decided we needed to think more creatively about how we could accommodate this tremendous interest."

Scripps President and CEO Rich Boehne said the company decided to consider an international bee because "over the years, many countries have sent spellers here for our national competition, and in recent months, literally scores of countries have expressed enthusiasm for our Bee format. The recent groundswell of interest made it clear that we need to explore in a very serious way the prospects of a separate and distinct global event."

Kimble says Scripps aims to make a formal announcement by January so the first international competition could be held in December 2013. The company decided to announce the preliminary, "big-picture" idea -- which will be featured in commercials to air on ESPN2 and ESPN during this week's Bee -- to generate buzz for the idea.

If the global bee takes wing, the inaugural contest will include the United States and the eight other countries that have sent children to this year's Bee: the Bahamas, Canada, China, Ghana, Jamaica, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. Along with the 50 states, the U.S. encompasses the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands and Department of Defense Dependents Schools in Europe.

"The Bee's profile has risen in conjunction with the global trend of English-language learning," Kimble said, pointing out to this year's group of super-spellers that 750 million people already speak English as a first or second language and another 750 million are learning English as a foreign language. "That's more than 1.5 billion people right now who are either speaking or learning English. By the year 2020, there will be 2 billion."

Some details about the new bee need pollination: what the contest would be called; what the rules would be; where the international bee would be held; how each country would select its team; and whether Jacques Bailly would go global with his calm, precise pronunciations.

Adding worldly flavor -- or flavour -- Kimble said the contest would be held in English with words selected from both American and British dictionaries.

In a "robust awards and recognition program," honors might go to spellers whose first language is not English and for the best humanitarian uses of the English language, she said. And there would be a twist.

Unlike in the existing Bee, in which individuals are on their own, an international speller bugged by a particular word would be able to ask his or her team for help, Kimble said. But that help -- a lifeline of sorts -- would come at a potentially stinging price. If a speller agreed to assist a troubled teammate and misspelled the word, both contestants would be eliminated, swatting away two-thirds of the team.

No matter how the international bee might be structured, it would aim to "inspire youth everywhere to use English to good effect," Kimble said.

For parent company Scripps, the global bee fits into its overall mission, Boehne said.

"We have a mission statement that says, 'We do well by doing good,' and we achieve that mission every day by using information to make people's lives better," Boehne said. "Knowing that should make it easy to understand why the Scripps National Spelling Bee is one of the most-important parts of our company. Our owners, our business partners and our customers all know that 11 million children and their families in the U.S. are touched every year by this celebration of academic achievement. Nothing could be more satisfying, or more consistent with our mission, than applying our national success on a global scale."

(Contact reporter Carolyn McAtee Cerbin at For more news stories about the Bee, visit

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