How do you spell p-r-o-d-i-g-y?

There’s a great story in today’s Globe and Mail about an 11-year-old spelling champion. 2½ years ago, she spoke no English — only Chinese and French. But now she will represent her school in the regional spelling championship, which may catapult her into a national competition.

How is this possible? Who learns not only to speak English, but to spell it in only 2½ years?! It is truly extraordinary, according to Jack Chambers, a sociolinguist at the University of Toronto:

[Mr. Chambers] points out that learning a language and becoming a good speller are different things.

“Everybody knows children have a God-given ability for mastering language that gets lost somewhere around puberty,” he says. “But spelling is not something that’s a gift; it’s an acquisition. It’s something we have to learn, and it’s a lot more like learning how to play chess than learning how to speak.”

Wenyi Yin’s first language is Mandarin. She was born in Changchun, a city in northeastern China, in 1994.

When she was 5, her parents moved the family to Belgium, where her father, a chemical engineer, earned his doctorate, and where French is spoken at school.

“We couldn’t speak French,” says her father, Zhihui Yin. “Suddenly, in eight or nine months, she spoke fluent French.” In 2003, Mr. Yin finished his studies. He and his wife, Yajie, decided to move to Canada, where Mr. Yin found a research position at the University of Toronto.

When they left Belgium, her father says, Wenyi’s English vocabulary consisted of two words: “Okay and bye-bye, and that’s it.”

The family had only two months to adjust before the school year would begin. They exposed Wenyi to as much English as they could. But

the morning announcements, in English, were lost on the nine-year-old as she settled into her seat at Huron Street Public School in Toronto.

“When they said, ‘Please stand up for O Canada,’ I didn’t know what to do,” she says now. …

Wenyi was in good company at Huron; about one-third of the 430 students have a first language other than English. She was matched with another Mandarin-speaking student, who served as a mentor.

While she initially appeared shy and quiet, Wenyi was soaking up words like a sponge. When her parents would bring home a fresh batch of books from the library, thinking they would keep her busy for a week, she’d take them back after a few hours and ask for more.

“I remember I learned English, the everyday words, in three months I guess,” she says. “I just listened to other people say it, and it just registered in my head. It just started building up, bit by bit.”

This is already amazing by me. I’ve studied French and New Testament Greek, but frankly I’m terrible at learning a second language. I am awestruck by the rest of Wenyi’s story:

One morning last fall, her ears pricked up during morning announcements. “Do you like to S-P-E-L-L?” Samantha Berman, a Grade 5 teacher, asked over the PA system. “Is spell check a superfluous tool for you? Do you like competition?”

Yes, Wenyi thought. She liked words — all of them, she says — so she made her way to Room 13 for the inaugural meeting of the school’s CanSpell Club on Oct. 3.

The club’s 11 members, from Grades 4, 5 and 6, met once a week. Using the CanSpell study list, they would fill their 45-minute lunch break with word games, crossword puzzles and forays into the dictionary to find the words’ origins and definitions — words like ‘Lilliputian’ and ‘oxytocia’ and ‘hydrangea.’

At their first bee on Jan. 26, in front of their classmates, the competitors dropped off, one by one, as they worked through a list of about 50 words. When her last opponent flubbed ‘attuned,’ Wenyi got it right, then coasted to victory on a gimme. “It was so easy,” she says. “It was ‘helmet’.”

This month, she advanced another step by winning a written bee, overseen by Ms. Berman. That win assured Wenyi’s role as Huron’s representative at the regionals on March 5. She will face spellers from 73 other Toronto schools in a showdown at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, one of 14 regional bees to be held across the country.

The winner and runner-up from each regional contest will advance to the CanWest CanSpell National Spelling Bee in Ottawa on April 5.

OK, Wenyi has a way to go before we can declare her a national champion. But obviously she has an extraordinary aptitude for language. I am so impressed!


10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. 49erDweet
    Feb 25, 2006 @ 12:43:00

    Cool story, Q! Good call, posting it. The mind/brain abilities of a developing child is s-o-o complex, and frequently too much of its potential is wasted – because we grown-ups don’t recognize what is happening when it is “absorbing”, and tend to interfere in that process. All with the best of intentions, of course.

    Exciting possibilities for Wenyl and her family!


  2. Mrs.Aginoth
    Feb 25, 2006 @ 15:15:00

    or she has a true photographic memory – I always thought that would be a fantastic gift to have:-)


  3. Jack's Shack
    Feb 26, 2006 @ 02:32:00

    Wow, she sounds amazing.


  4. Sadie Lou
    Feb 26, 2006 @ 11:20:00

    That is awesome!
    The English language is such a joke. My 7 year old is reading and spelling right now and she tries to spell things by sounding them out and I’m always sad when I have to point out to her that it’s spelled differently than it sounds. No Natalie, phone is not spelled “Fone”.
    She says, “Why?”
    “I don’t know.”


  5. J
    Feb 26, 2006 @ 13:11:00

    I need to start learning French this summer…maybe I should ask this girl for some pointers before I get started. She seems to have quite a system down for figuring out foreign languages!


  6. Q
    Feb 26, 2006 @ 20:43:00

    • 49er:
    That’s an interesting observation, about parents interfering in the development of a child’s brain because we don’t understand the process. I think that’s part of what I admire when I see Mary P. in action: she has such a clear understanding of the developmental processes that she can support them intelligently.

    • Mrs. Aginoth:
    I’ve always been intrigued by that ability, a photographic memory.

    • Jack:
    I agree.

    • Sadie Lou:
    That’s the amazing thing, isn’t it?! The English language is impossibly counterintuitive — to learn to be a good speller within 2½ years of learning to speak the language boggles the mind.

    • Jamie:
    I envy her ability. I would love to speak a second language but I find it so difficult and daunting.


  7. Heather
    Feb 27, 2006 @ 13:05:00

    I read this in the G&M too…and like you – I am notoriously unilingual after years of French (and living with a francophone). I have to wonder if Chinese (and Japanese for that matter) stimulates a part of the brain that phonetic language systems somehow leave underdeveloped. Wild guess. I have marvelled time and time again at how one could even start to READ Mandarin. It must be so easy when the word and sound somewhat matches – to soak it up by a bright and precocious child.

    I found learning to read Korean very easy in that it is a phonetic system. I learned to read really rapidly – except I became hyperlexic – I only knew what it said, not what it meant. But it saved me from getting on the wrong train time and time again!!


  8. anonymous
    Sep 23, 2007 @ 21:53:15

    i have a friend who knows her!


  9. wy
    Dec 19, 2007 @ 22:32:01

    wow. i didn’t realize this was here and a lot of people commented!!
    i am her. it’s actually like 2 years later and i only checked it out now. WOW


  10. Stephen
    Dec 20, 2007 @ 06:02:36

    How nice that you stumbled across the post! We were all very impressed by your achievement: congratulations!


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