Spellbound ahead of Saturday's Hmong Spelling Bee

  • Article by: ALLIE SHAH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 20, 2011 - 10:52 PM

Designed to help kids speak Hmong properly, the Minnesota Hmong Spelling Bee will be held today in St. Paul.


Buri Chang spelled out the Hmong word for immortal, which she did not get right the first time, the proper spelling is plhis. She turned back to her teacher to see if she was right about the spelling and pronunciation. Organizers of the Minnesota Hmong Spelling Bee, now in its fourth year, wanted to start one for school age children after they discovered how little their Hmong-American children knew about the Hmong language.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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What began as an exercise to help college students in Wisconsin master the Hmong language is now an annual test of suspense and nerves in St. Paul.

"It's taken on a life of its own," said Tzianeng Vang, founder of the Minnesota Hmong Spelling Bee.

Now in its fourth year, the bee is set for Saturday at Concordia University in St. Paul.

Students from nine schools in the Twin Cities -- the most since the bee began -- will compete for a traveling plaque and bragging rights.

Most important, the bee gives them practice pronouncing Hmong words, something many first- and second-generation children struggle with, Vang said.

"A lot of the Hmong students know how to speak it, but they have a hard time enunciating it," he said. "The spelling bee, it forces you to enunciate each letter."

Unlike the English language, the Hmong language is "tonal," meaning the definition of a word changes depending on the tone used to say the word. If the tone used is high instead of mid-range, the word for "single" becomes "crossing."

There are eight different tones in the language, and they function similar to the do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti musical scale, said Vang, a language teacher at Long Tieng Academy, a Hmong charter school in St. Paul.

He first noticed the struggle with tone when he was teaching a Hmong language course at Concordia University with his colleague, Lee Pao Xiong.

He and Xiong began using spelling as an exercise to give their students practice at listening to and repeating how each letter of a word is pronounced.

The teachers drew inspiration from a Hmong student group at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse who held a spelling bee using Hmong words just for fun. A couple of years later, in 2007, the spelling bee for Minnesota school-age children was born.

ABCs of the bee

Modeled after the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee, the Hmong version also borrows from the "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" game show.

Each student takes a turn and receives a word to spell.

A judge says the word out loud, taking care to pronounce it clearly.

The student may choose from among three "lifelines" to help them with the word: ask for a definition, or for the judge to repeat the word, or ask the judge to use the word in a sentence.

Then, the student must spell the word out loud, saying each letter and then repeating the word.

If the spelling is incorrect, the judge rings a bell and the student is cut from the rest of the competition.

Buri Chang of Minneapolis joined her classmates on Friday in practicing for the bee. A bilingual spelling star, Chang has competed in both the Minnesota Hmong Spelling Bee and a standard school spelling bee.

When it was her turn, she stood at the front of the classroom and waited for her word.

She carefully wrote the letters on the white board that Mr. Vang allowed students to use during the practice session.

Then, she recited each letter and the whole word, waiting to see if her teacher, playing the judge, would ring the bell on his desk.

He didn't, and she exhaled.

Chang, who was born in Thailand, came to live in the United States when she was a baby.

She speaks both Hmong and English, adding that speaking is the hardest part about the Hmong language.

"Sometimes I do struggle," she said.

Saying each word deliberately, as she had to do on Friday, helps.

"It helps me focus more on the word," Chang said. "I have to think deeply because I don't want to make a mistake up there."

Allie Shah • 612-673-4488

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