Spellbound by words

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 March, 2006, 12:00am

When my daughter was six, she had what we took to be a nervous habit. In class or at dinner, sitting and listening intently to the flow of conversation, she would trace patterns on her thigh. One day I asked whether hearing others talk made her anxious. She was puzzled, until I pointed out that her thumb and forefinger had been looping back and forth across her leg while I spoke. She looked at me brightly and said: 'Dad, I'm spelling out your words.'

She became a terrific speller and, it turns out, she learned by herself and by instinct that one of the best ways to learn how to spell is to visualise words. By spelling out with her fingers what people were saying, she was committing to memory how they would look on paper.

Like most parents, I am inordinately proud of my daughter's accomplishments. So I have some inkling of how 11-year-old Wenyi Yin's parents, Zhihui and Yajie, must feel about their daughter's extraordinary skill at spelling. If the ability to see words in her mind's eye has contributed to her success - she is a spelling champion - then she must see in high-definition technicolour.

When Wenyi arrived in Canada a little more than two years ago she knew two English words: 'ok' and 'bye-bye'. She was born in Changchun and her first language is Putonghua. Her father is an electrical engineer, and when Wenyi was five, the family moved to Belgium so he could complete his studies for a doctorate. Wenyi was enrolled in a French school. Within six months, she was speaking fluent French.

In 2003, Mr Yin accepted a research position at the University of Toronto and, that summer, the family relocated to Canada's largest city. To help prepare her for the start of a new school in a new language that September, they took her to the library, allowed her to watch television and encouraged her to play with children in the neighbourhood.

Two months after she started school, Mr Yin arrived one day to pick her up, and was startled to see that Wenyi was chattering away in English with her classmates. She says she just listened to other people and the language 'just registered in my head. It just started building up'.

In her second year at school, she heard an announcement that began 'Do you like to s-p-e-l-l?' And so she joined the school's spelling club, which meets once a week. They play word games, complete crossword puzzles and explore the origins of words. They also compete.

Now, two years after she learned her first words in English, she is her school's best speller, and is competing in city-wide spelling contests. Last weekend, she was eliminated in a regional competition for misspelling 'intertidal', which she says she misheard. But she intends to keep honing her skills for next year's competition.