Many people would be at a loss to explain how a "limpet" might be put in "imperilment." But painting such a scenario would be a breeze for Tuli Jahan Bennett-Bose, who has always had a fascination with words.
Tuli, who is an honor student at Oyster-Adams Bilingual School in Northwest, has her sights set on someday becoming a polyglot. And, judging from her performance in the recent annual Scripps National Spelling Bee, where she survived two grueling rounds, she's well on her way.
The 12-year-old, whose participation in the event that was held May 30-31 at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center near Oxon Hill, Md., said she began honing her spelling skills in the 5th-grade. "When [my family] lived in Paris, I was at an American library when I saw a flyer for a spelling bee," Tuli recalled.
"So I decided to try it and I won. That was three years ago, and this is my second year participating in the spelling bee in the United States."
Snigdha Nandipati, an 8th-grader from San Diego won the championship. But a calm and collected Tuli, whose list of correctly-spelled words included 'limpet," a common name for several kinds of salt water and fresh water snails and "imperilment," to put in imminent peril or danger, stood out during the first day of the nerve-wracking and brain-busting competition. She was surrounded on stage by competitors who came from across the country and the District of Columbia, as well as Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, the Bahamas, Canada, China, Ghana, Jamaica, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.
"I [was] very excited about her participation," Monica Jahan Bose said of her daughter. She said however, that Tuli, a 7th-grader, was a little disappointed about not reaching the finals.
"But she performed well. It was her dream to come to the national spelling bee," said Bose. "She's a very well-rounded girl, she worked very hard and she loves words. It was rewarding to see her on stage and she did a great job."
The 278 competitors ranged in ages from 6 to 15 and most like Tuli who was sponsored by The Washington Informer, were sponsored by various news organizations. Once given the word to spell, students could ask the pronouncer questions such as its origin, if there was an alternate pronunciation or if the pronouncer could repeat the word. But they also made spelling fun by joking with the panel before tackling words, or by waving a high-five once their buddies had come through with flying colors. As the numbers dwindled, many perched on the edge of their seats in anticipation of being called next.
In addition to Tuli, 6-year-old Lori Anne Madison of Prince William County, Va., [the youngest competitor ever in the event's 85-year history] and Shaheer Ali Imam, 8, from Catonsville, Md., hailed from the Washington region.
But just 50 of the 278 spellers survived the first rounds to make the semifinals on May 31. Semifinalists had to earn a score of at least 23, which was determined from the results of a written test and two oral rounds of competition.
Spelling Bee Director Paige Kimble won the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 1981. She said the competition helps students improve their spelling and increase their vocabulary. She also said that contrary to popular belief – students who are coached by their parents and other family members – don't know beforehand, the words they will be asked to spell.
"Once they get on stage, it's all spontaneous. The kids have no idea what words they will be given," said Kimble, who added that while on stage, the competitors get to practice confidence while developing poise.
"They become better communicators and they get to use words in ways that will help them to be successful," she said. "Many take their experiences on to careers in medicine, law, journalism – and occasionally like me, at running this year's event."
The spellers' favorite words included "serendipity," a happy accident or pleasant surprise and "humuhumunukunukuapuaa," Hawaii's official state fish.
About 84 percent of the spellers ranged in ages between 12 and 14, with 49 percent of them being boys and 51 percent girls. Like Tuli, many listed math as a favorite subject. Science was cited as the second most popular.
Meanwhile, this year's champion, Snigdha, appeared uncertain as she glanced sideways after spelling the word the pronouncer tossed at her.
Prior to the announcement that she had spelled the word "guetapens," a French word for ambush, correctly, there was a moment of dead silence before the applause began to slowly build. Then as streams of confetti began to fill the room, Snigdha's younger brother ran up on stage to hug her. For her efforts, Snigdha beat out eight other finalists to take home $30,000 in cash, a trophy, a $2,500 savings bond, a $5,000 scholarship, $2,600 in reference books from the Encyclopedia Britannica and an online language course.
"I knew it. I'd seen it before," a smiling Snigdha said of the winning word. "I just wanted to ask everything I could before I started spelling."