- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Thomas North sounded a little bit groggy yesterday morning, having experienced what he called a “pretty erratic” sleep pattern during his first 24 hours in the United States.

Who could blame him? Of the record 288 competitors in this year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, nobody traveled farther than the 13-year-old boy from Hamilton, New Zealand.

“We’re still feeling the effects a little,” said his mother, Katherine Foulkes, who accompanied Thomas for the 22-hour trip that crossed the Pacific Ocean and North America.

Others with a long trip include Jiwon Seo, who flew from South Korea with her parents and sister. Maria Isabel Kubabom arrived from Ghana with her mother, having spent an unscheduled night in New York along the way because luggage problems caused them to miss their connecting flight.

“The luggage was soooooo slow,” Maria Isabel’s mother, Marian Tadefa-Kubabom, said with a laugh. “It was a welcome to your country.”

The bee has become an American phenomenon, inspiring books, movies and even a Broadway musical. And the 81st contest - tomorrow and Friday at the Grand Hyatt Washington, on H Street Northwest - will have more international flavor than ever.

South Korea and Ghana are represented for the first time, joining spellers from the Bahamas, Canada, Germany, Jamaica and New Zealand, plus the U.S. territories of American Samoa, Guam and Puerto Rico.

All will compete in the preliminary round tomorrow morning, with the top spellers moving to the nationally televised elimination rounds later in the night and Friday. For the third consecutive year, the champion will be crowned in prime time on ABC.

International competitors have been a staple of the bee for three decades, and two winners have come from outside the 50 states: Hugh Tosteson, of Puerto Rico, in 1975, and Jody-Anne Maxwell, of Jamaica, in 1998. Canada’s Nate Gartke was last year’s runner-up.

One of the lasting memories from the 2007 bee was the thick Kiwi accent of New Zealand’s Kate Weir, who baffled judges several times with her pronunciations of certain letters. Even after listening to a replay, the judges couldn’t decide whether she was saying “g” or “j.”

Mrs. Foulkes can only hope her son isn’t similarly misunderstood.

“Kate has a particularly southern New Zealand drawl,” she said. “Thomas, I think, is a little less Kiwi.”

Thomas watched last year’s finals on television and has seen the replay of Kate’s adventures on stage. But the accent isn’t his biggest concern. Similar to all New Zealanders in the bee before him, he has had to relearn some basic English rules because American spellings of certain words are different from the norm back home (for example, “color” instead of “colour”). He recently even started spelling the American way in his homework assignments, even if it threw off his teachers.

“I think they know I’m doing it on purpose,” Thomas said.

Competitors are welcome from any country as long as there is an English-speaking newspaper or a similar organization willing to sponsor a local bee. Jiwon, 11, won the contest in South Korea sponsored by Yoon’s English Academy, in Seoul.

Jiwon began an interview saying, “I can’t speak English very well.” But it soon became clear she was being modest. She studied the language in school from an early age and enjoys spotting new words and spelling them in her notebook.

Asked if she faces a disadvantage in competing against English-proficient Americans, she said: “A little bit. But the spelling bee, the words aren’t used much, so that’s not a big disadvantage.”

Sure enough, recent winning words have included “appoggiatura,” “Ursprache” and “serrefine” - hardly the stuff of routine conversation for an English-speaker, young or old.

Maria Isabel, 13, is from Accra, the capital of Ghana, where English is the official language. Soft-spoken and polite, she answered several questions with a simple “Yes, please.” Like Thomas and Jiwon, Maria is visiting the United States for the first time and sounded nearly as excited about the schedule of social events preceding the bee - including a barbecue and tours of local attractions - as she is about the bee itself.

Mrs. Foulkes said her son prepared by studying perhaps a half-hour to an hour a day, with a 90-minute session with a tutor once a week. That pales in comparison with favorites such as New Mexico’s 13-year-old whiz Matthew Evans, who has practiced for about four hours daily with his own personal list of some 30,000 tough words.

“It’s going to be difficult,” Mrs. Foulkes said. “It’s going to be a whole few gears higher than what we’ve done.”

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