Child Spelling Prodigy Takes To World Stage

Try spelling promiscuous, sacrilegious, or milieu. Fourteen-year-old Yulkendy Valdez can. A native Spanish speaker, Valdez moved from the Dominican Republic to the United States less than four years ago and has since mastered the English language. Host Michel Martin speaks with Valdez as she prepares to compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee later this month.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Thursdays we usually reserve for our International Briefing, but we want to end today's program with a story that starts in the Caribbean and ends in the United States, in St. Louis, where we're actually headed tomorrow. Fourteen-year-old Yulkendy Valdez learned English faster than most people can spell chrysanthemum, antediluvian or obsequious. Originally from the Dominican Republic, when Yulkendy moved to St. Louis less than four years ago, she spoke no English.

But she quickly mastered the language, and in April she won first place in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch Spelling Bee. Now Yulkendy Valdez is set to compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, DC at the end of the month, and she is joining me now. Welcome and congratulations.

Ms. YULKENDY VALDEZ: Thank you.

MARTIN: Before we talk about the Spelling Bee, tell me a little bit about you. What was it like to, you know, leave your friends and everybody you knew and move to the U.S. without knowing English? Were you scared?

Ms. VALDEZ: Yes, I was very scared and sad. Everybody, when I left, was crying in the neighborhood, as I board the taxi to go to the airport. It was very sad to leave my grandparents behind. But when I came here, I knew there were a lot of opportunities and I was to form a family with my mom, and my little brother, and my step dad.

MARTIN: How did you learn English? Was it just, kind of, throw you in the pond and see whether you could swim, or did you take special classes to catch up?

Ms. VALDEZ: Well, I did have the ESL class from the district, but I also took my own step forward and I read a lot of books I didn't understand just to, to get acquainted with all the words and to see how they go. And I watch a lot of American TV, instead of staying with the normal Spanish TV channels.

MARTIN: Oh sure, that's a good scam - Mom, I have to watch TV. I'm studying. I'm learning English. Sure, we got you. So how did you get interested in spelling, actually competitive spelling?

Ms. VALDEZ: Well, I just heard about it, the same (unintelligible) here that I started to get acquainted with English just then. And my friends just wanted me to do it because everything starts as a classroom bee and then they wanted me to do it. So I just participated, and it turned out that, I got every word right, so I went to the school bee.

MARTIN: Wow, were you - were you surprised at how well you did?

Ms. VALDEZ: Yes, I was.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, alright, you know, you knew this was going to happen. So we are going to put to the test. Are you ready?

Ms. VALDEZ: Yeah.

MARTIN: So, I also have the same problem with pronunciation that you do. So I'm not going to trick you, I'm going to play for you pronunciations from the Merriam-Webster's online dictionary. So what I'm going to do is, I'll play the word twice and let's see if you can spell it. You ready?

Ms. VALDEZ: Alright.

MARTIN: Okay, here is the first word - Azimuth.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of Merriam Webster Online Dictionary)

Unidentified Woman: Azimuth.

Ms. VALDEZ: Azimuth. A-Z-I-M-U-T-H.

MARTIN: You go, girl. Okay. Well first of all, I don't even know what the heck that is. Let me tell you what it is. I'm going to read the definition, just in case anybody wants to know what azimuth is. Did you know what it is?

Ms. VALDEZ: No, I don't really have time to do the definitions.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay, the definition is an arc of the horizon measured between a fixed point as true north and the vertical circle passing through the center of an object, usually in astronomy and navigation, clockwise from the north point through 360 degrees. So, hmm, I could see why you don't really want to know. Okay, here is the second word.

(Soundbite of Merriam Webster Online Dictionary)

Unidentified Man: Schipperke. Schipperke.

Ms. VALDEZ: Schipperke. S-C-H-I-P-P-E-R-K-E, schipperke.

MARTIN: There you go, you got it again. Do you know what that is?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. VALDEZ: I know it's German.

MARTIN: Actually it's Flemish, which is close, and it's any of a Belgian breed of small stocky black tailless dogs with a foxy head and heavy coat. So there you go. What does it take to be good at spelling? How - to what do you attribute your success?

Ms. VALDEZ: Well, it's all about learning the roots and the etymology of languages such as Greek and Latin. And the rest is about luck.

MARTIN: And here's the question that adults are always asking kids, which they always hate, which is - what do you want to do next? What do you think you want to be when you grow up?

Ms. VALDEZ: Well, I've been thinking about that lately because I'm going into high school next, but I think I am going to do business or go to law school.

MARTIN: Well you'll be great, because at least you know a lot of words.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Alright, Yulkendy Valdez is 14 years old. She's in the eighth grade at Ferguson Middle School. She moved to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic less than four years ago and is now competing at the end of May in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. She joined me today from Member Station KWMU in St. Louis, Missouri. Good luck, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. VALDEZ: Thank you.

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