Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Austin-area student tries for the 't-r-o-f-e-o' at National Spanish Spelling Bee

Luis Orlando Ruiz Medina poses with his mother and baby brother on stage next to a sign that says "Concurso de deletreo en español."
Courtesy of Deilys Medina
Luis Orlando Ruiz Medina, his mother Deilys Medina and his brother celebrate on stage after Luis wins the Pflugerville ISD Spanish Spelling Bee. The local win qualified him for the national competition.

Lee esta historia en español

It's three weeks into summer break, but that hasn’t stopped Luis Orlando Ruiz Medina from practicing spelling words in Spanish every day. He’s done it almost "uninterruptedly" with a list of over 1,700 words. “Ininterrumpidamente,” with 19 letters, is the longest word on that list. It's also a tricky one, since it has a double "r."

On weekdays Luis meets with his coach over Zoom for at least an hour and a half. On weekends he practices by himself, sometimes spelling words out loud to his mom while she cooks. Luis is preparing to go to the National Spanish Spelling Bee, which takes place Thursday in El Paso.

Luis earned his ticket last December when he won the Pflugerville Independent School District’s annual Spanish Spelling Bee. He did it by spelling “piragüismo” (or "canoeing") — a word that is not very common, even among native Spanish speakers. Now he will compete against 29 other kids from nine different states for the national prize.

It’s not the long words that intimidate Luis. It’s the words that have special characters.

“I think that might be hard for English speakers, because in English I don’t think we have accents like we do in Spanish, or the 'diéresis,'” he says, referring to the umlaut in words like “bilingüe.”

“Inmigración” may be another tricky word on the list, since the “nm” can sound like a double “m." But it’s a word that Luis’ family knows very well. The Ruiz Medina family came to Texas from Cuba when Luis was four. His parents speak Spanish at home, and he’s always been in bilingual schools. Now, as an incoming sixth grader, Luis devours up to three books a week and loves to watch history documentaries — all in English.

Luis feels comfortable carrying a conversation in both English and Spanish. He now knows perfectly that “comunicación” in Spanish is written with only one “m” and with an accent on the second “o." But it hasn’t always been that way.

“He used to struggle and had many difficulties with Spanish at first,” Deilys Medina, Luis’ mom, says. “He’s gotten better, and I think it has to do a lot with the contest and all the practicing he’s been doing.”

Jocelly Meiners, a linguistics professor at UT Austin, explains that activities such as spelling bees help heritage speakers — people who learn a language through exposure at home — get a better understanding of that language. That's important because spelling in Spanish is not as phonetic as many would believe.

For example, Meiners says, some sounds are repeated in the alphabet. The English “h” sound can be found in the “x” in “México”, the “g” in “corregir” and the "j" in “cejijunto.” In Spanish from Spain, there’s a distinction between how the letters “s” and “z” are pronounced, but not in Latin American Spanish. On this side of the world, “s,” “z” and sometimes "c" can all sound the same.

These are rules that monolingual Spanish-speaking kids struggle with at first, Meiners says, but being bilingual is really what makes Spanish spelling bees difficult.

“It’s challenging when you have two systems in your brain, two languages,” she says.

Take “xilófono” and "xylophone." Just a couple letters separate the two, but that could be enough to confuse even an avid speller. And if you’re in a competition, you can’t forget to mention the accent on the first “o."

“Those types of little nuances can confuse our bilingual kids when speaking or writing in Spanish because they have the English spelling ingrained in their minds,” Meiners says.

Luis' coach, Doris Espinoza, says training hasn’t been easy, especially in the beginning because Luis would get distracted reading whatever book he had on hand. But he’s competitive, she says, and very curious. He tells her he wants to tackle German or Mandarin next. Seems like the next logical step after learning how to spell “lingüística.”

Luis doesn’t know if he will win the national contest. But he’s hopeful that the long hours will pay off. And he’s thrilled that he will get to see El Paso. He says he’s also very proud to represent Texas, the state that became home for his family, and uplift the Hispanic community.

“Being bilingual is like a gift,” he says. “You have more advantages because you can speak two languages, and it also helps you connect with two communities.”

Luis doesn’t know what will be thrown at him Thursday, but he’s prepared to spell hundreds of words. “Orgullo,” “satisfacción” and “ganador" — "pride," "satisfaction" and "winner" — are just a few.

If you found this reporting valuable, please consider making a donation to support it. Your gift pays for everything you find on Thanks for donating today.

Related Content