N.B. fifth-grader with 'off the charts memory' heads to national spelling bee

·4 min read
When he's not practicing his spelling, Austin likes to draw comics, build Lego sets and practice piano. (Submitted by Forest He  - image credit)
When he's not practicing his spelling, Austin likes to draw comics, build Lego sets and practice piano. (Submitted by Forest He - image credit)

Austin He is eleven years old — with typical 11-year-old hobbies, like building Lego sets, collecting Pokémon cards, drawing comic books, and playing with his brother, Daniel.

Less typical, however, is the Quispamsis student's talent for memorization.

Take the entire periodic table, which he learned by heart in a week. Or the names and flags of every country in the world, of which he can recognize all "except for maybe two or three."

He's currently working on the capital cities of all 195 countries.

"My dad had me get tested for my memory, and apparently it was so good it was off the charts," said Austin, who attends Grade 5 at Fairvale Elementary School in Rothesay.

WATCH / The CBC's Julia Wright goes head to head with spelling whiz

Austin's all-star ability to recall information earned him a top-50 spot in the Canadian Math Kangaroo Contest for four consecutive years — and more recently, first place for the Atlantic region in the Spelling Bee of Canada's series of coast-to-coast virtual competitions.

Now, he is the only New Brunswick student selected to compete in the Spelling Bee of Canada's 35th annual championship on June 12, 2022 in Toronto.

"I'm kind of excited for the spelling bee and a bit nervous," said Austin, who won first place for the Atlantic region with the word opponent.

Julia Wright / CBC
Julia Wright / CBC

Not always smooth sailing

Before Austin entered Grade 1, his parents, Forest He and Yan Guo, realized he could remember things — like books and signs — days after seeing them.

"That really caught our attention, to realize that Austin has this ability better than other kids of the same age," said He.

That being said, "it has not always been smooth sailing for Austin."

Being at a different level than some other children his age led to him occasionally losing interest in the subject matter.

"Often, we heard Austin was not fully engaged in his class," He said.

"Since we moved back to Saint John and joined Fairvale Elementary, we received a lot more support from the school. I would say the school has done a very good job in guiding Austin's learning and growth, which is also a big contributing factor for his recent win."

Julia Wright / CBC
Julia Wright / CBC

Grades 4 and 5 French immersion teacher Connie Culligan says Austin is  "fantastic to have in class."

"I look forward to coming to school every day to work with Austin. As much as I can give him information to learn, he can challenge me just as easily."

To keep him engaged in class, Culligan has enlisted Austin as her unofficial teaching assistant.

"The children really look up to Austin," she said.

They know if they need help with editing, they can go to him. If there's something in mathematics that they don't understand and I'm busy, they can ask him."

His abilities are "looked at as something to be admired and not as a difference."

The extra responsibilities also keep Austin sharp.

"My classmates normally use me as a human dictionary when we're doing writing, even though there's about 20 dictionaries on the other side of the room," Austin said.

Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis

In the weeks leading up to the national championship, Austin is keeping up with practice tests and drills at home with his parents.

"It did not take him long to finish the basic training material. He just happily moved on to the Oxford Dictionary," his father said.

According to Austin, the "coolest word" he's learned  is pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, which is a lung disease caused by inhaling silica dust. It's a mouthful —but there are always bigger challenges out there.

Submitted by Forest He
Submitted by Forest He

"The longest word in the world is 189,819 letters long, and it takes three and a half hours [to spell]," Austin said.

But he has more important things to concentrate on at the moment.

"I'm probably not going to spend three and a half hours saying a word."

Some shorter words, he said, can also be tricky. In the Atlantic competition, some of the words he found challenging included diskette and adversary.

Live streamed on CBC Sports

Austin's goal at the Spelling Bee of Canada, according to his parents, isn't necessarily to win.

"Our advice to Austin is that being part of the national competition is already a huge accomplishment," said Forest.

"So you can just be yourself on the stage and enjoy the spelling, which is something you really like, rather than having to win something. We will be happy if you do win, but that's not something we're hoping for."

Julia Wright / CBC
Julia Wright / CBC

Inevitably, there's some pressure associated with performing on the national level. But he has "different strategies" to deal with nerves.

"The last one I used was just repeating the periodic table in my head," said He.

The Spelling Bee of Canada's 35th annual championship will take place in-person on Sunday, June 12, at Beeton Hall in the Toronto Reference Library. The event will be live streamed on CBC Sports at 11:00 a.m. Atlantic.

 

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