SOUTH FORSYTH — When Akshat Gautam correctly spelled “vaporetto” on March 18, he became the first Forsyth County student to win the Georgia Association of Educators State Spelling Bee.
But if you sit down and listen to the 13-year-old South Forsyth Middle School eighth-grader talk about the day or his spelling skills, he doesn’t make it seem out of the ordinary or improbable.
He makes it seem as if he was always meant to win the bee at that level. The ease at which he talks about spelling words grown adults have never even heard of makes it sound as if he won by spelling “dog.”
After placing third in the countywide bee in January, he has not missed a word since. The top three spellers in the district advanced to the regional level. He won that. Then came state. He won that, too.
Now he will represent Georgia in the Scripps National Spelling Bee Championships in May. The event in Washington, D.C., is televised on ESPN.
Of course, it wasn’t that easy. And it took years to get to this so-far-perfect level.
“I remember in fifth grade I got out in a bee because I didn’t know the pronunciation,” Gautam said. “Like I knew the word, but it was pronounced differently, so I spelled it completely differently.”
To avoid making that mistake again, Gautam sometimes uses an online software to study words so he can hear the pronunciation.
But he said he doesn’t really like studying on an iPad or Kindle, he’s “not that type of person.”
He won both of those devices for being the best speller in the state, but they’re more for games, he said.
He won a dictionary, too. That’s not his go-to for studying, either.
“I just revise word lists and just read them,” he said.
It may seem premature to say someone is an expert at anything in eighth grade, but Gautam is no newcomer to the spelling bee game.
“My mom like made me do it when I was in third grade, so ever since then I’ve been doing it,” he said. “I’m really good at memorizing stuff, so I guess I just memorize lists, and that’s how I’m kind of good at spelling.”
He said his studying process has not changed much, but he has learned to do so more efficiently.
“At the start, my parents would quiz me, and it was at a lower level and I really couldn’t sit by myself at that age,” he said. “But then as I grew older I was like, I’m not going to get as many words done if they quiz me. If I just read through a list I can get like five times as many words done.
“But then when I watch national bees, I also saw things, because after a person wins they show how a person studies and all that, so I look at that.”
He said he spends 90 minutes studying words on weeknights and longer on the weekend.
Greek words are his favorite, because they follow a pattern. “Like they’re all the y’s and ch’s,” he said.
Latin words are the hardest “because ‘dis’ is ‘d-y-s’ and ‘d-i-s’ and there’s ‘i-o-u-s,’ ‘e-o-u-s,’ and you never know when you use each one. ’Cause they all have the same definition.”
He said a unit in his English language arts class helped him with Greek and Latin roots, but he doesn’t always use roots and definitions and “can you use it in a sentence” to help him spell.
“Vaporetto. I don’t know what it means,” he said. “I just knew how to spell it. I don’t know why.”