Bao Pham, his parents, Thuy Nguyen and Huy Pham, and his two older brothers, ages 19 and 24, were all born in Vietnam, and came to live in Colorado 10 years ago.
But Bao, 10, is an outlier: Unlike the rest of his family, his first language is English.
“I was born in Vietnam and speak Vietnamese, but I’m not fluent,” says the fifth grader at Broomfield’s Birch Elementary School. “At home, my parents talk in Vietnamese and my brothers and I respond in English.”
Bao credits growing up bilingual with helping him to hone his English skills and win the Barnes & Noble 2018 Regional Spelling Bee for Colorado’s Front Range in February.
“My parents don’t speak English very well, so I’ve mostly learned by myself. That makes me a curious person,” he says. “Of course, I did study for the spelling bee. I practice a lot and try to memorize how to spell words. I try to learn the difference in endings, such as ‘tion,’ ‘cion’ and ‘sion.’ I’ve also worked on the etymology of languages, since I never know what words are coming at me.”
On Feb. 10 at Nevin Platt Middle School in Boulder County, Bao took the prize by correctly spelling “pyroclastic,” after breezing through each succeeding challenge, from “drumlin” to “democracy.” It was only his third spelling bee.
Bao’s favorite subject in school is math. “I’m pretty profound in it,” he says. He’s no fan of social studies, and English falls somewhere in the middle. But he does love to read, citing C.S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia” and “Room One,” a mystery by Andrew Clements, as a couple of favorites.
Now he will travel to Washington, D.C., with his parents to participate in the National Spelling Bee at the end of May. The University of Colorado Boulder College of Arts and Sciences will pay the family’s travel expenses.
“Thanks to the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Colorado because they give my son the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C.,” says Nguyen, who with her husband works at Lafayette-based Rocky Mountain Instruments, a manufacturer of precision optical components.
Long interested in aviation, Bao is especially looking forward to visiting the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institute when in the nation’s capital.
“I’ve thought of being in the aviation industry, but I’m a bit of a klutz, so I don’t know,” he says. “So, the job I’m thinking of now is becoming a doctor.”