Croatia native to compete
The St. Charles pupil is one of more than 70 participants in the annual event.
By HAROLD GWIN
VINDICATOR EDUCATION WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Luka Spahija spoke no English when his family immigrated to the United States from Croatia when he was 4.
He's come a long way since then. On Saturday, he will be the representative of St. Charles School in the 73rd annual Vindicator Spelling Bee to be held in Kilcawley Center at Youngstown State University.
Luka, 14, is an eighth-grader at St. Charles in Boardman and has come close to winning the school's spelling bee preliminary twice before, finishing as runner-up in fourth grade and again in sixth grade. He won this year's event by correctly spelling plagiarism.
He is one of 73 individual school champions in this year's Vindicator-sponsored event.
Luka said he spoke Croatian when he and his parents, Drs. Berislav (Berry) and Mirjana Spahija, came to the United States, but he learned English quickly. He picked up his first few English words within a week and could communicate relatively easily within a year, he said.
Young people tend to be able to master a new language quicker than adults, he said, adding that, at 4, he really hadn't quite mastered Croatian yet.
The fact that he spoke English every day at home with his parents and went to a daily preschool program where only English was spoken helped, Luka recalled.
He learned to read and speak Croatian before English and that may have helped him to become a good speller, he said. Each letter has a singular sound in the Croatian language, unlike
English where letters may have several different sounds.
That Croatian background helps him to sound out a word, he said.
Reading is the key
The most important key to becoming a good speller, however, is to read a lot, Luka said.
"That really introduces you to a variety of words," he said, adding that he finds it more productive than simply trying to memorize a list of spelling words.
Anytime he comes across a new word in something he's reading, he takes the time to look it up in a dictionary. Seeing the word with its meaning and remembering how it was used in a story helps him to remember how it is spelled, he said.
"He's a good boy. He can spell," said his father, adding that Luka's participation in the spelling bee is good for his self-esteem.
His family is proud of him, his father said.
Dr. Spahija is a neurologist, and his wife is a physiatrist, a doctor who specializes in physical medicine and rehabilitation.
Luka has two younger brothers, Roko and Frane, and a younger sister, Marta, at home.
The family first lived in Pittsburgh upon coming to this country. The Spahijas moved to the Mahoning Valley just five years ago, and Luka enrolled at St. Charles. The family now lives in Boardman.
Spelling isn't Luka's only interest.
He used to play tennis, basketball and soccer but is concentrating more on tennis now, playing for a local club.
He hopes to play tennis for Cardinal Mooney High School, where he intends to enroll this fall.
Luka is also a major fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers and was elated when they won this year's Super Bowl.
He's not particularly nervous about participating in Saturday's spelling bee. No one's putting any pressure on him, he said.
The winner of the bee gets an all-expenses-paid trip (with a parent) to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., a trophy from The Vindicator, a grand champion certificate, a $100 U.S. Savings Bond from Rotary Club of Youngstown, a $100 savings bond from the Downtown Kiwanis Club, a copy of The Vindicator's "These Hundred Years -- A Chronicle of the Twentieth Century," the $100 Savings Bond Samuel Sugarman Award, a Webster's Third New International Dictionary, and a floral arrangement from Burkland Flowers.