Why Indian-American kids strike it rich in the Spelling Bee

Going forward, from medicine and industry to academia to industry to business, Indians in America are punching way above the one per cent they constitute of the US population



By Chidanand Rajghatta

Published: Wed 8 Jun 2022, 8:43 PM

Last updated: Wed 8 Jun 2022, 8:53 PM

For some 11 million primary and middle school children in the United States, it is an annual rite of passage. For perhaps half a million or so children of Indian-origin in America, it is a mantra - a Sanskritic term for a word or sound repeated to aid concentration in meditation.

First held in 1925, the US National Spelling Bee championship has now become something of a yearly fixture in the country’s sporting calendar, much like the US Opens in tennis and golf. There are expanding stakes, growing fan following, and wall-to-wall media coverage. Every year, after preliminary rounds in cities and towns across America, some 200 finalists converge late May on Washington DC, where over two intense days, they duke it out in full glare of live coverage spelling words that are often obscure and seldom heard or used in everyday exchanges. And invariably in recent years, the winner turns out to be an Indian-American kid.

Why children of Indian origin are so into spelling and so good at it to the extent of winning 21 of the last 23 titles (including last week’s 2022 championship) has been a subject of op-eds, scholarly studies, academic papers, books, films, and documentaries. Explanations range from disciplined double parenting that is the norm in typically stable Asian families, to their emphasis on rote learning, and familiarity and comfort with the English language — the last underscored by the fact that East Asians (Chinese, Koreans, Japanese) seldom feature in the finals despite similar “tiger” upbringing.

Another understated reason: legacy. Once a country or community tastes success in a particular field or sport, it attracts a following that provides future winners — like Pakistan in squash for the longest time, China in table tennis, Russia in chess, Cuba in boxing, Hungary in water polo, South Korea in archer, etc.

Shalini Shankar, head of the Asian American Studies Program at Northwestern University, who studied the phenomenon for her book Beeline: What Spelling Bees Reveal about the New American Childhood, reckons Indian-Americans got ahead of the pack by institutionalizing spelling bee as a community event, way back in the 1990s with its own competitions and training methods, paving way for a generation of winners. According to Shankar, the more visibility Indian spellers got with a winning streak that started in 1999, the more interest it generated in the community, producing more winners.

While parents beam with pride and pleasure at their children cracking absurdly difficult/rare/incomprehensible words, there has also been a furious debate about the usefulness of it all – what’s the point in learning words that one will never use in daily life? Critics have derided the contest as a test of useless rote learning, and for the kind of pressure it puts on the kids. One year, a participant fainted on stage from tension and exhaustion. Counselors are on hand to manage meltdowns and breakdowns.

But overall, it is the school kids themselves who seem to enjoy going through pedagogical hell. For the joy of the challenge? Bragging rights? Peer pressure? Who knows? Winning words in recent years include aiguillette (the metal tip of a lace tag), koinonia (a Greek-origin word for fellowship or joint participation), scherenschnitte (German-origin word for scissor cuts in paper design), and Laodicean (half-hearted or apathetic, especially with regards to religion or politics).

Past champions – all of whom seem to have done quite brilliantly in their careers – say it has helped them stay disciplined, stay focused, and broadly improved their knowledge and outlook. James Maguire, who tracked years of spellers for his book, American Bee: The National Spelling Bee and the Culture of Word Nerds, found that the winners carried their confidence into their future careers.

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Balu Natarajan, who was the first Indian-American to win the title in 1985, and went on to become a sports medicine physician, says winning the title showed him that you can be an immigrant in America and win a competition about the English language. Raga Ramachandran, who won the title in 1988, went on to become a professor of pathology at the University of California in San Francisco. And Nupur Lala, whose victory in 1999 began the cascade of a score of Indian winners over the next two decades, and who was featured in the film documentary Spellbound, went on to study cognitive science and language processing. One past winner, 2002 champion Pratyush Buddiga even went on to become a professional poker player, explaining that he missed the competitive milieu of his spelling days.

The spelling bee success of Indian-American kids and the outsized coverage it receives obscures the broader success of the community in almost every sphere of life in America. Their winning ways are seen in a range of school and college competitions. Going forward, from medicine and industry to academia to industry to business, Indians in America are punching way above the one per cent they constitute of the US population. Tasting the nectar of success seems to begin in contests like the Bee.

The writer is a senior journalist.


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