Why Indo-American Kids Get Rich in the Spelling Bee
For some 11 million elementary and middle school children in the United States, it’s an annual rite of passage. For about half a million children of Indian descent in America, it’s a mantra – a Sanskrit term for a repeated word or sound to help with concentration in meditation.
First held in 1925, the US National Spelling Championship has become something of an annual event in the country’s sporting calendar, much like the US Open in tennis and golf. There are rising stakes, growing numbers of fans, and wall-to-wall media coverage. Each year, after preliminary rounds in cities and towns across America, some 200 finalists converge in late May on Washington D.C., where for two intense days they compete under the live spotlight as they spell words. often obscure and rarely heard or used. in daily interactions. And invariably in recent years, the winner turns out to be an Indian-American child.
Why kids of Indian descent are so passionate about spelling and so good at it that they’ve won 21 of the last 23 titles (including last week’s 2022 championship) has been the subject of opinion pieces , academic studies, academic articles, books, films, and documentaries. Explanations range from the disciplined double parenting that is the norm in generally stable Asian families, to the emphasis on rote learning, and familiarity and comfort with the English language – the last underscored by the fact that East Asians (Chinese, Koreans, Japanese) rarely make it to the finals despite a similar “tiger” upbringing.
Another underestimated reason: inheritance. Once a country or community has tasted success in a particular field or sport, it attracts a clientele that provides future winners – such as Pakistan in squash for the longest time, China in table tennis, Russia in chess, Cuba in boxing, Hungary in water polo, South Korea in archery, 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, believes American Indians have taken a step ahead by institutionalizing spelling as a community event, dating back to the 1990s with its own competitions and training methods, paving the way for a generation of winners. According to Shankar, the more exposure Indian spellings got with a winning streak that began in 1999, the more interest it generated in the community, producing more winners.
While parents beam with pride and delight when their children use absurdly difficult/rare/incomprehensible words, there has also been a furious debate about the usefulness of it all – what’s the point of learning words you don’t? will ever use in daily life? Critics have derided the contest as an unnecessary rote learning test and for the kind of pressure it puts on children. One year, a participant passed out on stage due to tension and exhaustion. Advisors are on hand to manage collapses and outages.
But on the whole, it is the schoolchildren themselves who seem to enjoy going through educational hell. For the pleasure 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 word of Greek origin for brotherhood or joint participation), scherenschnitte (a word of German origin for scissor cuts in paper design) and Laodicea (half-heartedness or apathy, especially when it comes to religion or politics).
The former champions – all of whom seem to have had a brilliant career success – say it has helped them stay disciplined, stay focused and vastly improve their knowledge and outlook. James Maguire, who tracked years of spelling for his book, American Bee: The National Spelling Bee and the Culture of Word Nerds, found winners carried their confidence in their future careers.
Balu Natarajan, who was the first Indian-American to win the title in 1985 and became a sports doctor, said winning the title showed him that you can be an immigrant to America and win a English language contest. Raga Ramachandran, who won the title in 1988, went on to become a professor of pathology at the University of California, San Francisco. And Nupur Lala, whose victory in 1999 launched the cascade of around 20 Indian winners over the next two decades, and who was featured in the documentary film Spellbound, went on to study cognitive science and language processing. . One former winner, 2002 champion Pratyush Buddiga has even become a professional poker player, saying he misses the competitive environment of his spelling days.
The success of Indo-American Children’s Spelling and the outsized coverage it receives obscures the community’s broader success in nearly every walk of life in America. Their ways of winning are seen in a range of school and college competitions. In the future, from medicine and industry to academia, industry and business, American Indians greatly exceed the 1% that they constitute of the American population. Tasting the nectar of success seems to begin in contests like the Bee.
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