Spelling Bee, USA

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South Asian Americans


Katy Steinmetz

May 28, 2015

South Asian-Americans, whose forebears immigrated from countries like India or Pakistan, have now won the Scripps National Spelling Bee eight years in a row. At one point in the 2015 final, six of the remaining seven spellers were of that ethnicity, and in the end there were two: co-champions Vanya Shivashankar and Gokul Venkatachalam. That means that out of the last 16 years, spellers of South-Asian origin have lost only four competitions. And one Northwestern academic, Shalini Shankar says it’s not a coincidence.

Shalini Shankar, an associate professor of anthropology and Asian-American studies, spent a week with the 283 elite spellers who qualified for the bee in National Harbor, Md., continuing her research into what, exactly, might have produced this string of success. TIME spoke with Shankar about her interviews with parents, the kids’ intense preparation and how immigrant culture might lead to dominance in “brain sports.”

Which South Asian countries

Primarily India and Pakistan and Bangladesh are the countries that appear to have a lot of spellers. And when you look at South Asians in the South Asian spelling bee, it’s a range across those three countries. Occasionally from Sri Lanka as well. But once you get down to the finals or the championship level, it tends to be more spellers just from India. So Indian-Americans. Usually they are second generation. They were born in the United States to parents who are first generation Indian immigrants.

Is it a coincidence

It’s not a coincidence. These kids come from families where their parents are really well educated, many of them, and their parents really emphasize education and certain types of extracurricular activities. Combined with that, they seem to have a real love of words and language and their parents foster that.

Cultural values for academic prowess

Among the elite classes in India, both economically and socially elite, there’s a real emphasis on education and the use of education for social mobility. It’s not so different from other places in the world, but it’s certainly quite prevalent there. So v alue is one that gets very magnified when you look at what Indian-American populations actually emigrated. It’s mostly professionals who immigrated post-1965. They are doctors or engineers or scientists, etcetera. So they are absolutely going to place a higher value on that than, say, other types of accomplishment. It doesn’t meant they downplay other types of accomplishments, but there’s an understood value of education that these contests jibe with very well.

Intense dedication

Unless you really love language and reading and words, it becomes very hard to care about preparing to the extent that one needs to for a spelling bee at this level. Kids who do this love words and they love thinking about words. They read the dictionary, among other things. And not all of them prepare to win. They set their own goals, like ‘I want to make it to Scripps’ or ‘I want to make it to the semi-finals’ or the finals and proportionately spend time preparing in whatever ways they think will allow them to attain those goals.

Parental pressure

The parents are definitely facilitators to this process but they can’t actually produce champions. They can only enable their children to excel in this activity if they’re predisposed and dedicated to doing it themselves. But that’s so different from spelling bee champions of any other race or ethnicity. Any time you see spellers who really are dedicated and they’re making it to the highest levels of competition at the national level, generally their parents have invested a tremendous amount of time and energy helping them. There is a lot of prestige in this community to winning something like a spelling bee or winning a geography bee or a math bee. And that is valued as much if not more than winning some sort of physical sport … These are very important bragging rights among South Asian-American communities. There’s some real status linked to it, that the kids feel too. The kids are really excited about the prospect of being on ESPN. They want to be on television.

Parents' income level

There is at least one professional parent in most of these families that have what they call elite spellers. So they’re certainly socially upwardly mobile families even if they may not be wealthy, per se.

Extracurricular activities

The parents spend a lot of their time and resources taking [their kids] to participate in what some of them describe as brain sports. So rather that going to travel baseball or travel soccer, they’re traveling this academic competition loop. Part of why you’re seeing their success on the rise is they’re in constant preparation mode for these various academic competitions. And there are several competitions that are exclusively for children of South Asian parentage. So they have more opportunities to do what they’re doing.

Preparation process

That process is usually every day, if not almost every day, they spend a few hours after school, after their homework, sometimes after their parents get home so they can quiz them. They spend several hours each weekend day preparing, maybe not year-round but certainly in the weeks and months leading up to the bee. Some of these spellers who compete in their school bees as well as these South Asian spelling bees, they don’t let too much time go by when they don’t have to be preparing for something. They’re kind of constantly keeping this fresh in their minds. So it’s an ongoing process for them, during the years in which they’re able to compete. And then suddenly it ends when they’re 14. It can be a very abrupt ending.

Effect on childhood

If anything, the continuum of what childhood means is being expanded in productive ways to accommodate things that might have seemed extremely marginal or relegated to this untouchable nerd kind of activity. It’s something that has more mainstream cachet. I mean, being on ESPN is something very few kids get to do and these kids are very proud of participating in something that has such national recognition. It’s just expanding our ideas about what childhood means in ways that are keeping up with how the world is changing.

2008-2019: Indians win every Spelling Bee

2008-2019: Indians and the Spelling Bee
From: June 2, 2019: The Times of India

See graphic  :

2008-2019: Indians and the Spelling Bee

2015: 88th US National Scripps Howard Spelling Bee

The Times of India, May 30 2015

Desi kids win spelling bee title for the eighth successive year

Chidanand Rajghatta

America should rename Merriam-Webster to Shivashankar-Venkatachalam English Dictionary , went a widely distributed joke on social media after two IndianAmerican kids blew past the competition to be declared joint winners of the 88th US National Scripps Howard Spelling Bee championships. It marked the eighth successive year that Indian-American students have taken the title, extending a winning streak that began in 2008. Indian-origin children have now bagged the title in 13 of the past 16 years, starting 1999 when Nupur Lala won the nerdy word crown.

Vanya Shivshankar and Gokul Venkatachalam, both 13, spelled every word thrown at them with aplomb till the judges ran out of time and words and declared them joint winners. They were the last two standing among 285 finalists who came to Washington DC for the widely-followed event that has become something of rite of passage for school children, and a specialty for Indian-origin children.

Such is the ethnic Indian dominance of the competition now that 60 of the 285 finalists (more than one-in-five) who made it to the Capital (from a pool of 11 million of school children across the nation and beyond) were of Indian-origin; 25 of the 49 who made it to the final televised segment on the last day were Indian-Americans, and then it was seven out of the final 10 under the klieglights, making it a foregone conclusion that one of them would win.

Even allowing for such dominance, Kavya Shivshankar and Gokul Venkatachalam were extraordinary , silkily slaying words such as myrmotherine (feeding on ants), hippocrepiform (shaped like a horseshoe), bruxellois (a native or resident of Brussels), pyrrhuloxia (a genus of birds), and scherenschnitte (the art of cutting paper into decorative designs).

As it happened in 2014, the Indian-American win was followed by snarky and thinlydisguised bigotry and stereotyping on the social media.

Indo-American dominance on a rise

The Times of India, May 29 2015

Young guns: 25 of 49 spelling bee finalists are Indian-Americans

Chidanand Rajghatta

They are not alphanerds steeped only in words, their parents do not lock them up and starve them till they have learned the whole dictionary by rote, and they don't bandy words such as rescissible and faineancy in everyday conversation. In fact, outside of the few days when absorbed in the Scripps National Spelling Bee championship that got underway, they are all-rounders who perform jazz, dance, climb mountains, play sports and do everything regular kids do -and usually , they do it better.

The impression that young word-meisters are obsessed in little else other than learning obscure words by rote to win the national spelling bee crown gained currency through a suspenseful 2002 documentary called Spell bound. The NRI family of one of the eight characters the film chronicles is so consumed with winning that they hire special tutors to coach him and conduct special pujas in India for his success -in vain.

But Nupur Lala, who won the Bee title the year the documentary trailed eight participants is today a cancer researcher in Houston, on track after her childhood ambition to go to medical school. An accomplished violinist, she joked in a 2013 AP interview that the Bee competition can actually be distracting for a career because “there are so many interesting things in the dictionary to study.“

On, it became highly likely that an Indian origin kid might win the title for the eighth year in succession, as 25 of 49 finalists re maining at the time of writing are Indian-Americans; `Desi' kids have won the title in 12 of the last 15 years.

But with success has also come envy and resentment.Racist trolls derided IndianAmerican winners last year with one baiter suggesting that participation be restricted to Americans. The attacks have worried the organisers so much that they addressed the issue at a briefing ahead of the competition this week, with Indian-Americans kids already dominating the field.

“I look forward to the day , as do many of our South Asian participants, when they are called what they want to be called -Americans,“ bee director Paige Kimble, the 1981 champion, said.“The bee is one of the truest forms of meritocracy , and we support every kid no matter where they come from.“

2016: National Spelling Bee

PIOs win 14 of 18 championships

The Times of India, May 28 2016

Chidanand Rajghatta

PIOs spell `gesellschaft' & `feldenkrais', win US contest

To no one's great surprise, two Indian-American kids were declared joint winners of the 2016 US National Spelling Bee championships, making it the that PIO offspring have won the title of a wordy contest they have come to dominate.

JairamHathwar of New York and NiharSaireddyJanga of Texas duked it out for more than 20 rounds, crushing words such as `kjeldahl', `guignolet', `euchologion' and `romyshlennik', before organisers called a truce and awarded them $ 40,000 each in prize money and with the trophy shared.

It was the third successive year that there have been joint winners, pointing to increased mastery of words by kids that is proving hard for the organizers to trip, resulting in setting limits in rounds and time (also for telecast reasons). Thursday's finale ran well past 10.30 pm EST as the 10 finalists, seven of them IndianAmerican, held a nationwide audience in thrall with their verbal prowess.

Indian-American kids have now won 14 of the last 18 championships, leading an ESPN writer to call them the “New England Patriots of the Spelling Bee,“ after a champion American football team. Add to this eight of the 11National Geography Bee titles, including the last five, it leaves them with a reputation as masters of rote learning and general knowledge.

As it happens every year, the “desi“ dominance in such competitions led to the usual questions: Why are Indian-American kids so good at it? Is it all about rote learning? And what use are such obscure words in everyday life?

Answers offered range from community enterprise and enthusiasm generated from the recognition the first few winners got to peer pressure and the desire for mainstreaming through what was once an all-American school ritual.

Some others have attributed it to obsessive parenting, while others simply point to the prize money , scholarship, and a shiny resume that comes with winning in a system where college education is becoming increasingly expensive. Most previous winners have done brilliantly in their academic life. The top prize is now close to $50,000 with plenty of frills and media exposure, in part because the championships, both at the national and state level, are sponsored by media companies.

2019: When  Spelling Bee ran out of words

Amy Harmon and Alan Blinder, June 2, 2019: The Times of India

Spelling Bee ran out of words, and this desi duo is to blame


Seemingly unfazed by the stage lights and TV cameras, one gifted adolescent after the next approached the microphone and without a hint of timidity correctly spelled daunting words like “erysipelas” and “aiguillette.”

In the end, after 20 rounds had distilled a group of 562 competitive spellers to just eight, those who were left remained in a merciless logjam. On Thursday night, after the 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee announced that it was running out of challenging words, each was crowned the winner in an eight-way tie.

It turned out the winners had more in common than an aptitude for spelling: Six of them had relied on SpellPundit, a coaching company started last year by two former competitive spellers, the teenage siblings Shobha and Shourav Dasari of Texas.

One of the “octochamps,” Sohum Sukhatankar, 13, of Dallas said he had spent about 30 hours a week studying the 120,000 words SpellPundit had culled from the 472,000 words in the dictionary. For an annual subscription of $600, Spell-Pundit offers the massive list, which is sorted by difficulty levels and guarantees that it includes all words used in the competitions. Business took off after last year’s champion, Karthik Nemmani gave a shout-out to the service.

Of this year’s top 50 spellers, 38 were customers, according to Dasari, 18. One selling point, the siblings say, is that their comprehensive database of words and modules saves time. The Dasaris estimate that their service, which allows users to type the words instead of spelling them aloud, makes preparation four times faster.

But on Friday, some wondered whether the service had taken some of the innocence out of the contest.

“If spelling is ever going to work again: ‘do something about SpellPundit’,” wrote Jacob Williamson, a coach and former National Spelling Bee finalist, on his blog. SpellPundit — plus other coaching services — has fundamentally changed the national contest, the co-champions and their parents said.

Harder words, some observers said, may now be necessary. On Friday, the Spelling Bee officials said they were considering their options. Paige Kimble, the executive director, said: “We are inspired by their achievement. Among other things, they are going to inspire us to find ways to better challenge them in competition. ” NYT NEWS SERVICE

2021: 11 Indian-Americans US Spelling Bee contest

June 30, 2021: The Times of India

Nine of the 11 finalists for this year’s US Spelling Bee contest are Indian-Americans, reflecting the dominance young kids from the ethnic community have had on this prestigious test for more than a decade now. The 11 spellers, of which nine are Indian-Americans, will compete for the champion title during the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee Finals on July 8. Over the past 20 years, Indian-Americans have been dominating the Spelling Bee contest even though they comprise only about 1%of the US population. There were eight co-champions in 2019, seven of whom were Indian-Americans, bringing the total number of Indian-origin champions since1999 to 26. PTI

See also

Spelling Bee, India

Spelling Bee, USA

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