Indian Americans and the Scripps Spelling Bee

Indian American kids have won seven out of ten times at Scripps in the past decade, and have had a remarkable recent run -- with Indian American children winning four five years in a row.  

I talked to a reporter at NPR a couple of weeks ago about the phenomenon. Tuesday morning, they ran the story, and quoted me briefly near the end. Pawan Dhingra expressed enthusiasm; I expressed some ambivalence about the academic value of the spelling bees. Below are some further thoughts on Indian Americans and spelling bees. 

There’s nothing in particular in Indian "culture" that might have predicted such emphatic success for South Asian American kids in U.S. Spellings Bees. The secret of that success probably starts with the particular backgrounds of the parents of these kids, who may have immigrated to the U.S. 15 to 25 years ago, often to work in high tech. And here you find a surprise: there isn’t any particular tradition of holding English language spelling bees back in India.

India does have an educational system that emphasizes rote learning to a considerable extent, and several of the parents of Scripps winners have talked about how growing up in the Indian educational system may have helped them prepare to train their children for these competitions (Arvind Mahankali's parents reiterate this in the story on NPR). Why, then, do the children of Indian immigrants take up spelling bees?

First of all, most of these Indian-American spelling bee champs have parents who are highly educated. In that respect, Indian Americans aren’t so different from a large number of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese immigrants from the same time period – many of them also work in science, technology and engineering fields.

A second factor that may be helping Indian American contestants in particular is language; since the days of British colonialism, India has had an effective English-medium educational system. The language the parents speak may be a factor in the choice of ‘bee’. While Indian Americans have come to do well in Spelling Bees, Chinese Americans have dominated the national Math Counts competition. We don’t hear about that as much (unlike Scripps, Math Counts is not televised on ESPN).

Indian Americans weren’t always spelling bee champs. When I was growing up in the mid-1980s, there was only one Indian-American spelling bee champion (Balu Natarajan in 1985). It was really after Nupur Lala won Scripps in 1999, and was then featured in the documentary Spellbound, that suddenly Indian-American children seemed to come out in droves for these competitions.

A third factor has been the influence of an Indian-American oriented organization called the North South Foundation, which is only open to Indian Americans. The North South Foundation competitions in a number of different subjects, including spelling and math. This group has chapters in nearly every state, and it’s been described a kind of "minor league" training circuit for would be spelling champions. The founder of that organization, Ratnam Chitturi, has said that he had in mind that Indian-American children should be encouraged to excel in English alongside math and science – and his initial goal was specifically to set up a program that would help children prepare for the SATs.

Some people do say that the rote memorization involved in preparing for spelling bees does not encourage children to value creative expression. This is undeniably true; memorizing long list of spelling bee words is not for everyone, and achieving success in spelling bees can only take you so far. Then again, training for spelling bees does usually entail learning about Greek, Latin, and Romance language roots and derivations, and that kind of knowledge remains valuable in some professional fields, especially the law and medicine. And I think instilling a sense of work ethic and ambition to learn in a child is valuable as well -- and that's certainly something the spelling bee culture encourages, as long as it is introduced to children affirmatively and as a choice (the last thing any child needs is "Tiger Mom" style punitive discipline).

That said, we have to acknowledge the limits of spelling bees. As I say, memorization does have value, but skills like creative expression, problem-solving, and teamwork can be as valuable, and perhaps even more valuable in the long-term. Spelling is a niche skill, not a sign of comprehensive excellence or overall intelligence. And as I stated in the snippet that was quoted by NPR, I think there's a fine line between success in a particular niche and a kind of academic ghettoization.

Are there others who feel ambivalent, as I do, about Indian American dominance in the national spelling bee?

UPDATE: Congratulations to Snigdha Nandipati of San Diego for winning this year's Scripps Spelling Bee.