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. 


Murali Krishnan said...

I agree. People tend to read way more into this competition than it deserves.

Hypothetically, consider if South Asians started dominating some kind of national juggling competition. How significant would that be? I would content it would be as meaningful as the spelling performance.

Both are niche skills, which are of limited practical value, but definitely worthy pursuits.

It just points out that our community takes a strong interest in this discipline. And since we do not visibly dominate other sporting competitions, the pride we take feeds the interest more.

Clearly the proficiency for spelling is not tied to race or ethnicity. The fact that South Asians are so visible in the competition is a statement that other communities do NOT gravitate to it.

As proud as I am to see my community do well, I do not bother trying to find a deeper meaning in it.

Aravinda Pillalamarri said...

I don't think it is about juggling or spelling, as much as it is about competition - another niche skill. Incidentally I thought ericeticolous was much harder than any of the words that followed.
(btw this blog does not recognize this word and has underlined it in red)

Thanks for pointing to the NPR piece. I love the State Bank of India calendar behind them.

Congratulations to all the participants. It was fun to watch.

polaris said...

I, too, am ambivalent about the dominance of Indian American children in the Spelling Bee. As someone who went to school in India, and came to the US for higher education, the difference between the way kids are taught in India and in the US, became clear to me through interactions with fellow graduate students and researchers. In my line of work (research), I am forced - far more frequently than I would like - to retrain myself with regard to the mental approach to a problem, and to shed the rote learning tendencies which clearly interfere with my creativity.

I am not familiar with the methods used by Indian American Spelling Bee competitors, but do hope that it involves the underlying etymology and roots, as you have mentioned. Still, one wonders whether the method can retain its charm long enough (rather than prematurely burn out) for the kid to pursue it actively later in life, e.g., in a career as writers, artists, interpreters, teachers, linguists, social scientists and so on. If the kid is going to pursue a career at the cutting edge of science my view is that the skills that are needed to succeed there don't seem to correlate well with those acquired in Spelling Bee preparations.

On an oblique, but not unrelated note: I am reminded of this story that Feynman used to tell about his dad - about the difference between knowing something and knowing the name of something. If I had a child, I would wish that I could teach him the former rather than the latter.

Anand Manikutty said...

One of the factors that also plays a role is college admissions. At least one of the Spelling Bee winners made it to Harvard and college admissions is one of those things that is almost certainly at the back of Indian-American parents' minds as they encourage/goad their kids towards these Spelling Bees.

There is probably something genetic about Indians that they don't seem to be able to do well in team sports, the sort of tamasha/rubbish that gets you into the top colleges. Doing well in sports to be more or less impossible for most of these Spellng Bee kids, in any case, and Affirmative Action also doesn't work for them, and so they do the Spelling Bees. (It is a different question as to whether sports or affirmative action ought to be a criterion for college admission. Perhaps there should be no affirmative action in colleges over and above the affirmative action already being given to white children, black children and Hispanic children (primarily) by way of college sports given that affirmative action has no place in a meritocracy. But that is a different question for a different day.)

Taking pride in these achievement is therefore quite in order because it illustrates how people overcome the organizational barriers they encounter as they make their way through life and how this actually starts when they are quite young. In fact, from the time children are teenagers, they are aware of the specific types of institutional barriers they will come to face in their adult life.

Still, I believe that ambivalence is *a* right reaction - or at least, it is in the right "ballpark" as a right reaction - to the success of Indian-Americans in Spelling Bees, but that is looking at you speaking as an Indian-American trying to take pride in Indian-American achievements. There is no inherent difference in being good at Spelling Bees versus being good
at other contests - such as hitting with a stick or a bat a round object coming fast at you at 70 miles an hour and more. If one can take pride in celebrating hitting a ball with a fat stick, then surely one can take pride in someone remembering the spellings of words, so many of which has such interesting etymologies and histories.

Rosevita Warda said...

I manage a nonprofit (LearnThat Foundation) who provides an individualized vocabulary and spelling program that helps a lot of Spelling Bee kids succeed and would like to throw in a few thoughts.

For one, I think that there is very little value in knowing how to spelling 30,000 exotic words that nobody else knows, per se.

What has value is to learn to apply yourself, set goals, and do what it takes to do well. That's the primary benefit these kids take away, and it is a substantial value.

The fact that it's a competition simply motivates kids, it's how children "tick".

A child of South Asian descent has two additional events to utilize their knowledge - the South Asian Spelling Bee and North South Foundation event in addition to the Scripps event. This makes them better prepared, builds a substantial and attractive "insider community" that is fun to be a part of, and makes the huge study effort more worthwhile.

It would be interesting to see if kids of other cultural backgrounds, if given two strong additional platforms to compete, would also come on board in larger numbers. It also helps to come from a culture that values academic achievement.

Anand Manikutty said...

First off, I think it is important to be clear about one thing. It is not South Asians who are doing well in Spelling Bees. It is Indians - for the most part.

> A child of South Asian descent
> has two additional events
> to utilize their knowledge -
> the South Asian Spelling Bee
> and North South Foundation event
> in addition to the Scripps event.
Yes, but these kids were doing well from even before these two additional events.

> What has value is to learn
> to apply yourself, set
> goals, and do what it takes
> to do well. That's the
> primary benefit these kids
> take away, and it is
> a substantial value.
Yes, but not necessarily just that. Having a better vocabulary can have a very powerful signalling effect even as an adult - not for nothing are powerful generally impressed with people who indicate nuances by careful choice of words. It is an indication of the ability to engage in precise, abstract thought.

A few more points:
(a) While it may be South Asians in general who are doing well in Spelling Bees, the primary population is that of Indian-Americans.
(b) Indians certainly possess a culture that values academic achievement.
(c) Learning even by rote is, after all learning. A lot of children become better at math by starting off with rote learning and then later assimilating the logic.

It may be that Indian parents are making better decisions vis-a-vis the education of their children because they don't have any hangups about rote learning.

Given this, I would argue that it is time to take some pride in these achievements. After all, India is the land of Panini.

Anonymous said...

I'm Asian and I never regarded spelling bees or arithmetic as a sign of true intelligence like critical thinking or analytical ability.

I use spellcheckers not because I'm bad at spelling but because I got far more productive things to do with my time.

Anand Manikutty said...

This blog posts's analysis is wrong at many different levels. My own thoughts on this to be posted here: http://askthedelphicoracle.blogspot.com/2014/06/indian-americans-and-spelling-bees.html?m=1