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Why Indian-Americans d-o-m-i-n-a-t-e spelling bees

It’s not genetics, and it’s not colonialism. It’s assimilation

By Marya Hannun
Foreign Policy

When, in 2010, Anamika Veeramani correctly sounded out the letters to “stromuhr” (I hadn’t heard the word before either) to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee, she captured the hearts and minds of the Indian and U.S. media alike. This was partly thanks to her inspiring performance -- and also because she had become the third Indian-American in as many years to win the prestigious competition. “Spelling champ’s victory hat-trick for Indian-Americans,” gushed, the Hindu, an English-language daily in India.

The streak continues. Arvind Mahankali, 13, won the 2013 national spelling bee with the German-Yiddish word “knaidel” on Thursday night, making him the sixth Indian-American winner in as many years.

Just what accounts for this astounding success? As it turns out, we’re not the first to ask this question. “Is it because of India’s colonial history with Britain,” wondered the Hindu back in 2010, “or is it something at the level of genetic programming?”

The answer is neither as Darwinian as genetics nor as deterministic as colonialism.

Part of the explanation does have to do with education. In India, education tends to be more rote, with an emphasis on memorization. The Wall Street Journal quotes Sharmila Sen, a former English professor at Harvard, as saying:

The first generation immigrant parent brings with her/him a set of memories about how education works and what is to be valued. For Indians that is a memory of endless class tests doled out on a regular basis to evaluate our ability to retrieve information - spellings of words, names of world capitals, cash crops of states, length of rivers, height of mountains, and a plethora of minutiae charmingly labeled as General Knowledge.

In addition to bringing this educational emphasis to the United States, highly skilled immigrants tend to enroll their children in more academically oriented extracurricular pursuits, as Forbes notes. (As a first-generation American, I can attest to this, having parents who pushed piano and quiz bowl over organized sports).

But the phenomenon may have as much to do with where immigrants are going as it does with where they’re coming from.

As Sen went on to tell the Journal, the spelling bee represents a way for Indians to assimilate. George Thampy (winner in 2000 for the comparably easy word “demarche”) echoed this sentiment, calling spelling “an American tradition that stresses diligence and studying.”

Immigrants also tend to concentrate in specific fields, benefiting from existing networks and internal assistance. And Indian-Americans aspiring to the national spelling bee have definitely benefited from one such network. As Slate puts it, Indian-Americans “have their own minor-league spelling bee circuit” – the North South Foundation (NSF):

The NSF circuit consists of 75 chapters run by close to 1,000 volunteers. The competitions, which began in 1993, function as a nerd Olympiad for Indian-Americans – there are separate divisions for math, science, vocab, geography, essay writing, and even public speaking – and a way to raise money for college scholarships for underprivileged students in India.

Originally conceived as a way for young people to gain access to Indian-American communities and educational resources, “in the last decade North South Foundation has transformed from an SAT prep course into a training ground for Scripps,” according to Slate.

Spelling bees are an historically American-British sport (Slate, which deserves a nod for its stellar spelling bee coverage generally, has an amazing list of alternative contests that includes a Chinese speed-dictionary competition).

But bees have slowly gained international traction. It’s no surprise that India is among the countries that now boast regional spelling bees.

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