Why Indian-Americans Reign As Spelling Bee Champs

May 29, 2012
Originally published on May 29, 2012 12:05 pm

Of the 278 sweaty-palmed students hoping to be crowned champion of this week's 2012 Scripps National Spelling Bee, chances are pretty good that the winner will be of Indian descent. Indian-Americans have won the past four contests, and 9 of the past 13 — even though they make up less than 1 percent of the population.

Over the past decade, South Asians have built a veritable dynasty on the spelling bee circuit; one commentator compared their dominance to Kenyans winning marathons.

"It's stunning!" says Pawan Dhingra, a curator at the Smithsonian Institution's Asian Pacific American Program.

"The fact that Indians would ever win is noteworthy. The fact that they would win more than once is impressive," he says. "But the fact that they would win at such a dominating level becomes almost a statistical impossibility. It's phenomenal, really. There is more than randomness going on."

Dhingra is heading up an exhibition at the Smithsonian next year on Indian-Americans that will try to explain the phenomenon. He says spelling bees offer a kind of perfect mix of everything that resonates deeply with Indian-Americans: the competition; the focus on academic achievement; the discipline it takes; and the way a tightknit family can team up to train together.

Arvind Mahankali,12, finished third and ninth in the National Spelling Bee in the past two years, and has been stepping up his training in hopes of finishing first this year. He's even trained his little brother, 8-year-old Srinath, to read phonetics so he can help with the drills.

They spend hours every day tediously going through the dictionary, with Srinath managing to properly pronounce words like "Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis." He gives Arvind the word origins and meanings, and Arvind usually scribbles in his palm for a moment before spitting back the letters — invariably correctly.

Arvind's dad, Srinivas Mahankali, says it's not just about the words. Rather, he sees spelling as a "window" into everything from history and culture to science and medicine. Mahankali says it's no surprise that spelling bees have caught on with Indian immigrants like him, who put great emphasis on learning.

"Even in Sanskrit, actually there is a shloka, or a saying, [that] if you learn something, nobody can take it away from you," he says. "So it will stay with you."

Mahankali says spelling also teaches kids logic, as they use a word's origin and meaning to deduce its spelling. But it is also, of course, an exercise in memorization, and while rote learning tends to be scorned in American schools these days, it is central to Indian education, and very much valued by immigrant parents who grew up that way, like Mahankali.

"Memory is so much emphasized in Indian traditional learning systems," he says.

Schoolchildren would often have to memorize poems so they could recite them — even in reverse. "It doesn't make any sense, but there were competitions to just chant it in reverse," Mahankali says.

Indian-American spelling successes have also been fueled in recent years by the South Asian-only farm leagues that have popped up. Those tournaments act as a kind of breeding ground, where many Indian versions of the "tiger mom" start their kids as young as 6 years old.

Mahankali says it's important to these immigrant parents that their kids excel academically. But they are especially eager to do well in English.

"The immigrants want to prove that they belong to the mainstream," he says. They are very eager to show that they have "mastered the cornerstone of the culture here — the language."

At his public middle school in Queens, N.Y., Arvind is definitely in the "in" group, seen by his classmates as both "cool" and something of a celebrity.

In just one week, he had several national reporters following him to his classes; Anderson Cooper invited him to a private spelling challenge on his daytime show. Not surprisingly, Arvind trounced Cooper, easily spelling obscure words that Cooper, laughing, admitted that he never even heard of.

That's the flip side to being a word whiz: Being master of the obscure doesn't always help a kid fit in. And some Indian-Americans worry about spelling bee champs being stereotyped or pigeonholed.

"There's a kind of strangeness and exoticism to it," says Lehigh University professor Amardeep Singh. "It's a particular kind of academic niche. And there is also the danger of — well, you know, the difference between niche and a ghetto is fine line."

For his part, Arvind is determined to be more of the well-rounded type. He dabbles in drama, and plays a mean game of both tennis and basketball. He says he is equally open to a career in sports or theoretical physics. His parents say they're OK with either, as long as he pursues it as seriously as he does his spelling.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Hundreds of sweaty-palmed kids will take the stage over the next two days just outside Washington D.C., hoping to spell their way to the championship of the 2012 Scripps National Spelling Bee. When it's over there's an excellent chance that the winner will be Indian-American.

As NPR's Tony Smith reports, in the past decade or so, South Asians have built something of a dynasty on the spelling bee circuit.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Indian-American kids are our on such a winning streak, one commentator compares their dominance to Kenyans winning marathons.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: The National Spelling Bee Champion, Anurag Kashyap.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Sukanya Roy is your champion.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Our winner, Kavya Shivashankar.

SMITH: Indian Americans have won nine of the past 13 national bees

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Anamika Veeramani...

SMITH: ...even though they make up less than one percent of the population.

PAWAN DHINGRA: It's stunning. There's more than just randomness going on, in other words.

SMITH: Pawan Dhingra curating an exhibit on Indian Americans at the Smithsonian that'll showcase their spelling bee dynasty.

DHINGRA: The fact that Indians, whenever win, is noteworthy. The fact that they would win more than once, is impressive. The fact that they would win to dominating level, it becomes almost a physical - almost impossibility for this to happen. It's phenomenal, really.

ARVIND MAHANKALI: Uayeb, U-A-Y-E-B. Uayeb.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SMITH: Twelve-year-old Arvind Mahankali came close the past two years, and is opening this year, to win the bee. Like many others, he got inspired watching other Indian-American kids when. And he was encouraged by his immigrant parents who, like so many others, are drawn to spelling bees because of the competition, the academic focus, the discipline it takes, and the way their tight-knit family can team up to train together.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: OK, next word. From Middle English

SRINIVAS MAHANKALI: But influenced by Greek.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Cryptarithm

SMITH: Arvind's eight-year-old brother and parents spend several hours a day drilling him from the dictionary. Arvind air scribbles in his palm as he spits out the letters.

MAHANKALI: ...A-R-I-T-H-M.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Correct, good job.

SMITH: Arvind's dad, Srinivas Mahankali, says spelling is a great way to learn everything, from history to science, and naturally appeals to a culture like his that emphasizes learning.

MAHANKALI: Even in Sanskrit actually there is the slokas that is the same thing. You know, if you learn something, nobody can take it away from you.

SMITH: While memorization tends to be scorned in American schools these days, it is central to Indian education, and he says, very much valued by parents like him.

MAHANKALI: My dad used to tell me some Telugu poems. He used to recite straightaway and then reverse. Reverse doesn't make any sense, but they use - there used to be competition to just chant it in reverse, actually. You know?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The MetLife South Asian Spelling Bee.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SMITH: In recent years, farm leagues, that are South-Asian only, have popped up as a kind of breeding ground where many Indian versions of the tiger moms start their kids at six years old. Mahankali says it's important to these immigrant parents that their kids excel academically, but especially in English.

MAHANKALI: The immigrants once improve themselves, that they belong to the mainstream, right? Basically, the satisfaction that you master the cornerstone of the culture here, the language.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Arvind, come, my best friend.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: Arvind, I want to marry you.

SMITH: Arvind is definitely in the-in, in his public middle school in Queens.

MAHANKALI: I am somewhat of the celebrity, and I think what you would call cool.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: So, Arvind, you now have the chance to steal Anderson's...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I hate this game...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SMITH: The national media attention helps. How cool, for example, to get invited on TV to show up Anderson Cooper?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Your word is abecedarian.

MAHANKALI: Oh, OK. That's...

ANDERSON COOPER: You know this?

MAHANKALI: Yes.

COOPER: Wow, I've never even heard this word...

SMITH: That's the flip side to being a word wiz. Being master of the obscure doesn't always help the kids fit in, and some Indian Americans, like Lehigh University Professor Amardeep Singh, worry about kids being stereotyped or pigeonholed.

AMARDEEP SINGH: There's a kind of strangeness or an exoticism is to it. And it's a particular kind of academic niche and there's also the danger of, you know, the difference between a niche and a kind of ghetto is a fine line.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SMITH: For his part, Arvind, says he is equally opened to a career in theoretical physics or basketball. His parents say they're OK with either, that is as long as long as he pursues it as seriously as he does his spelling.

Tovia Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.