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A Socio-Linguistic View on Why Indian-Americans Dominate the Spelling Bee

8 min read

by Nandini Ramakrishna

This post has been republished from Nandini’s blog with permission.

The question, why Indian-Americans dominate the Scripps National Spelling Bee, is a recent one. We are two years shy of a decade since Indian-Americans have been continuously winning the Spelling Bee. Further, 15 of the past 19 winners are of Indian origin. Indian domination at the Spelling Bee is now a well-known phenomenon.

Less well-known are the reasons for this spectacular streak of success by one ethnicity. There are multiple explanations for these winnings, but most explanations leave questions in their wake. Here is my offering of an answer that may be potentially more satisfying.

In my 2013 blog post, “Spelling S-U-C-C-E-S-S. Why Indian-Americans Excel at the Spelling Bee,” I present the hypothesis that Indians dominate the Bee because of the historical linguistic baggage that Indian immigrants carry. I wrote:

“India has a 400-year-old legacy of deciphering, interacting with, borrowing from, incorporating and finally adopting English as a language of its own. This linguistic legacy has far-reaching repercussions – perhaps as far as the E.W. Scripps Spelling Bee in America!”

Thus, I suggest that the children of recent Indian immigrants, i.e. second generation Indian-Americans are reaping the harvest of this historical-linguistic baggage, as evident in their domination in the Spelling Bee. My hypothesis includes the prediction that as an ethnic group, the high levels of successful performance by Indian-Americans will be restricted to only second generation children. Third and subsequent generations of Indian-Americans who do not have direct ties to India will not be a part of this phenomenal success.

An elaboration on this position follows:

The reasons typically attributed by media analysis of Indians’ success are:

Exemplary study habits
Bee winners of all ethnicities report that they spend innumerable hours practicing spelling. Since many other ethnicities have exemplary study habits, this factor does not shed light on why Indians, in particular, excel at the Bee.

Very high levels of competitiveness among Indians
This factor surely contributes to why there are a large number of Indian contestants at the regional and national levels. However, there are other ethnicities that are equally competitive. Thus, although this factor contributes to success, it does not clarify why children of Indians surpass children of Tiger Moms from other Asian

Cultural attributes that ascribe high value to education and “brain-sports”
Being called a “nerd” in India is not particularly a pejorative term. Indians typically take pride in accomplishments that entail long hours of study. The Spelling Bee fits well into this category.

Indians’ familiarity with rote-learning
Traditional Indian education has a centuries-long history in rote learning. Memorization is at the heart of much of traditional Indian education. Rote learning plays an integral part of learning spelling in English as there are more exceptions than rules.

The North South Foundation
The North South Foundation is a non-profit organization that funds the higher education of under-privileged youth in India. During the early years of the NSF, the organizers were asked what they do for Indians living in the US, and thus began the practice of training Indian children to compete in the Spelling Bee.

The NSF is the sole reason why there are so many Indian-American participants at the Bee. The NSF holds regional competitions in its over 60 chapters across the US that introduce children from very young ages, as young as six years, to competitive spelling, competitive vocabulary, math and geography among others. The NSF is certainly where most Indian-American Bee contestants begin their spelling career.

The population of Indian-Americans in the U.S. is about one percent. In contrast, the percentage of Indian-American participants at the Bee is around 10 percent. When one looks at the percentage of Indian-Americans in the final round of the Spelling Bees of the past decade, the percentage is overwhelmingly high. This year, seven of the ten finalists were of Indian origin.

What propels this ethnic subset of one-tenth of Spelling Bee participants into the top ten? The short (and rude) answer to that question is, “It’s not the kid, stupid. It’s the parent!”

When we examine attributes that are essential to succeeding at the Spelling Bee, we see that several of the key factors that apply to Indian-American participants also apply to participants of other ethnicities. For example, a love of words, great discipline in study habits, many weeks, months, if not years of practice, and competitiveness are not uniquely Indian. These attributes have propelled every winner of the Scripps Spelling Bee for the past 70 years.

What makes second generation Indian-American children uniquely suited to winning the Spelling Bee is not just their personal attributes, but that of their coaches as well. Most often, it is a parent who champions the quest for the title of Spelling Bee Winner.

Interviews with past winners and contestants have revealed that moving up the ranks in Spelling Bee competitions is often a family event. Aside from traveling to regional (NSF) events as a family, every family member plays a role, especially the parent most involved in coaching the child.

Take Jayakrishnan, from Fresno, Calif., who spends four hours a week coaching his daughter. He indicated, as reported by CNN, that when his daughter sometimes protests the futility of learning spellings since there’s spell check on the computer, Jayakrishnan insists:

“Learn the root, the origin of a word. If you go through this at an early age you will grow as an individual and succeed in life.”

In an event that requires a tremendous amount of time investment on the part of parents/coaches, it is necessary to examine the attributes of these very parents and coaches.

Recent Indian immigrants, who grew up in India speaking multiple languages, among them English, are uniquely suited to be spelling coaches for English—regardless of their own proficiency in English.

In my 2013 blog post, I wrote:

“Historically, English has had influences from multiple languages (Latin, Greek, French etc.) and language families (Italic, Germanic, Romance…) as well as word-borrowings from dozens of languages (Arabic, Japanese, Yiddish, Spanish….) This aspect of English is particularly salient with regard to spelling. English spelling is challenging because of the many languages that have imposed their sound and spelling conventions onto English. Therefore, in theory, a person with experience with multiple languages would fare well when dealing with the idiosyncrasies of English spelling. Therein lies the Indian advantage.”

Aside from the coaches/parents being multilingual, many Indian-American children are fluent, or at the very least, well-exposed to other Indian languages. There is incontrovertible evidence from psycholinguistics and neurolinguistics that being bilingual or even somewhat proficient in a second language has far reaching benefits on comprehension, memory, attention, creativity and even the delay of language degradation in later years. That it may have advantages in navigating the vagaries of English spelling is not a far-fetched supposition.

When done right, learning English spelling is, in some ways, comparable to learning a new language. When you know the origin of a word, you can apply the spelling rules of the language in question.

Knowing that “Scherenschnitte” (from this year’s Spelling Bee) is of German origin, and “chateau” is from French should immediately cue a savvy speller that the “sh” sounds in the two words are “sch” in German, and “ch” in French. A child with experience in dealing with other languages besides English would have an enriched perspective compared to a monolingual child who has a limited frame of reference for the multiple spelling conventions in English.

From my 2013 blog post:

“A much-acknowledged feeling among foreign-language learners is that it was only when they learned a second or third language that they truly understood the grammar of their native tongue. Thus, the linguistic perspectives that one gets from learning a second or third language can never be obtained from the confines of a single language no matter how much one may immerse oneself in that single language.

The essence of this focus on knowing multiple languages is that when all other factors are equal, both multilingual learners and multilingual teachers are better at the language tasks they are aiming to accomplish compared to speakers of a single language.”

Cultural capital, in sociology, is defined as “the general cultural background, knowledge, disposition, and skills that are passed on from one generation to another. Cultural capital represents ways of talking, acting, and socializing, as well as language practices, values, and types of dress and behavior,” (McLaren).

It is well-accepted that second generation Indian-Americans may inherit (willingly or begrudgingly) the cultural capital of competitiveness and study habits from their first generation immigrant parents. It is also accepted that these aspects of cultural capital hold Indian-American participants in good stead while competing in the Spelling Bee. What is less accepted is the cultural capital that relates to language.

Time correspondent Katy Steinmetz spoke with Shalini Shankar, associate professor and sociocultural and linguistic anthropologist at Northwestern University, who researches the growth and proliferation of spelling competitions. When asked about the role of parents in the Spelling Bee, Prof. Shankar responded:

“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 I don’t think 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.”

That parents of all Spelling Bee winners invest enormous swaths of time helping their children prepare, is a given. However, I strongly disagree with Shankar’s assessment that the facilitation by Indian parents is no different from that of parents of other ethnicities and races. On the contrary, I would aver that the ethnicity of participants’ parents makes all the difference, especially if they are Indian.

The Tiger-Mom phenomenon and high levels of competitiveness are not exclusively Indian attributes. They are present in many Asian ethnicities. However, one factor that separates Indians from other competitive Asian ethnicities is fluency, familiarity and comfort with speaking in English. This reason is often easily overlooked, however, and Indians are often not credited with this ease with English because we speak English with Indian accents.

In 2013, when Indian-Americans had a six-year win at the Spelling Bee, and for the first time there was a widespread recognition in the media of the Indian advantage, a comment made by an expert in the field, an academic sociologist of Indian descent, no less, captures this failure to recognize English as a language of India.

The academic said: “The fact that Indians would ever win is noteworthy….” What is really noteworthy here is that it was considered an exceptionality for an Indian to excel in some aspect of English, despite the fact that English has existed in India for over 400 years.

Although we are multilingual, as a member of that small subset of Indians for whom English is the only language in which we are literate and proficient, we are yet to establish, in a widely-known way, that English is our language, accents notwithstanding. That is fodder for another blog post, but for the present, I take great pleasure in celebrating the fact that Indian Americans excel at the Spelling Bee while being coached by their heavily-accented parents! It is a small feather in that cap of establishing English as a bona fide language of Indians.

I wrote in my 2013 blog post that second generation Indian-Americans carry the unique advantage of “having parents whose confidence in handling the challenges and peculiarities of English dates back several centuries. If there is such a thing as a collective experience with language, then Indians have one of the most impressive collective linguistic experiences. Navigating through multiple languages, English being one of them, is something that many Indians do, not as a laudable feat or accomplishment, but as an unremarkable aspect of everyday life in India.”

The performance by Indian-Americans at the Spelling Bee is a prime example of how past collective linguistic experiences can have tangible influences in present lives.

nandini ramakrishnaNandini Ramakrishna was born in Bangalore, India and spent the first two and a half decades of her life in India. She learned to read with “Dick and Jane,” and continues to be a rather slow reader. For lack of a better plan, she got her undergraduate degree in Home Economics. Somewhere along the way, she learned a little German and French and fell in love with grammar. She got her MA in Linguistics from the University of Pittsburgh and took a few dozen courses towards a doctorate in Speech-Language Pathology, which she never finished. Her many years as a student left her with a habit that she cannot kick, so she still takes courses every now and then, in languages or literature, and considers herself a lifelong student. She lives in Phoenix, AZ with her family and teaches English and Developmental Reading. When she is not teaching, conversing with her dogs or teasing her children, she writes.

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