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

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
countries.

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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Anita Verma-Lallian Launches Arizona’s First South Asian-owned Film Production and Entertainment Company

Anita Verma-Lallian

Indian-American commercial real estate and land consultant Anita Verma-Lallian launched Camelback Productions at an event held in Paradise Valley, Arizona, Jan. 7. Billed as the state’s first women-and South Asian-owned film production and entertainment company, it will focus on South Asian representation and storytelling, according to a press statement issued by Verma-Lallian. The announcement follows “Arizona Governor Doug Ducey’s $125 million film tax credit for film and TV production that was introduced in July 2022, “ the statement added.

The Jan. 7 private launch party and meet and greet introduced investors and supporters to what’s ahead for Camelback Productions.

Noting the “major push to see minority groups represented in the media over the past few years,” Verma-Lallian said she wants to see more South Asians represented. “I want my children to see themselves when they watch TV. I want my daughter’s dream to become an actress to become a reality. Skin color shouldn’t be a barrier to that.”

The event opened with remarks from Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, who has served as the city’s 62nd mayor since 2019. She welcomes the company to “the greater Phoenix community.” She expressed confidence that “the team will attract some of the country’s top talent to the Valley.”

Guests at the event included actor and comedian Lilly Singh, actor Nik Dodani, Aparna of Netflix’s “Indian Matchmaking,” Bali Chainani and Anisha Ramakrishna of Bravo’s “Family Karma” fame, and Paramount+ executive P. Sean Gupta, to name a few.

 

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The company is Verma-Lallian’s first venture into the film industry. She is known for providing full concierge services for land seekers and developers of all types of sites and assists investors in discovering viable properties in the Phoenix area through her company, Arizona Land Consulting, the statement added.

Named in honor of the iconic Camelback Mountain in the Valley, Verma-Lallian says she wants her production company to have the same indestructible foundation. Camelback Productions plans to begin its first project later this summer.

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Redefining Manners: British Asian Priya Kansara Talks About her Latest Film ‘Polite Society’

Priya Kansara

Weddings, huh? Talk about a stress fest. And for the bride, it’s like a 24/7 walk on eggshells. However, add in a paranoid and overprotective sister, and you’ve got a recipe for a completely different degree of drama. In “Polite Society,” Ria Khan (Priya Kansara) and her gang of clumsy pals take the phrase “till death do us part” to a whole new level as they plot to “steal” the bride — aka Ria’s own sister, Lena (Ritu Arya), during her shaadi reception. But with a wedding hall packed with guests, a mother-in-law from hell, and a groom with more shades of fraud than a rainbow, this heist is anything but smooth sailing.

It goes without saying but “Polite Society” comes with a cast of wacky characters, gut-busting one-liners, and an action-packed heist sequence, making it a must-watch for anyone who loves a good comedy. I mean who hasn’t dealt with some serious wedding drama, am I right?

Lead actress Kansara agrees wholeheartedly. “I definitely have!” she chuckles, as I catch up with her at Soho Hotel in London. Despite the rubbish weather outside, Kansara is a ray of sunshine with her infectious enthusiasm.

The minute I read the script, I thought to myself…wow, playing Ria is going to be one wild ride!

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And wild is definitely the right word to describe her character. Ria is a British-Pakistani martial artist-in-training from London, determined to become a professional stuntwoman. Her sister, Lena, who dropped out of uni, often ends up being the guinea pig for filming Ria’s stunts for YouTube, including one lovingly dubbed “the fury.” She reveals

I’d never done martial arts before this film. The stunt training started from the day I got the role, and it was three to four times a week all the way until we finished filming. It was a seven-week period in total, and boy, was it physically demanding. Oh my God, I think I can add a whole new skills section to my CV! But on a serious note, it was so much fun and we had an amazing stunt team. They, including my stunt double, taught me so much. It was important to me to do my own stunts as much as possible, but also strike a healthy balance.

For South Asian women, who are often expected to be quiet and agreeable, all that punching and kicking on set must have been cathartic, right?

Honestly, it was like anger management at work! I got to kick and throw things around — it was the perfect balance.

 

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What sets Kansara apart from other actors starting out in the industry is her ability to draw from her own life experiences to bring authenticity to her characters on screen. Her career began with a degree from UCL and a communications job at a pharmaceutical company. But today, her versatile range and unwavering commitment to her craft have propelled her to the forefront of British comedy, portraying defiant South Asian women we’d love to see in real life.

From my own experience as a South Asian woman, I’ve always been told to do what’s ‘proper’ and think twice before speaking up. Playing a character like Ria and putting myself in her shoes, I felt like I was doing and saying things that I wish I had done at her age. It was almost like living through her and speaking my mind about things I never did.

Without a doubt, every South Asian woman on this planet wishes she cared more about herself and less about what other people think.

Ria totally inspired me. If only I had her mindset when I was younger, my career path would have taken off way sooner instead of worrying about other people’s opinions.

The chemistry between the cast members on and off-screen is so apparent, especially the sisterhood between Ria and Lena. The wild adventures of a bride, and her paranoid maid of honour navigating through family drama, are bound to create some unforgettable moments on set.

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We both confess our love and admiration for Nimra Bucha’s portrayal of Raheela, Lena’s evil mother-in-law and share a teenage fangirling moment:

I’m obsessed with that woman. There’s something terrifying yet ultra sexy about her character in “Polite Society” that’s mesmerising. I absolutely loved the dance sequence. As South Asians, we’ve all grown up watching Bollywood films and idolising Madhuri Dixit’s iconic dance moves. “Polite Society” gave me my Bollywood heroine moment, and it was a dream come true with the costumes and jewellery.

It’s definitely a unique experience for Kansara, considering her former career was worlds apart from entertainment. So, what advice does she have for aspiring actors who may secretly wish to pursue the same path, but are unsure of the next steps? Kansara advises, drawing from her character’s heist-planning skills.

I believe starting small and honing your craft is an underrated superpower. If you’re passionate about acting, make short-form videos, and build your portfolio. You never know who might be watching.

So, grab your popcorn and your sense of humour, and get ready for “Polite Society” — the film that proves that sometimes, the most polite thing to do is kick some butt and save the day. It released in cinemas on April 28th, and I highly recommend it.

Photo Courtesy: Universal Pictures

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Indo Caribbean Actress Saheli Khan Lands Role as Young Anna in Disney’s Musical ‘Frozen’

Saheli Khan, young anna in disney frozen
Saheli Khan

From singing and acting to drawing immaculate figurines, Saheli Khan, 11, has made her debut in the North American Broadway tour as young Anna in Disney’s musical “Frozen.” As a first-generation Indo Caribbean, with roots in India and Pakistan, she continues to pave the way for young people with similar backgrounds.

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Khan has always enjoyed entertaining those around her and she continues to have the motivation to pursue her passions. In school, she always sought to lead her class in songs and she was encouraged by her parents and teachers to enroll in music and acting classes, even at a young age. These ventures fueled her passions even more.

Continue reading to learn more about her journey!

What do you like about acting the most?

I like to portray different characters. Specifically, I like playing characters who have strong personalities and those who portray a sense of bravery, especially during problematic occurrences.

As a first generation Indo Caribbean actress, how do you feel about your journey as a young Disney princess? Do you feel that you are paving the way for other Caribbean and South Asians who want to pursue similar paths?

Diversity has always been important to me, but in today’s society, I feel that most people would like to be accepted and encouraged. As a Disney Princess, I am simply helping to broaden the field for all young people to see that skin color should not matter.

Saheli Khan
Saheli in Hidden Folk outfit| Photo courtesy of Saheli Khan

 

What do you like about your character, Anna? Is there anything that you may dislike?

Young Anna is a ball of sunshine! She is happy, funny, and a delight to be around. Despite having a troubled childhood, she grows up to be just as joyous, but she is also courageous as she goes on a journey to find her sister. I love everything about young Anna and she truly embodies who I am as a person.

Who is your inspiration and why?

My parents are my inspiration. My mom is beautiful, loving, and she works hard without ever giving up. No matter the task, she finds a solution and keeps on going with a smile on her face. She always tells me, “Whenever you feel overwhelmed, remember whose daughter you are and straighten your crown.” And my dad is my best friend. He’s insanely funny, caring and knows all the best places to eat! My parents are exactly how I want to be when I grow up.

If you had a magic wand, what show would you do next?

I would love to be Annie on Broadway or play the lead in a series or movie. 

What is the one last thing that you do before you step out on stage and the curtain goes up?

There are many things I do before I step on stage. I do fun and silly things quietly with my “Frozen” sister, Mackenzie Mercer, and play with my Anna pigtails for good luck.

What are your other passions?

I love to sing, act, and spend time with my younger cousin, Ayla. I also love to draw and color since it makes me feel relaxed. I was told I have a great ability to draw and make figurines ever since I was a child. And I love exploring new cities and eating at great restaurants with my family.

Saheli Khan
Saheli dressed in her “Young Anna” costume | Photo courtesy of Saheli Khan

What advice do you have for young people who are just starting their careers, specifically within the field of musical theater?

To have a positive mindset, practice diligently, and enjoy every moment within the journey. I have learned that there may be some occurrences that may not take place the way that you want them to, but there’s always an opportunity to learn from them.

 Aside from your career, how do you balance your schoolwork and acting?

I attend school virtually, which is essential when I am on tour. Each day I have scheduled school hours that allow me to focus and complete all school assignments. Once that is done, I have most of the day to work on extracurricular activities, go on outings, and hang out with my friends. Though performing takes a large chunk out of my day, it helps that I enjoy it, so it doesn’t feel like work.

What types of roles do you see yourself playing?

I love to play humorous characters such as young Anna from “Frozen.” I truly enjoyed this role as it captures who I truly am.

What are your plans for the future?

To be the best version of myself regardless of what career path I choose.

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Khan’s debut marks the start of a budding career. With her array of talents and future goals, we are bound to see more of the young actress in the future and more representation of Indo Caribbeans in mainstream media. If you would like to purchase tickets for Disney’s “Frozen,” click here

Feature Image Courtesy: Saheli Khan

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