by Helen Raleigh · June 11, 2019
Life is unpredictable, but there are a few seemingly sure bets: the New England Patriots play in the Super Bowl and Indian-American kids win the National Spelling Bee. In the last two decades, the Patriots have had nine Super Bowl appearances and six titles. During the same time period, Indian-American kids have won all but four Scripps National Spelling Bee championships.
This year is no exception: on May 31, the Scripps National Bee Championship competition ended in an eight-way tie with seven out of the eight champions Indian Americans. The final round lasted to midnight, and all eight kids spelled 47 consecutive words correctly.
It was the adults in the room who called quits. Dr. Jacques A. Bailly, the official pronouncer of the Bee, told the kids, “We do have plenty of words remaining on our list. But we will soon run out of words that will possibly challenge you, the most phenomenal collection of super spellers in the history of this competition.” Even Merriam Webster, whose Webster’s Third New International Dictionary serves as the official dictionary of the Bee, accepted its defeat on Twitter.
How did kids from South Asia—including Bangladesh, Pakistan, and especially India—become so dominant in the National Spelling Bee competition? Personal dedication, family commitment, cultural acceptance, and community support.
A Not-So-Secret Formula
There is no question that these kids work hard. Rishik Gandhasri, one of the eight co-champions, said in an interview that he spent between one and four hours each day on learning new words, in addition to his homework and various after-school activities such as swimming and piano lessons. Akash Vukoti, who qualified for the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 2016 when he was only six years old, spent between one and five hours each day on learning new words.
These kids work so hard because adults in their families foster a culture of learning and are leading by example. Indian-Americans have one of the highest rates of educational attainment in the United Stats. About a third of them have college degrees, and more than 40 percent of them have postgraduate degrees, according to Pew Research. The majority of their degrees are in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.
Academic achievement is highly valued among Indian parents. Not surprisingly, parents who have higher education attainment and value education tend to raise kids who strive to be high achievers.
Education isn’t just a means to an economic end, although highly educated Indian-Americans are doing very well economically—the average household annual income of Indian families was around $100,000 in 2015. My friend Sosamma Samuel-Burnett, an Indian immigrant with two children, told me that besides economic benefits, “Education is considered a noble pursuit—expanding the mind and capacities. The fact that many Indian students are excelling in school, and particularly on the spelling bee, is a reflection of that educational value.”
Family Sacrifice Is Part of Their Successful Culture
The emphasis on education means spelling bee competitions are usually a family commitment. Akash’s mom gave up her job to homeschool him when he was two years old. Like any other sports, parents sometimes have to drive for hours and even take time off to take their kids to regional and national competitions. Siblings help too. Rishik’s older brother, Rutvick, who competed in spelling competitions too, drilled Rishik on new words and provided feedback about his younger brother’s presentation style.
In addition to hard work and a culture that values education and family commitment, one unique factor of these kids’ success is community support. Their dominance today makes it hard to believe that Indian-American kids hadn’t always been good at spelling. Once upon a time, they consistently outperformed in every subject except English.
After Balu Natarajan became the first Indian American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 1985, Indian-Americans like Ratnam Chitturi, who founded the North South Foundation (NSF) in 1989, believed that getting kids excited about spelling bee competitions would be a good way to improve their English language skills. NSF organized its first spelling bee competition in 1993.
Today, NSF has more than 90 chapters in the United States. These chapters organize annual Regional Education Contests in spelling, vocabulary, math, essay writing, public speaking, and geography. Winners of these contests are invited to the NSF’s National Finals, where champions receive scholarshipsto college.
The 2002 documentary, “Spellbound,” which follows eight competitors in the 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee, really fired up Indian-Americans’ enthusiasm because one of the competitors—Nupur Lala, an Indian American girl—beat David Lewandowski and won the 1999 national title. Lala became a household name among Indian-Americans, and inspired many kids to follow in her footsteps.
Enthusiasm for Achievement Sparks New Institutions
To meet the growing demand, Rahul Walia launched the South Asian Spelling Bee in 2008, a platform focusing on spelling bee training and organizing annual competitions in the United States for children of South Asian descent. Its regional and national competitions are covered by South Asian-focused news media.
Adults in the community have also set up tutoring centers, summer camps, software, and study materials to train young spellers to get better and raise the bar of the competition. Each year, many kids of South Asian descent who qualified for the National Scripps Spelling Bee finals are alumni of NSF and South Asian Spelling Bee competitions.
These community-level competitions (nicknamed “minor league”) and the media coverage have turned spelling bees into a popular sport within South Asian American communities. Kids who win national titles are celebrities. Just about no one in the community laughs at them being nerds. Instead, they are respected and admired, like Olympic gold medalists or Nobel laureates. Their performances have been recorded and watched over and over again like popular TV shows. Their success becomes a magnet for more kids to get into the spelling bee competitions.
Based on this year’s outcome, kids of South Asian descent, especially those with Indian heritage, will continue to dominate the spelling bee in the foreseeable future. Their accomplishment and dominance have attracted some ugly attacks from social media: “The kids in the spelling bee should only be AMERICAN”; “No American sounding names who won the spelling B. #sad#fail”; “We need an american to win this spelling bee #tiredofindians.”
These attacks are really stupid, to say the least. These kids are either born here or became naturalized citizens with their parents. They are Americans. Spelling bees are some of the fairest competitions because each participant competes against a dictionary. The same opportunity is open to anyone of any race and ethnicity. No “supremacy” or “privilege” of any kind will ensure success. You either know how to spell a word or you don’t — there is no grey area.
These Indian-American kids deserve to win because they earn it, and their achievement exemplifies what’s best about our country—we are a largely meritocratic society where any individual and any community can be successful if they put their minds and efforts to it.
Politicians, educators, social engineers, and leaders from other communities should draw inspiration from Indian-Americans. Whenever we talk about how to improve public education and close the achievement gaps among different racial groups in the United States, the left’s standard answers tend to involve blaming white privilege, historical racism, and lack of spending. Very little time is spent on looking inward and discussing how to create a culture that fosters learning, values education, and involves adult and community support.
While individual prejudice and discrimination do exist, Indian-American kids’ progress from underperforming in English to dominating in spelling bee competitions in two decades shows that it’s dishonest to blame institutional bias or privilege for the dismal education outcomes in certain racial and ethnic communities in the United States. Any individual and any community in the United States can thrive if they follow Indian-Americans’ time-tested formula: success equals personal dedication, family commitment, cultural acceptance, and community support.
The Federalist · by Helen Raleigh · June 11, 2019