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Why Indian-Americans dominate spelling bees

Are Indian immigrants to the US pushing the memorization-heavy culture they grew up with on their kids?

June 4, 2015 2:00AM ET

Last week Vanya Shivashankar and Gokul Venkatachalam won the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The two teens are of Indian descent; their victories were the latest in an eight-year winning streak for a community that accounts for less than 1 percent of the U.S. population.

Vanya, 13, of Olathe, Kansas — also the winner of the competition documented on Lifetime’s “Child Genius” — followed in the footsteps of her sister, Kavya, who won the bee in 2009. Gokul, 14, of Chesterfield, Missouri, professed a great passion for basketball and often greeted the judges with “Wassup?”

According to The Washington Post, followers of the bee have speculated whether Indians have a spelling gene — a silly conjecture if there ever was one. Nevertheless, Indian-Americans have proved particularly adept at the task of spelling obscure words out loud.

This is an achievement, to be sure — but behind the big words lurks a persistent shortcoming with the Indian education system: a lack of analytical training and a reliance on rote memorization.

Spelling bees were, until recently, virtually unheard of in India. When I came to the United States from India almost 15 years ago, I had no idea what a spelling bee was. “Spellbound,” a 2002 film documenting the journey of eight teenagers participating in the 1999 National Spelling Bee, educated me. Nupur Lala, an Indian-American won that contest, inspiring many others.

Shalini Shankar, an anthropology professor at Northwestern University who has studied spelling competitions, told The Washington Post that “Spellbound” was highly influential. “A lot of the spellers I interviewed said that was the moment they realized, ‘We could do this.’ So if you count it down from when ‘Spellbound’ came out, it’s about a five- or six-year arc until [Indians] really started dominating,” she said.

There are cultural tendencies among Indian immigrant families that make spelling bees attractive and Indian kids good at them. As in many other countries, rote memorization is paramount in Indian schools. My high-school math teacher in the Darjeeling district used to criticize the entire class’s favored learning style by saying, “You just commit and vomit,” by which she meant that we committed information to our memory and then vomited it out during tests, retaining little afterward. 

Rather than excelling at spelling en masse in this manner, wouldn’t it be preferable to encourage children to think creatively and analytically instead?

Moreover, in an overly populated, largely poor country, those who succeed tend to be bright and extremely hard working. Some parents push their children in ways that would be inconceivable in the U.S. For instance, in order for my cousin’s husband to be admitted to the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, his parents enrolled him in before-school preparatory classes from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. for several years. This was supplemented by hours of self-study in the evenings and on weekends, without breaks or holidays.

Indians who immigrate to the U.S. tend to be the fittest survivors of this high-pressure environment. It isn’t surprising that Indian citizens are the top recipients of H-1B visas (which are given to highly skilled temporary workers), making up 70 percent of the quota, and Indian students are the second-largest group of international students in the United States, after the Chinese.

In other words, diligent Indian students are the ones who are able to clamber onto academic lifeboats while others sink. And because of the way they’re taught, many get there by cramming, not by piling dance recitals and charity work onto their resumes. Because their parents are used to this kind of education, are second-generation kids approaching their work with the same mentality? As I watched Vanya display an impressive aptitude for spelling out “bouquetière,” “hippocrepiform,” “bruxellois” and “scherenschnitte,” I began to suspect that that this might be the case.

It’s not unfair to ask whether it is parental influence or innate passion that fuels Indian-Americans’ repeated success at the National Spelling Bee. If it’s the former, it suggests that Indian immigrants to the U.S. are pushing the culture they grew up with on their kids, even as Indians in India are trying to find a better way.

Many of the bee contestants appear to perform well under pressure; no doubt they have developed a passion for spelling. But what about those who don’t, who are simply going through the motions to meet parental expectations?

Rather than excelling at spelling en masse in this manner, wouldn’t it be preferable to encourage children to think creatively and analytically instead?

I watched the preliminary round of this year’s National Spelling Bee with my 10-year-old son. When one Indian-American boy spelled a word, “microfiche,” correctly, my son exclaimed, “Oh, my God! He is only 9.”

It was very impressive — and a little disconcerting. 

Ananya Bhattacharyya is a Washington-based writer whose work has also appeared in The GuardianThe New York TimesThe Washingtonian, Reuters, Vice and The Baltimore Sun.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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