Why Indian-Americans are Spelling Bee champs

Sriram Hathwar (R) of Painted Post, New York is greeted by family members after he and Ansun Sujoe (L) of Fort Worth, Texas both won the 2014 Scripps National Spelling Bee competition May 29, 2014 in National Harbor, Maryland. Hathwar and Sujoe - bot
Sriram Hathwar (R) of Painted Post, New York is greeted by family members after he and Ansun Sujoe (L) of Fort Worth, Texas both won the 2014 Scripps National Spelling Bee competition May 29, 2014 in National Harbor, Maryland. Hathwar and Sujoe - both of Indian descent - were declared as co-champions after 22 rounds of the competition. -- PHOTO: AFP  

Before Nupur Lala won the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 1999, the contest had been dominated by Caucasian Americans for about 70 years. Since then, the balance of spelling power has shifted significantly - 12 of the last 17 titles have been won by students of Indian descent.

How has one group taken over the contest? Academics point to a variety of factors, including a strong work ethic, English-speaking parents and the setting up of a spelling bee league just for Indian students.

As they say, practise makes perfect, that is especially true for young Indian-American spellers as there are two minor leagues open only to children of Indian parentage.

Associate Professor of anthropology and Asian American studies at Northwestern University Shalini Shankar, who has been researching spelling bees, says this gives the students an opportunity to “get good at what is a very challenging and nerve wrecking experience”.

She adds that Indian parents are also largely well educated, and educated in the English medium, which gives their children a leg up, over other children of Korean or Chinese heritage.

But this of course, does not explain why Caucasian Americans have let the trophy slip for so many years.

This is when academics and education experts trot out the idea of the Asian work ethic, and the emphasis Asian parents put on hard work and achieving results.

Mrs Neelam Patel Chowdhary, executive director of global learning programmes at the Asia Society says: “The idea that education is highly important, you need to be proficient in English, you need to be competitive, you need to have good study habits, all of that is very central to an Indian American upbringing.”

Professor of history and Asian American studies at University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) Vinay Lal agrees but adds another cultural observation to the mix.

“It has also to do with the fact that oral retention of facts has been tacitly a part of Indian culture for millennia,” he says.

Over the years, it seems the spelling bee has found its way into Indian American sub-culture, even though it is not an activity students in India would busy themselves with.

Here, it becomes a source of pride for this “model minority”, says Mrs Chowdhary. “When the first Indian student won, Indian parents got excited about it, and it became something attainable for their children.”

Adding to that, Professor Vinay Lal says: “When a particular community is viewed as having a stranglehold over some profession, trade, or cultural phenomenon, other communities might be inclined to direct their resources elsewhere. Thus success breeds more success.”

simlinoi@sph.com.sg