How Indian Americans came to love the spelling bee

Dhroov Bharatia reacts after correctly spelling a word during the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee Finals in Florida on July 8, 2021.
Dhroov Bharatia reacts after correctly spelling a word during the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee Finals in Florida on July 8, 2021.PHOTO: REUTERS

TEXAS (NYTIMES) - Eighth graders are not generally known as dictionary aficionados. But Dhroov Bharatia, 12, has a passion for language.

"Nothing can express an idea as effectively as a judicious use of words," he said by phone from his home in Plano, Texas. This love of vocabulary has made him one of 11 finalists in this year's Scripps National Spelling Bee, adding him to a long line of South Asian American middle and elementary schoolers who have excelled at the competition.

It is a well-documented relationship. Since 2008, a South Asian American kid has been named a champion at every Scripps bee. This year, two-thirds of the semi-finalists were of South Asian descent, and at least nine of the 11 finalists are of South Asian descent.

Over the past two decades, spelling bees tailored to South Asian children have proliferated. So have spelling bee coaching companies founded by South Asian Americans. Fliers for local bees are handed out at Indian supermarkets and the activity is spread through word of mouth at temple events.

A documentary last year, Spelling The Dream, followed four Indian American children preparing for 2017's bee season and showcased just how much it means to South Asian American families.

"It is definitely a source of pride from an educational standpoint," said Professor Shalini Shankar, an anthropologist and the author of Beeline: What Spelling Bees Reveal About Generation Z's New Path To Success. But it is also something more: The bee has become an occasion for unity within the South Asian American immigrant community, and it all goes back to a historic victory more than three decades ago.

In 1985, Balu Natarajan became the first child of immigrants to win Scripps, prompting an outpouring of support from people of South Asian descent.

"Many people who I'd never even met felt a connection to it," Mr Natarajan said. "I had no idea how much one could be embraced by a community."

He became a well-known name in Indian American households around the country, which he described as humbling.

"Today, we have children and families in our community that are centre stage when they go to the Scripps spelling bee," Mr Natarajan said. "It's really a place of comfort. But back in the 1980s, we were just exploring it. We really had no idea that we were doing this for a community. We were just this tiny fraction of the participants."

When Mr Natarajan first competed in the Scripps spelling bee in 1983, he remembers only six contestants of Indian descent out of 137 students.

Every year, about 11 million children in the United States participate in school-level spelling bees. The first Scripps National Bee was held in 1925. Due to the pandemic, it was cancelled last year for the first time since World War II.

The words have gotten progressively more difficult over the decades - mostly because the kids have gotten a lot better. "Therapy" was a winning word in 1940, but in 2019, two of the winning words were "bougainvillea" and "erysipelas."

In 2019, Scripps named eight winners for the cup - "octochamps", they coined themselves. Previously, only two kids had ever tied for the win. Seven of the 2019 champions were of Indian descent.

"It's not spellers against spellers. It's spellers against the dictionary," Ashrita Gandhari, a current finalist, said about the sense of camaraderie and companionship among the contestants.

Indian Americans are one of the younger, newer groups of immigrants in the US. More than 60 per cent of Indian immigrants living in the US today arrived after 2000.

Parents looked for hobbies for their children that prioritised "all kinds of educational attainment", Prof Shankar said. Spelling as an extracurricular activity soon began to spread by word of mouth.

The hobby is also passed down - within families - to younger siblings and cousins. That was the case for the 2016 Scripps champion, Nihar Janga, 16, whose passion for spelling was born out of a sibling rivalry going back to age five.

Watching his mother quiz his older sister, Navya, as she was preparing for the bee, Nihar started chiming in, reciting spellings even before Navya could finish.

Navya and Nihar's family, who live in Austin, Texas, first came across spelling bees through Navya's bharatanatyam (an Indian classical dance) teacher, who was involved with the non-profit North South Foundation.

The foundation has more than 90 chapters, hosts regional and national educational contests in a variety of subject areas, and raises money through these events for disadvantaged students in India. A spelling bee is among the contests run by the organisation and it is common for top contenders to continue on to Scripps.

The amount of concentration necessary also inevitably leads to significant time commitments and plenty of pressure on the kids.

"The level of our competitors has definitely increased. Some of our students prepare for the spelling bee as any other collegiate athlete would with the amount of preparation, the dedication and the amount of time that they study," said Mr J. Michael Durnil, the bee's executive director.

Tarini Nandakumar was, at 10, one of the youngest semi-finalists competing this year. The pressure was high. And when Tarini, who is from Round Rock, Texas, did not make it to the finals, she felt a lot of disappointment.

Many tears were shed at first, she said. Her parents tried to comfort her, and within just a few days, she said, she came around and was asking for help to start studying again. "I'm very motivated to get better next time," she said. "Or at least get in the top five."