By Nandini Ramakrishna
Indian Americans have had a commanding presence at the National Spelling Bee for two decades. This year’s win by Jairam Hathwar and Nihar Janga is the ninth consecutive win by Indian Americans. Furthermore, seventeen of the past twenty-one winners are of Indian origin. Indian domination at the Bee is a recognized phenomenon, but less understood are the reasons for this spellbinding success.
The population of Indian Americans in the United States is one percent (2014 US Census). Indian American participation at the National Spelling Bee is about 15-20 percent. As finalists emerge from elimination rounds, this proportion soars. Over 40% of this year’s 45 finalists were of Indian origin. In the final round of the 2015 and 2016 championships, 7 of the top ten finishers were of Indian origin.
How do we account for this exponential increase in proportion as the participants climb higher in the ranks of the competition? What propels this ethnic group of contestants to taking over the top ten, year after year?
There are multiple explanations for why Indian Americans have been winning, but most accounts leave questions in their wake.
Spelling bee winners have a great love of words, are competitive, have exemplary study habits, and evidence much discipline in their many years of practicing spelling. These qualities, however, are not uniquely Indian. They apply to all races and ethnicities and have launched every winner of the Spelling Bee since its inception in 1925.
What then is the nature of the Indian American advantage?
Spelling bee finalists spend innumerable hours studying with their coach, usually a parent. Indian American finalists typically undergo coaching through the formidable North South Foundation (NSF) that is run by first generation Indian immigrants. The NSF furnishes an extensive training ground, holding regional and national competitions, to hone competitive spelling skills, and provides a network of community support to sustain the rigor of this training. The NSF is the sole reason why there are so many Indian American participants at the Bee. This year, 18 of the 45 finalists, and 6 of the top 10 were NSF contestants. It is therefore necessary to not only examine the characteristics of the Bee winners themselves, but that of their trainers as well.
The North South Foundation is a non-profit that funds the education of under-privileged youth in India. During its early years, 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 rest, as they say, is H-I-S-T-O-R-Y. As a testament to NSF training, this was the third consecutive year where the remaining two finalists were declared co-champions because neither made an error over multiple rounds.
The essence of Indian domination at the Bee is linguistic: Indian American contestants and coaches are typically multi/bilingual and have an advantage over participants and trainers who aren’t. Furthermore, among other contestants and coaches who are bilingual (think “tiger moms” and children), Indian Americans have an edge because English is a language of India. It is thus a combination of bilingualism and an ownership of English as a language of one’s own that gives the Indian American participant a definitive edge over others in competitive English spelling.
Speaking a second language is an advantage at the spelling bee: About 21% of the general population is bilingual (2011 US Census). In contrast, 41% (117 out of 285) of the 2015 Bee contestants spoke a second language. The percentage of Indian American Bee finalists who are bilingual is significantly higher. Informal communication with NSF leaders indicates that most Indian Americans who make it into the national competition are conversant in an Indian language.
Scripps National Spelling Bee/Facebook
Historically, English has had influences from multiple languages (Latin, Greek, French) and language families (Italic, Germanic, Hellenic) as well as word-borrowings from dozens of languages (Arabic, Japanese, Yiddish, Spanish, Portuguese). English spelling is notoriously unpredictable because of the many languages that have imposed their sound and spelling conventions onto it.
Mastering English spelling involves learning Latin and Greek roots, word origins, spelling conventions of several languages, grammatical functions of words and much more – a training that requires a high degree of linguistic savvy in both the student and the coach. For example, the sound /sh/ is spelled S-H in words from Middle English (sheep); it is spelled S-C-H in German borrowings (scherenschnitte – from 2015’s spelling bee), and is spelled C-H in words of French origin (machine). Therefore, in theory, a person with experience with multiple languages would fare well teaching and learning the idiosyncrasies of English spelling.
The idea of Indian ownership of English as a language of our own is significant. Although intangible and hard to measure, cultural capital is a force with real agency. In sociology, cultural capital is defined as “the general cultural background, knowledge, disposition, and skills that are passed on from one generation to another…” (McLaren).
The mindset of a people steering through the peculiarities of a foreign tongue is different from the outlook of those navigating the challenges of their own language:
India has a 400-year history in deciphering, interacting with, borrowing from, incorporating and finally adopting English as a language of its own. This linguistic legacy has far-reaching repercussions that traverse continents and are playing out in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in America!
If there is such a thing as a collective linguistic experience that can be passed on as cultural capital from generation to generation, then Indians have one of the most impressive collective linguistic repertoires. We look at languages as devices to be acquired, not singly, but together as groups of three, four or five vernaculars all at once. With this mindset, how daunting can it be to master the spelling conventions of one?
It is our multilingual perspective and a centuries-old legacy of an ease around English that has given the organizers of the North South Foundation the gumption that under their tutelage, their children can be better at English spelling than anyone else in the world.