Saturday, May 28th, 2016

Why do American Indians always win spelling bee competitions?

Narada Desk | May 28, 2016 4:18 pm Print
This is a memory game! Pure individualistic thing. Then what is the secret?

If you look through the – List of Scripps National Spelling Bee champions there was an interesting pattern that you will notice. It starts from 1925 to 1984 with no Indian name at all, obviously the immigrants and their participation in such competitions would have been low then.

Then after about five names from 85- 07 , it suddenly starts raining Indian names from 2008 to 2015 and seems like it’ll continue, the parents will make sure!
This splendid performance by the American-Indian kids has been discussed in few articles, there is also a movie on it called “Spellbound”.

As Gerald W. Bracey identifies in his article And Now, the Indian Spelling Gene?, there are certain common notions about it such as-

The “craze” in Indian community about spelling competitions.
Well educated parents, often scientists and engineers who are aware of the role of education in social advancement.
Their comfort with the rote learning method.
Foundation sponsoring local bees also helps Indians with English.

Apart from that it has also been noted that the Indian American community embraces the spelling bee contests like no other. There are a number of blogs and websites dedicated to it, the winners are celebrated widely even in the Indian media. And ofcourse, These kids do work hard and smart!!

Yes,they work hard. They work hard because they are the children of immigrants. Immigrants to America are a self-selecting group. They have decided to forego a familiar life to try their chances in an alien land where they know they will have to work especially hard to be accepted. And they take on that challenge. These are not typical people in any culture. They have a certain courage and think outside of the box while still valuing the virtues of hard work and delayed gratification. That’s a powerful combination.

Why Indians? Lots of them coming here in recent years. Plus, once some of them do well in spelling bees, this attracts the attention of friends, neighbors, and the community–it becomes a fad. As fads go, it’s a good thing, as long as kids aren’t being made miserable by too much emphasis on it.

But when you get down to it, it’s just a statistical anomaly. What percentage of kids actually entering these competitions are Indian? ( saying Indian just for brevity–they are Americans like everyone else.)  if you look at lists of winners, everywone might very well see blocks of ethnicities at various times, reflecting who the immigrants were during those periods. Spelling bees were always very inclusive; you don’t have to be able to speak English really well to learn how to spell the words. As such, it’s a perfect way for kids to participate in something exciting and competitive with educational value.

It is important to remember that some American kids of Indian cultural background may be poor spellers, lazy, perhaps uninterested in competition, or perhaps just interested in other things–Engineering contests. Science fairs. Filmmaking. They are normal human beings. Spelling is only one kind of excellence. It’s actually relatively simple: memorize words.

The children of immigrants, especially those who can be visually identified as being of another ethnicity, have excellence in school as their way to succeed in what is not always an accepting culture. In the early 20th century it was Jews, Poles, Eastern Europeans and the Irish. Some remained working class but many of them worked their asses off, winning spelling contests, getting into good schools, becoming doctors and lawyers, etc.

Two generations from now there will undoubtedly be a wave of similar ethnic names for a block of years, and the children or grandchildren of the current winners will wonder why the winners all have such foreign-sounding names. Alas, a lot of these Americans with the Indian sounding names will have become true Americans: fat, dumb, and vaguely resentful of those who work harder than they do. And they’ll wonder why all the spelling bee winners for the last ten years have New Guinean names.