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Snigdha Nandipati, Spelling Bee Champ Over the last few decades, Indian Americans have been outshining other ethnicities at the National Spelling Bee.

Why is a population that makes up roughly 1% of the US population so heavily represented at the event?
Why were 10 champions in the last 14 contests of Indian American/South Asian descent?
There must be more to this than chance.

Unlikely that there is such as a thing as a spelling bee gene, so this is not about racial stereotypes.

Here are a few things that contribute to the strong presence of Indian/South Asian students at the event:

1 -  The American school system and culture has a conflicted relationship with memory-based learning.
Indian culture values academic achievement highly and values memorization as well, as a building block of higher-level knowledge.
This, by the way, is also the reason why Indian Americans are not only dominating the Spelling Bee, but also produce much more than their statistical share of doctors, engineers and executives.

2 -  Indian Americans/South Asians maintain tightly knit family and social communities, and place a paramount value within their community on academic performance. Social expectations around academic performance tend to be much higher than in other demographic groups.
Academic success therefore has a big social pay-off.

3 -  Last but not least, the success at Spelling Bees is fostered by various initiatives that exclusively support Indian American/South Asian students. NorthSouth Foundation and the South Asian Spelling Bee are both set up to support the Indian American/South Asian community of aspiring champions.
It's great to win the first prize at the Scripps National Spelling Bee by competing with 10 million students for over $40,000 in prizes. There is certainly more incentive to dedicate the thousands of hours of intense study needed knowing that you can also apply these skills at the South Asian Spelling Bee, where you compete with just a few thousand other kids for a $10,000 first prize.
These additional events also build friendships and mutual support within the Indian American speller community.

Posted by Rosevita Warda in spelling bee.

5 Responses to Why Indian Americans rule the National Spelling Bee

  1. Myself says:

    It could be that the educators don’t know much better themselves. By the way, Asians are known to be the best students, due to the cultural influences and educational systems in their original countries. Even Europeans are better than Americans. By the way, you spelled one word wrong yourself. It’s “therefore”, not “therefor”. :)

  2. Sanja says:

    I agree with all of the above, but I think there may be other, more general reasons involved as well.

    Over the years of using Internet, I have noticed that people who studied English as a foreign language tend to have better spelling and grammar than many native English speakers. I thought it had something to do with education, but later I did some comparing online and conducted my own research, and came to the conclusion that even children of immigrants in English speaking countries tend to write better than native speakers in general. Even those who were, say, 8 years old when they moved to an English speaking country often learn to write better than many native speakers. Then I talked to those people (both native and non-native speakers) and discussed this phenomenon with them, and came up with an explanation. I think two factors are the most responsible for this:

    1.) Personal attitude towards it (non-native speakers give more importance to learning the language correctly and pay more attention to every detail, whereas native speakers take it for granted);

    2.) If you speak at least one more language (other than English), you are more likely to be better at spelling and grammar, because you understand the patterns better and it’s easier for you to understand and remember the rules.

    Genetics play an important role on the individual level (some people are naturally gifted, some have dyslexia etc.), but I don’t think we can generalise the whole nations and say that Indians are genetically better at spelling than anyone else. I think they simply learn it better.

    That said, sometimes I’m really shocked to see how many native English speakers have atrocious writing skills. All it takes is having a look at Facebook or any other social network, or any forum or website for that matter, and you will be appalled by the degree of illiteracy. I used to perform my little secret tests, randomly checking Facebook profiles of people with authentic English names and reading their statuses and posts, and the type and number of mistakes most people made always shocked me. This phenomenon is present in all English speaking countries; the Brits and Australians are no better than Americans.

    • admin says:

      Interesting observations! I agree that it comes down to attitude and you describe the issue very well. To me, language is a direct representation of who you are. I’m often surprised by how little it is valued by native speakers, even by educators. It is actually fashionable right now among educators to act as though there is no need to teach vocabulary and spelling. I guess that’s because educators are taught that (a) people will get it by themselves, and (b) it’s not really important. A really worrisome ideology that is successfully selling the comfortable illusions to the ignorant.

  3. Pingback: Why are Indian-Americans sweeping the US spelling bee? | The k2p blog

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