(This story is being reposted from The Quint's archives after African-American student Zaila Avant-garde won the US Spelling Bee, breaking the 12-year-long winning streak of Indian Americans. It was originally published on 7 June 2021)
At six years of age, Akash Vukoti, a child of immigrant parents, stood confidently on the stage with a million eyes on him. He didn’t make it beyond the third round, but he made history by becoming the first ever first-grader to qualify for the Scripps National Spelling Bee. He has been competing locally since, and five years later, he took part again in a bid to win the title.
Reminiscing his stint at the Spelling Bee that year, Vukoti told The Quint:
“The most memorable one was in Round 3 of the competition! When I misspelled in this round, I gave a short speech thanking the organisers and wishing good luck to the remaining contestants, and the video of the speech went viral! Immediately, I was rushed for a live interview with CNN International!”Akash Vukoti
Vukoti was among the 209 kids who qualified for this year’s Spelling Bee. In 2020, the competition was cancelled due to the pandemic. This year, over 70 students of Indian origin were among the qualified candidates at the competition.
For 12 years now, since 2008, children of Indian origin have emerged as winners in the competition. So far, 21 Indian Americans have been declared champion or co-champions at the Spelling Bee.
The last time the bee was held in 2019, eight students shared the trophy in an unprecedented win, out of which 7 were of Indian origin. This year too, almost 30 percent qualifiers are Indian Americans – 5 percent more than their share in 2017 – although they account for less than 1 percent of the US population.
Part of The Culture
The first Indian to win a spelling bee was Balu Natarajan in 1985, kick-starting an Indian-American’s journey of triumph in the Spelling Bee. He inspired the Indian-American community and led to the formation of foundations and other non-profits hosting such competitions in the South Asian circuit.
In a research exploring the extraordinary success rate of Indian Americans at the Spelling Bee, Sanjoy Chakravorty of Temple University, Devesh Kapur at the University of Pennsylvania and Nirvikar Singh at the University of California-Santa Cruz found out that education, memorisation and networks give Indian American kids an edge over others.
In an article for the BBC, Chakravorty wrote, “The parents of these high-achieving youngsters are highly educated and value education. There are suggestions that they are particularly adept at rote learning and memorisation. They work in clusters and use ethnic and family networks to dominate a few professions. These properties are strikingly similar to what works for their children in the spelling and geography bees.”
Sam Rega, filmmaker and the brain behind the documentary ‘Breaking the Bee’, told CBS news, that there is a community element in these competitions, pointing out that Indian-American kids meet friends after seeing them again and again at North South Foundation events and other spelling competitions over the years. The community has even set up tutoring centres, software and study materials for young spellers, especially in Texas, where many champion spellers including this 2019’s top three finishers are based.
Advantage: Rote Learning
A 2015 Times of India article also stresses on the power of Indians to rote learn – an ability which the author argues can be traced back to the importance of oral tradition in the Indian culture. The two of the most important texts – Ramayana and Mahabharata – were passed down through oral tradition before being finally written down.
Writer Gurnek Bains argued that one reason for South Asians' dominance in spelling bees was steeped in history. Over millennia, Indian culture developed 15 elaborate mnemonic devices, aiding in a near-perfect oral transmission of India's sacred Vedic texts like the Mahabharata. That cultural and linguistic feat was so impressive that UNESCO proclaimed in 2003 that it represented "a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity,” reported CNN.
These families also are a part of the population which has a higher income range than the average and thus can put in time, effort and money into training their kids for these competitions. Some families may have a stay-at-home-parent who is invested in the child’s studies and makes sure they perform well. They go through rigorous practice – studying 1000 words an hour, keeping spreadsheets of all new words, strategising their preparation, putting in long hours, and studying special dictionaries.
"Parents invest a lot of their time with their kids...They prioritise education and have the economic means to have a parent stay at home. It's much more a socio-economic factor than a gene,” said, Shalini Shankar, a professor of anthropology and Asian-American studies at Northwestern University, to CNN.
Vukoti testifies to this.
“A lot of the preparation is teamwork, and my family helps me a lot! In fact, I am actually homeschooled, which gives me the flexibility to adjust my daily schedule! There is no set amount of time I study every day, but it is definitely more than 3-4 hours every day! As soon as I have finished my schoolwork, I’ll focus on preparing for the spelling bee! My mom and sister help me by quizzing me a lot!”Akash Vukoti told The Quint
Most Indian families are multilingual households which gives them a two-fold advantage. This gives children an ability to pick up words in different languages and then associate them with each other. It pushes them to excel in English which in most cases isn’t their mother tongue.
It is a totally normal scenario in an Indian-American household to see kids knowing not one, but multiple dictionaries by heart by the age of 12.
Chakravorty attributes this diligent approach to competitions to “The immigrant's hunger for success, as individuals and as a community. The drive to work hard and suffer deprivations when needed. Anything that must be done to be both part of the mainstream and a shining example in it.”
Most Indian American families have at least one child participating in the competition – a kind of a right of passage. The LA Times calls it a part of the whole ‘Indian American experience’.