Word Masters on Our Shores

The new wave of Indian American spelling champs provides a plethora of perspicacity about the immigrant experience

two 2014 spelling bee winners

Nupur Lala, a 14-year-old girl from Tampa, Florida, approached the microphone at the Scripps National Spelling Bee, anxiously awaiting her word. The judge said it, “logorrhea,” and gave her the definition—incessant talking. After writing it with her index finger on the palm of her other hand, Lala quickly spelled it out loud, and jumped for joy when the judge told her it was correct. An Indian American, she had just won the 1999 spelling bee—an invention as American as apple pie—and started a trend.  

Since then, 11 champions—including the last eight—have been children of Indian descent, a remarkable feat given that the contest attracts kids from all walks of life in America and that Indian Americans make up less than 1 percent of the U.S. population. At this year’s contest, which takes place May 24-29, with the final broadcast on ESPN to an audience of more than 1 million, it’s expected that there will be as many Kayshavs as Christinas.  

“As a researcher, I am fascinated by this,” says Pawan Dhingra, a sociology professor in the School of Arts and Sciences whose work focuses on immigrants and how they adapt to their new cultures. “I care about why they do it more than why they win.”

Now he’s made the spelling bees a focus of his research, attending the events and talking to families whose children participate. A paper he wrote about Indian Americans and their participation in competitions will appear in Asian American Sporting Cultures: Performing and Challenging Identities, Practice, and Space, to be published by New York University Press. He is also working on a book about education that takes place outside of school.

A Competitive Streak

“I’m talking to families about the motivation to pursue additional education, not because a child needs it, but because the family wants it,” says Pawan Dhingra. Photo: Kelvin Ma“I’m talking to families about the motivation to pursue additional education, not because a child needs it, but because the family wants it,” says Pawan Dhingra. Photo: Kelvin Ma
When Lala won the Scripps bee, says Dhingra, other Indian American families quickly took notice and started having their kids enter spelling bees. That became more pronounced after Indian Americans student won the Scripps bee in 2002 and 2003.

Families of Indian descent often share characteristics that attract them to spelling bees and help them be successful, Dhingra says. Education in India is competitive, he notes. Immigrants from India often have advanced degrees, unusual in a country where there are few slots in higher education for undergraduates, let alone graduate students. “The parents of the children who do well in spelling bees are prone to thinking about education, which has served them well, as a competitive experience, and spelling bees reflect that,” says Dhingra.

In addition, he says, the way in which children study for spelling bees fits their parents’ experience of studying. Education in India relies heavily on memorization, an essential ingredient of spelling bee success. Many of the Indian parents are also strong in science, math and computers, and encourage their children to analytically study word derivation. Often during a competition, a child will ask where a word is from and what part of speech it is, information that helps her figure out how to spell it.

Anil Saigal, a professor of mechanical engineering at Tufts, agrees with Dhingra. He organizes a regional program at Tufts for the North South Foundation, an organization that holds annual competitions for Indian American children around the country in math, science, spelling and public speaking. The contests are designed to encourage academic excellence and to raise money for scholarships for children in India.

This year more than 350 students competed in contests held at Anderson Hall on May 9, a day-long program with science and math bees in the morning, a spelling bee in the afternoon and an awards ceremony at the end of the day. For some, the regional competition is a warmup for Scripps, Saigal says. North South Foundation winners have gone on to the national contest.

While part of Dhingra’s research focus is on spelling bees, he is also looking at what causes families of any ethnicity to pursue education outside of school, whether in a competition or a math class. “I’m talking to families about the motivation to pursue additional education, not because a child needs it, but because the family wants it,” he says. “School is no longer seen as the only space to learn. I’m talking to families about how children feel about it and what the impact is on schools.”

Why focus on spelling bees and not other competitive arenas? Dhingra says those Indian families who pursue the bees often don’t think their children will excel in sports. And while they might spend time in creative arts such as drama or dance, those activities offer fewer opportunities for competition, he says. Why, he wondered, haven’t these families pursued, say, chess, which is both academic and competitive? “A mother told me, ‘Wait until the first Indian wins a chess tournament. And then you’ll see Indians playing chess.’”

Marjorie Howard can be reached at marjorie.howard@tufts.edu.

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