South Asians and the Spelling Bee

A couple of years ago, I wrote about my inability to understand the appeal of the Spelling Bee competition. It seemed to me to be not worth the enormous amount of time that people expend on it. A recent NPR report examines the extraordinary success of the ethnic South Asian community in this contest.

Indian-Americans have won the past four contests, and 9 of the past 13 — even though they make up less than 1 percent of the population.

Over the past decade, South Asians have built a veritable dynasty on the spelling bee circuit; one commentator compared their dominance to Kenyans winning marathons.

Yesterday, that dominance continued as Snigdha Nandipati won this year’s event. Second and third places also went to South Asians.

In my previous post, I wondered why, although I am of South Asian ethnicity, we were not part of this spelling juggernaut. I jokingly asked, “Was there some memo that I did not get?” To my surprise, it turns out that there is such a memo, as was indicated in a disturbing item in this report.

Indian-American spelling successes have also been fueled in recent years by the South Asian-only farm leagues that have popped up. Those tournaments act as a kind of breeding ground, where many Indian versions of the “tiger mom” start their kids as young as 6 years old. [My italics-MS]

Really? They restrict membership to just South Asians? That is troubling. Although my family did not receive any invitation, I would like to make it clear that I would not have joined even if I thought the Spelling Bee were worth my children’s time, because I dislike the idea of groups that restrict membership based on ethnicity and other tribal markers.


  1. says

    When I was in high school (Year 9), I won a school spelling contest. I went into the District finals but got knocked out quite early because I couldn’t understand what the questioner was saying. (She was saying “Ptolemy” and I completely blanked.)

    I’ve always been quite good at spelling, but I never memorised lists methodically (except for a few spelling tests in primary school). My parents encouraged me to read, and when you read as much as I did when I was a kid, you become pretty good at spelling.

    I can understand wanting to know esoteric words for the joy of learning and the love of language, as well as wanting to expand your vocabulary. I also think it’s good that minorities are excelling in something, especially South Asians, who aren’t very visible in the mainstream media in the West. And the dedication and determination of the children is admirable.

    However I think these spelling contests have become an arms race. Encouraging children to memorise lists of words they’ll never use, words that are difficult for the sake of difficulty alone, is a waste of time, in my opinion. Imagine what all those bright young minds could be contributing to the human race.

    Like you I am of Tamil background. Our culture seems to place a lot of value on rote learning and intellectual achievement. My father told me that when he was a child he memorised and recited the Tirukkural, which is several hundred verses. While it’s good to have a culture that encourages learning, I think that mindless rote learning and conventional academic success designed to take children and grind out doctors is soul-destroying. Luckily my family let me enjoy my childhood. They never pressured me to do anything, and basically told me they’d be happy if I were an artist, dancer, teacher, vagrant, dole bludger or whatever (although they expected I go to university).

    I think it’s really sad that young children are being farmed like this… it’s happening all over the world. Children are being pressure-tutored from birth, to get into the best schools, to get into the best universities, to get the “best” jobs… They need time to play, imagine, explore, relax, be children, be human beings.

    My cousin studies in India. He told me that students over there are very competitive. In his words, “all they do is eat, sleep and study.” I would rather die than live like that!

  2. Sunny says

    As you note, mindless rote-learning is the norm among Indians. I am Indian and I have done it: I am still recovering from it.

  3. jack19 says

    Hi. This is an older blog post, but I wanted to make a few comments on it.

    What’s wrong with the spelling bee? Just about everything.

    The emphasis is strictly on spelling, not on knowing what words mean. That’s a bit like going through the phone book and memorizing how to spell people’s last names and memorizing their phone numbers as well. Unless you actually know the person, exactly how relevant is knowing how to spell their last name and their phone number? 😉 Furthermore, at the higher levels of the spelling bee, most of the words so obscure that they would never be encountered in real life.

    As columnist Neil Steinberg has pointed out:

    “The National Spelling Bee is child abuse. Newspapers would be quick to condemn it if they didn’t sponsor the darn thing. Forcing children to memorize freakish words that no actual writer would use under any circumstances imaginable is a terrible travesty — why not encourage them to memorize the digits of pi instead and spew them back on demand? The process would hardly change.

    “Yes, some children are gulled, and have a moment of pride and victory because of the bee. But a childhood is a terrible thing to waste, and I can’t help but wonder how many diehard spelling wizzes in their 20s suddenly look up, slap their foreheads and exclaim: ‘I wasted my youth memorizing ‘appoggiatura!'”

    But perhaps the worst thing of all is that, as Steinberg also notes, “a spelling bee is, first and foremost, a show.” That is, the officials don’t care about finding the best speller. They just exploit the youngsters for entertainment. The official pronouncer for the National Spelling Bee let the cat out of the bag in an interview with the Washington Post in the early ’90s. An excerpt from that article:

    “The [National Spelling Bee] word panelists point out that the spelling bee is both a contest and a public entertainment. There can be only one victor….and [impossibly difficult] words are the handiest method of dispatch. It may not seem fair, but that’s show business. ‘Frankly, I’m not interested in finding out who the best speller is,’ acknowledges Alex Cameron, an English professor at the University of Dayton and [former] official pronouncer at the National Spelling Bee. ‘I’m interested in finding a winner.’

    “Cameron notes that if Scripps Howard merely wanted to find the best young speller in the land, its staff would prepare a written test and thereby remove the element of luck. But that, of course, would be boring.

    “The staffers insist that it is strictly an ‘educational’ event, and are liable to go ballistic if you suggest that the bee is, at least in part, a promotional gimmick for the Scripps Howard newspaper chain.

    “In fact, the event originated as a promotional gimmick. In 1925 the Bingham family, publishers of the Louisville Courier-Journal, sponsored the first National Spelling Bee in Washington as part of a bitter circulation war with a rival Louisville newspaper. The first contest was held in an auditorium at the Smithsonian and had only nine contestants.”

    So, the spelling bee is merely about entertainment and generating money, not about finding the best speller. And it uses kids as pawns to promote itself. How sick is that? How many children do you think realize that the goal of the spelling bee is not and has never been to find the best speller? And what other contest can you think of where if you make just one mistake, you’re out??? It’s lunacy. Here is what some other folks have had to say about the spelling bee as well:

    “Joel Westheimer, professor of education at the University of Ottawa and specialist in education trends, says spelling bee mania is part of today’s social obsession with quantifiable measures of success.

    “‘The desire for standardized and quantifiable measures — whether in the push for more and more standardized tests, rote assessments or spelling bees — is symptomatic of a society that would like its schools to measure something — anything — to gain a comforting sense of progress. If we can’t measure what we truly care about, we just start caring about what we can measure. Bring on the spelling bee.'”

    From columnist James Kilpatrick:

    “It strikes me as a trivialization of English to coach these bright students into spelling such words as sericeous, permillage, [etc.]….Where do the sponsors rake up these words? The youngster who spends weeks and months drilling away at these arcane specimens would be better off shooting baskets or learning a shortstop’s pivot.”

    From Milton Freedman, a former English professor at the University of Maryland:

    Spelling bees feed the American lust for instant winners, instant celebrities, and instant virtue….[and] only confuse genuine learning with the high jinks that get one into Guinness record books.”

    “Memorizing odd words, arithmetic tables, and long poems by Edgar Allan Poe, like ‘Bells,’ used to be considered good discipline for ‘training the mind.’ Long ago, educational specialists concluded that the mind was not an assortment of muscles to be developed like those of the body….[but] Americans relish surface show….By applauding winners of spelling bees, we support the schools in their seeming determination not to recognize the organic dependence of spelling on reading. We let them turn out champions at spelling who can win every contest they enter, but often can’t integrate into an intelligible sentence the obscure words that so glibly trip off their tongues….Spelling is a skill that should be acquired through…seeing and understanding words in context….It is also easier to teach and test spelling, and comparable robot skills, than to teach and test meaningful reading and writing. But in doing these things, we grievously deceive our students, who develop a false sense of knowing something relevant and important.”

    It’s a tragedy that most parents can’t see through all this. Indeed the students are being deceived into thinking they’re learning something really important, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Sadly, it’s really all about “15 minutes of fame,” and mostly for the parents. What could kids be doing instead of the spelling bee? Something that requires “real life” thinking skills. Let them do some gardening, some cooking, etc. Let them learn to play an instrument for fun. Let them do reading and writing for pleasure. Or let them learn a foreign language, which would require memorization but in a useful context. A foreign language is a skill that could benefit you the rest of your life. A child would even be better off learning a sport than spending hours memorizing obscure words. Kids were never meant to be robots, but it seems that many parents confuse quantity with quality.

    As one other columnist has pointed out: “Spelling obscure words is fine as far as it goes. Problem is, it goes no farther than the contest.”

    The spelling bee is an old fossil that should have been deep-sixed ages ago. It’s okay to use it as a classroom study tool for fun, but to have a national contest? That’s at best mindless and at worst child abuse. (Some kids even spend over 40 hours a week studying for the spelling bee. At that point, it has become an obsession bordering on mental illness–i.e., the cult of the spelling bee. Parents who force their kids to do this should be locked up.) When are Americans in general going to wake up and see the truth about the spelling bee?

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