For 14 years now, since 2008, Indian-origin children have been winners in the Scripps National Spelling Bee held in Washington DC every year.
A spelling bee is a competition in which contestants are asked to spell a broad selection of words, usually with a varying degree of difficulty. To compete, contestants must memorize the spellings of words as written in dictionaries, and recite them accordingly.
The first Indian who won the Spelling Bee was Balu Natarajan in 1985, which kick-started a trend for Indian-American kids of endeavoring to enter the competition. His victory greatly inspired Indian-Americans, and even the South Asian communities to form a foundation to launch such non-profit competitions.
Nowadays, Indian-American communities always use their ethnic or family networks to share knowledge and information, and gradually they have dominated in a few professions, which seems to sufficiently encourage their children to win the competition.
So far, totally 21 Indian Americans have been declared champions or runner ups in the competition. In 2019, the spelling prize was awarded to eight students, and seven of them were American Indians.
In the year of 2021, about 30% qualified participants were Indian Americans – the number grew by 5% compared with 2017, even though Indian Americans make up less than 1% of the entire U.S. population. To seize the chance of qualifying for the National Spelling Bee Competition has become a part of their culture.
Why do so many Indian Americans win the annual Spelling Bee Competition? One research found that it is their education, memorization and special family networks that contribute those kids an edge over others.
An article published in 2015 by Times of India stressed on the American Indians routine learning skill – it is an ability, the author argued, that can be traced back as early as the oral tradition era in India. In other words, Indian kids were “born” with good verbal memories.
Over thousands of years, Indian culture developed 15 elaborate mnemonic devices, aiding in a near-perfect oral transmission of India's sacred texts like the Mahabharata.
The cultural and linguistic accomplishment was so impressive that UNESCO announced in 2003 that it represented "a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity,” as it was reported by CNN.
Moreover, most Indian families living in U.S.A. are bilingual or even multilingual, which offers their children an environment to learn words in different languages and memorize them simultaneously. Therefor, in spite of the fact that English is not their mother tongue, Indian-American kids have always learnt rich English vocabularies by the age of 12.
Another BBC article also revealed that those high-achieving children’s parents are usually highly educated. They are so earnest about giving their kids good education that the routine learning and memorization skill set are consequently acquired by their children.
In fact, those American Indian families usually have a boom income which allows them to spend more time, efforts and remunerations to coach their kids for the Bee Spelling. Some families even left one parent at home to supervise or tutor their children in practicing so as to ensure they are able to perform well in the competition.
The Indian American children, on the other hand, never spare themselves. They go through a lot of rigorous practice – studying 1000 words within an hour, keeping long-hour practising and entering new words as well as making special strategies for this activity, etc.