Nation & World

Spell check: Why do so many Indian Americans win the National Spelling Bee?

Breaking the Bee (Official Trailer)

Since 1999, 18 of the last 22 winners of the Scripps National Spelling Bee have been Indian-American, making the incredible trend one of the longest in sports history.
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Since 1999, 18 of the last 22 winners of the Scripps National Spelling Bee have been Indian-American, making the incredible trend one of the longest in sports history.

They are to the Scripps National Spelling Bee what LeBron James has become to the NBA — a powerhouse.

Since 1999, they have won the bee in all but four years, according to The Atlantic's count.

They accounted for 13 of the last 15 spellers left standing at last year's bee, won by Ananya Vinay, a sixth-grader from Fresno, Calif.

So how did Indian American students come to rule the national spelling bee, which begins Tuesday with more than 130 Indian American students among the 516 competing?

One of the four students featured in the new documentary, "Breaking the Bee," spells it out: "90 percent hard work, 10 percent other."

"We rival the Yankees, Dallas Cowboys, Indian American kids and spelling ... we're in that," comedian Hari Kondabolu says in the film.

"The only way Indian American kids are losing the spelling bee ... is if they switch to Spanish. And then it's still like 50-50."

The film calls the students the "new sports dynasty" - Kondabolu calls it the "Indian Super Bowl" — and the sports lingo seems apt given that ESPN has broadcast the bee since 1994, giving the spellers athlete status.

Director Sam Rega followed four students from last year's bee, and their families. One was 8-year-old Akash Vukoti, who will be back at this year's competition. So will another speller from the film, 11-year-old fifth-grader Ashrita Gandhari.

According to The Hindustan Times, Akash entered his first spelling bee when he was 2 — and still in diapers. He won his first one when he was 4 and in 2016 became the youngest speller at the national bee when he was 6.

"The individual stories told in the documentary go a long way to counteract the stereotype that has sprung up about Indian American spellers since they began commanding the higher echelons of the Bee: that they’re just a bunch of soulless automatons, forced by domineering parents to memorize long lists of words instead of having fun like regular kids," writes The Atlantic.

"The children featured are playful, well-rounded, and above all, genuinely enthusiastic about competing — if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be able to excel."

Rega said he knew very little about spelling bees, other than what he read online or watched occasionally on ESPN, before diving into the project, he told The Teal Mango website that covers the South Asian community.

"I didn’t know the ins and outs of that world or how many kids who are in it had siblings who had been spellers too," he told Teal Mango.

"That was something I wanted to explore. Especially with that stereotype of ‘tiger parents,’ there has always been this misconception that it’s the parents pushing the kids to become spellers. What I found was that was not the case at all. These kids were driven to do it, they wanted to do it.

"The kids often would play an instrument, spell and maybe play a sport like tennis. The parents we spoke to would sometimes ask, ‘Would you rather direct your energy towards something else? Do you want to focus on tennis?’ and the kids would say no."

Rega told The Atlantic he was fascinated that the bee has become dominated by about one percent of the national population.

He traced U.S. immigration patterns that brought highly-educated professionals from India to the United States, and explored the existence of a "minor-league" spelling bee circuit.

Before competing at the national bee, many of the top spellers in recent years have first spelled their way through the North South Foundation Spelling Bee and the South Asian Spelling Bee, the film shows.

The North South Foundation, started up in the late 1980s, first set out to raise money among Indian Americans for scholarships for children in India, but in 1993 began looking for ways to promote education in the United States as well. So it launched a spelling bee.

“They all want to see each other succeed,” Rega told the Atlantic, noting that parents view their children as competing against the dictionary rather than the other spellers.

In this case, the film shows, the opponent is Webster’s Third New International, Unabridged,

"Much of the preparation for the Bee involves wrangling this beast of a lexicon, finding the most efficient ways to commit to memory the roots of English word formation," writes the Atlantic.

"As the four children featured in Breaking the Bee illustrate, each family finds its own way to take on that gargantuan task, and Rega has wisely chosen to spend much of the film’s time in taking viewers behind the scenes to those quiet familial moments."

The filmmakers interviewed Balu Natarajan, who became the first Indian American to win the national bee in 1985 by spelling the word “milieu."

A physician now, he says in the film he didn't know until years later how important that victory had become to Indian American parents.

The national spelling bee, writes The Hindustan Times, "gives the immigrant community a platform to unabashedly flaunt their Americanness."

Rega won't be at this year's bee because he's getting married. But he told the Times he'll be keeping tabs on two of his stars, Akash and Ashrita.

“I may be biased because I know them and their families, but I think both have the potential to win,” he said.

The final rounds will be broadcast on ESPN 2 and ESPN on Thursday.

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