Indian-American Kids Dominate in the National Spelling Bee

spelling beeToday is Friday, May 31, 2013.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee is an annual spelling context held in the United States for children who have not yet completed the eighth grade in school and who are under 16 years old.  The contest is now open to participants who live in the United States, Guam, American Samoa, U.S. Virgin Islands, Canada, Mexico, Jamaica, New Zealand, Ghana, and military bases in South Korea and Germany.  Participants in the national event must be winners of local and regional events.  Students may participate as many times as they wish, but once a contestant has won the contest, he or she may not participate again.  Participants are generally sponsored by local newspaper or news media companies.

The sponsor of the National Spelling bee is the E.W. Scripps Company, an American media conglomerate that owns newspapers and TV stations and networks.  The company, headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio, operates under the motto, “Give light and the people will find their own way.”   The company runs the contest as a non-profit event.

Originally organized in 1925, the contest has run continuously except for the years 1943-2045, due to World War II.  There are six qualifying rounds, some written, some oral, and some using computers.  Rounds Five and Six, plus the championship round,  are televised by ESPN2.  The contest is held in late May or early June each year, in Washington, D.C.   Typically, there are approximately 72 participants, who are given points for pronouncing and spelling words correctly.  There are no more than 12 and no fewer than 9 finalists in the championship round, also called Round Seven.  Contestants are given 2 minutes and 30 seconds from the time they first pronounce the word.  The first two minutes are called Regular Time.  After two minutes, a chime sounds, signalling the 30-second Finish Time.  During Finish Time, a speller may ask for the definition, part of speech, usage in a sentence, language of origin, root word, and any alternate pronunciations.  There are no timing devices onstage, but a speller may watch a clock counting down the last 30 seconds.  The speller may stop spelling and start over, but if there are any changes the second time around, it is considered an automatic misspelling.  If a contestant exceeds the time limit, it counts as a misspelling.  Once a contestant has misspelled a word, he or she is eliminated from the competition.

The winner gets a $30,000 cash prize and an engraved trophy from Scripps, a $2,500 savings bond, a reference library from Merriam-Webster, $2,600 in reference works and a lifetime membership to Britannica Online Premium from Encyclopedia Britannica, a $5,000 cash prize from the Sigma Phi Epsilon Educational Foundation, and an online course and a Nook eReader from K12 Inc. In recent years, the winner and his or her family has also gotten to meet the President of the United States in his Oval Office.  Pretty heady stuff.

All contestants receive Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged on CD-ROM from Merriam-Webster, a $100 U.S. Savings Bond, and a cash prize from Scripps, based on the round in which the contestant was eliminated. The cash prize ranges from $100 for a speller eliminated before the Quarterfinals to $12,500 for the second-place finisher.  Contestants  also receive a $250-$500 watch by Omega or Rolex.

Arvind Mahankali 2013

Arvind Mahankali, winner of the 2013 National Spelling Bee (Reuters)

So now that you know what the Scripps National Spelling Bee is, you should know something interesting about the winners.  For the last six years straight, the winner has been an Indian-American.  No, not a Native American, an American child whose family originally comes from India.   In fact, out of 281 contestants, there were over 50 ethnic Indian children competing in the 2013 competition, and a number of them were competing for the second, third or fourth time. The second-and third-place winners were Indian-American kids, as well.  In the last 15 years, 11 of the winners have been ethnic Indians.

The 2013 winner is Arvind Mahankali, 13, from Bayside Hills, NY.  Last year and the year before, Arvind placed third, each time being eliminated by a word of German origin.  “The German curse,” he called it.  Two years ago, he got the word “Jugendstil,A style of architecture and decorative art similar to art nouveau, popular in German-speaking areas of Europe during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.” which he mispronounced as “You could steal.”  The crowd laughed when he saluted them after tetting the word wrong. Last year he misspelled “schwannoma,” after which he said, “I know what I have to study.”   By the way,  Jugendstil is a style of architecture and decorative art similar to art nouveau, popular in German-speaking areas of Europe during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Just so you know.  And schwannoma is a benign nerve-sheath tumor.

This year, Arvind got the word “dehnstufe” earlier in the finals, and there were groans from members of the audience who knew Arvind’s history.  It was obvious that he already knew the answer when he asked, “Can I have the language of origin?”  He spelled the word correctly.  It means an Indo-European long-grade vowel.  More than you wanted to know, I’m sure. With his “German curse” finally defeated, Arvind won by spelling the word “knaidel,” a German-derived Yiddish word for a matzo ball.  He said he’d never eaten one, but perhaps now, he will.

Pranav Sivakumar, 13, from Tower Lakes, IL, finished second (he missed “cyanophycean”) and Sriram Hathwar, also 13, from Pained Post, NY,  took third place (he got “ptyalagogue’’ wrong).

Arvind’s father is an IT consultant, and his mother is a doctor.  He has one younger brother.  He admires Albert Einstein, and hopes to become a physicist one day. His family h ails from Hyderabad, in southern India, where relatives were watching the live broadcast on TV.  Arvind speaks Telugu and Spanish, as well as English, and enjoys tennis, basketball and drama.

Arvind’s father credits the Indian cultural emphasis on education and language for the fact Indian-American kids seem to dominate the National Spelling Bee.  Others have made similar conjectures over the years, pointing out that in India, a lot of learning is by rote, and memorization is encouraged.  The winners’ parents are all well-educated individuals who value education highly.  Looking at the winners’ extracurricular activities, it is evident that their parents encourage academics and the arts over sports.

other winners

Top row: Nupur Lala, George Abraham Thampy, Prathush Buddiga, Sai R. Ganturi and Anurag Kashyap. Bottom: Sameer Mishra, Kavya Shivashankar, Anamika Veeramani, Sukanya Roy and Snigdha Nandipati. Image credits: Getty, CBS News, Huffington post and spellingbee.com

The run of Indian-American winners started in 1999, with Nupur Lala, then 14, who won by spelling the word “logorrhea” (excessive and often incoherent talkativeness or wordiness), and who was later featured in the 2002 documentary “Spellbound.”   In 200, George Abraham Thampy won by spelling “dearche.”   Pratyush Buddiga was the 2002 winner, with the word “prospicience,” followed by Sai R. Gunturi, who won in 2003 by spelling “pococurante.”  Anurag Kashyap won in 2005, spelling “appoggiatura” correctly.  In 2008, it was Sameer Mishra’s turn to win by spelling “guerdon.”  His was the first of the six-year winning streak.  Other winners were Kavya Shivashankar (2009, Laodicean), Anamika Veeramani (2010, stromuhr), Sukanya Roy (2011, cymotrichous), and Snigdha Nandipati, guetapens).  No, I don’t know those words, either.  I can’t even figure out how to pronounce them, and my vocabulary is huge.  And don’t bother using spell-check – it doesn’t recognize these words, either.

The words used in the spelling be seem to have gotten harder.  Looking at the list of winning words, I know most of them, or have seen them before, up until the late 1970s.  After that, I know maybe three or four words.  The words on the list been described as “camp friends” type words – ones you meet once, get to know, then never see again.   Anyone who wants to know what words the winners have studied should consult Merriam-Webster’s book, Spell It!, which contains slightly different words each year.  It focuses on 1150 words, divided by language origin.  Even if you don’t download the full file, take a look at the lists given in links at the left side of the page.  Anyone who thinks kids know fewer and fewer words these days hasn’t met the Scripps National Spelling Bee champs.

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