Casting a spell

Washington: Balu Natarajan correctly spelled the word “milieu” to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 1985. He was the first South Asian-American to do so. Three years later, Rageshree Ramachandran seized the title with the word “elegiacal.” And last week, Karthik Nemmani became the 11th straight South Asian-American to win the bee. His word: “koinonia,” which means an intimate spiritual or Christian communion.

Even as the spelling bee’s words seem to have grown tougher, something else has stayed fairly consistent: 19 of the last 23 winners have been of South Asian descent.

A recently released film, Breaking the Bee, tackled the question: Why have so many South Asian-Americans won the spelling bee? In an interview, Sam Rega, the filmmaker, offered several theories.


What was the starting point for South Asian-American success at spelling bees?

The 1965 Immigration Act. This act lifted race-based quotas about who could come into the United States. Subsequently, there was an influx of highly educated immigrants, especially from India. These families had a strong focus on education and raised their kids to also value education.


What role did Balu Natarajan’s win in 1985 play in this phenomenon?

It was the first time people from the community saw a South Asian kid on screen. Kids thought, “If he can do it, I can do it. Our families are from the same place. He looks like me.”

Newspapers covered his win. This was a key moment. A headline like that on the front page meant a lot to the community.

In recent years, I’ve heard kids describe past winners as role models, like you might hear a young kid say they want to play like Michael Jordan. ESPN’s decision to broadcast the bee starting in 1994, the 2002 Academy Award-nominated film Spellbound — all raised the profile of spelling in the South Asian community and made more kids want to participate.


Is there something about South Asian values or families that explains this success?

To me, the key is how much these families believe in the idea of family. And how much spelling is a family sport. They believe in working together as a family unit. They want to create a bond between parent and child. Spellers look to their parents as role models and coaches. Their siblings often play assistant coach.

Parents like to instill values like dedication, hard work, and how to handle yourself in defeat or success. These families also tend to be multilingual, sometimes with moms and dads who speak different languages. Exposure to multiple languages can also play a role in spellers’ facility with spelling. Spelling is a worldly sport, it connects you to languages and places far away from you.


Are there groups that help children compete in this sport?

Yes, there are organisations like the North South Foundation, which started in the late 1980s to help kids succeed academically in the US. In the early 1990s, they started hosting academic competitions like spelling bees.

They focus on helping spellers prepare for the national competition. They’ll even stop in the middle of a bee, and give guidance like, “speak a little louder, ask this question, or that question.”

Since 2008, there’s also been a South Asian Spelling Bee. Which, coincidentally, is also the beginning of the 11-year streak of South Asian winners of the national bee.


Is there a downside to focusing on spelling in the South Asian community?

No, I think these families know what sacrifices they’re making. These kids could have more vacation or more time to play with friends, but most families try to strike a healthy balance. To be driven and focused on something requires sacrifice, whether you’re a speller or a basketball player or a musician.

— Washington Post



Hear it from an expert

Spelling whiz Ananya Vinay shares her tips to beating the competition


If you heard “Scherenschnitte,” could you spell it? What about “cheiropompholyx” and “xanthosis”?

Ananya Vinay can. She is the 2017 champion of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, America’s national spelling competition. Since her big win, Ananya has not slowed down. She spent the past year prepping and training kids who are competing at the national bee. What better way to learn than from the champ herself?

Ananya doesn’t focus on memorising how each word is spelled. Instead, her process is thought-out and incredibly organised. To correctly spell a word, she suggests, find a deeper meaning.

“There is an ocean of words to study from for the bee. There are different languages, roots and tons of stuff in the Merriam-Webster dictionary,” Ananya said. “But you can’t just memorise 470,000 words in the dictionary. That is impossible.”

The eighth-grader partnered with the online learning tool Quizlet to share her tips and tricks for spelling. She created sets of words and divided them by phonetic pronunciation, part of speech, language of origin and definition. Through Quizlet, anyone can practice the words with games, quizzes and digital flashcards.

How would Ananya remember the spelling of “blitzkrieg”? She would first read the definition and then figure out the language of origin, which is German.

“So we know the first word, ‘blitz,’ means fast – it is common usage. And you know in German the ‘i-e’ sound is spelled ‘I-E.’ So in German, ‘krieg’ means war. If you take the word apart, you can understand it more,” she explains. (“Blitzkrieg” means a surprise attack met with speed and force.)

By understanding the roots, stories and patterns of each word, you can think critically, learn new languages and keep the words in your brain for the long-term. Ananya spent one to two hours each day studying definitions and roots to prepare for the spelling bee last year. Over time, she could spell hundreds of words in an hour.

But it wasn’t always easy for Ananya. Words with French and Middle English roots were tricky for her and took practice.

“The spelling bee teaches you discipline,” she says. “If you lose once, you can’t just say that you are done. Get up and try again and see if you can do better.”

The Washington Post.