Op-ed and Comment

Spelling Bee

I wrote this right after the Spelling Bee. It came out in The National

How do you spell English expert? With I, N, D, I, A and N
Shoba Narayan
Jun 26, 2013

Every week I go to my local grocery store in Bangalore, called Thoms. After I pick up my milk, eggs and vegetables, I typically have to ask the salespeople about the week’s specials. Like most Indian retail outlets, Thoms is staffed with young people who look 16 but are probably 21.

“Excuse me, but has this week’s organic tea delivery come in?” I’ll ask – in English. And they’ll answer in English.
I recount this to propose a theory about why Indian-American children so consistently dominate the annual Scripps Howard Spelling Bee in the US, held last month.
This year, for the seventh time in a row, an Indian won. This was the first time in five years that the title didn’t go to an Indian girl. This year’s winner, Arvind Mahankali, 13, is the 11th Indian winner in the last 15 years.
His victory will extend the debate about whether it is talent, hard work or parental ambition that has caused this string of successes.
Sure, Indian-Americans have their own “Little League” for spelling bees; children get numerous chances to spread their wings in their local spelling community. Yes, parents pass their strong immigrant work ethic on to these kids, making them toil on obscure words such as glossophagine, chalumeau, and dehnstufe – all of which young Mahankali spelt correctly. (He won with the word knaidel).
And of course, spelling becomes a family affair with younger and older siblings serving as coaches or keeping time at bees. All these factors contribute to the success.
But there is also one more ingredient: milieu, both in the old country, India, and in the new one, America.
India has 22 official languages, but the 1991 census pointed out that 1,576 languages were classified as mother tongues. That’s diversity, even if the number is down from 1,652 languages in 1961.
As English makes inroads into the Indian tongue, more regional languages will bite the dust.
How does this play out in daily life? I live in Bangalore, whose native language is Kannada, which I am ashamed to say I don’t speak. I come from neighbouring Tamil Nadu and I speak Tamil at home. My parents grew up in Kerala and speak Malayalam. The current spelling bee champ’s father comes from a state adjoining mine – Andhra Pradesh – which speaks Telugu. Should we all meet we would speak in English.
When I shop, I speak English with the service staff, a mixture of Tamilians, Kannadigas, Telegus and Malayalis. English comes easy to most Indians, for whatever reason, and so many of us choose to learn it.
At home, my cook did not speak a word of English when she joined us five years ago. But after a few years with my English-speaking kids, she can recognise sentences and answer English questions in Tamil. The language of aspirational India is English. The default lingua franca too is English.
Aspiration and default-choice contribute to the milieu that has created all those Indian-American spelling champions.
When Latin Americans congregate for parties in Silicon Valley, they speak Spanish. Their children thus learn Spanish.
Not so with Indians. When Indian-Americans meet for parties, they have to resort to English. The richness of India’s languages has become a handicap for its diaspora. English has become the common denominator – a language that we all understand and can use with our kids and friends.
Even in India, many children learn English at school, no matter what they speak at home. We may speak in Tamil or Bengali but we spell in English.
When the next spelling champ takes centre stage, there is a high chance that he or she will be Indian. The only question is why these competitions haven’t invaded India, when shows such as Masterchef and The Voice have. In India, as in the US, we Indians would be naturals.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir


  1. Vinay as an ABD I can perhaps answer your question, ‘why do ABD kids rebel”.

    It’s got to do with the mixed messages. At home we’re taught to, for example, dress “properly” which is to say ungodly ridiculous combinations of stuff nobody even talks about (much less wears) anymore. Then we show up at school where everyone’s wearing tight jeans and tube tops and it’s OK. High school is a tough beat. The real trick here is *not* stand out academically or socially – just fly low and fit in and make sure you keep your friends close. It’s way different from grad school or college where nobody, for the most part, grades matter a lot and nobody gives a damn what you’re wearing or who you hang out with.

    Vegetarianism, religion, social culture – mixed messages everywhere. “Beta don’t eat beef because the cow is sacred.” OK, so how come there’s no cow-god but there’s an elephant god and no commandment to forbid elephant meat? “Beta we are Hindus so we should go to temple regularly”. RIght. But the shudra untouchables can’t go inside the temple and have to stay outside. “Beta always respect your elders”. Yeah right, even whey they diss my choices and feelings? Why the heck should I patiently sit there and listen to Uncle Nimrod pat his belly and rant (at me) for hours about “NO future in art history. Study medicine instead.”

    There’s all this talk about equality and respect but none of it ever comes to the children. Why o why must we (who are still learning) be constantly poked and prodded and told to sit thisaway and stand thataway? You guys don’t give us the reasons for your beliefs but still expect willing compliance? Isn’t this the purest form of will-breaking slavery?

    What happens when there’s extreme tyranny and inescapable slavery? I wasn’t good at physics but I think Newton said there’s an equal and opposite reaction. In one word, rebellion.


    1. Mahima you make fair points. But I have to ask this. There are 2 sides to the conflict – in this case your mixed messages between your home/parents and the school/world. Why, then, is the rebellion directed at your parents and not your school mates? So your school mates eat hamburgers, that’s cool, why is it hard to say “no”? What if your school mates smoked? Did drugs? Surely the “freedom” argument does not apply here!?
      I am referring also to the article about the Punjabi girl (with facial hair) who was photographed at the airport. She had the guts to defend herself.


      1. Vinay I’m afraid I don’t get your questions…
        On hamburger/beef, I am told not to eat beef so the question is directed to that. There is no answer to the counterpoints though. Of course I’d say “no” to drugs and smoking because I know quite well that there are health effects.
        When you’re told to NOT do this or that and you’re not given a meaningful reason for it then that becomes the epicenter of the storm.
        I find it fascinating that Indian adults (our parents) have all this great [American] education and yet did not really apply it to interpret Indian culture and pave the way for us, their children.
        I am proud of Balpreet (the Punjabi gal you mentioned) because she *knew* her faith and was able to articulate her defense. Have you seen Severn Suzuki’s 1992 video – which ably sums up our perspective on many issues??


        1. Hmm, OK, Mahima, I see your point. I suspect you’re not alone; Indian kids (in India) probably feel the same way. I wonder how this affects their world view and choices…


    2. Hi Mahima, very nicely written! You have captured the ABD conflict very well here…

      With my kids I’ve found it’s more a question of identity. Schools, especially high schools, have a very different identity milieu. (Shoba I am borrowing your term here.) Mahima you have nailed it, just fly low and strike a balance between quietly getting noticed and sticking out.

      But I think it’s changing quickly. There are a lot more ABD people in mainstream (e.g. TV reporters, lawyers, in govt) and they are getting more and more screen time. I have heard that some schools in the US now offer Hindi as a language. There are also mixed couples so that might also improve the culture balance. Act 2 I think is off to a great start.


  2. Shoba this is an interesting observational. I’ve observed that North Indians somehow converge on Hindi when they meet. I’ve also observed that American born kids (of German, Italian, French, Russian) heritage study their language in school or college. They also study Latin or Greek (“classics”). This is a willing choice. However, Indian American kids don’t as much study Hindi or Tamil. Some graduate programs (eg math) require German or Russian to be able to read classical mathematical works in the original language.

    I gather that in a sense there is a functional purpose (to study history or literature/art or math or music/opera or whatever) which requires (non negotiably) the study of European languages. Western education curricula also includes a great deal of Western Civilization which sort of piques the interest for some children.

    But the most surprising thing is that there are so many highly educated Indian parents who, surely, provide liberal doses of Indian culture etc. at home, yet ABCD kids rarely take to a systematic study of Indian history or culture or language in school or college. (There is the usual BS about learning a few lines of Hindi and wearing Indian clothes and volunteering at the Hindu Temple and winning spelling bees – all to spruce up the college application.) In fact the opposite of this is true. ABCD kids often just end up scorning or spurning Indian culture. Why this rebellion without cause?

    Actually now that I think about it Shoba someone asked you this question once…. I have to dig it up somewhere…

    Spelling bee is a sport – one of the sports where practice and IQ aptitude, South-Asian strengths, are the decisive factors for success. Physical sports have physical frontiers (weaker South-Asian physical constitution, different diet, conditioning etc) and it’s easy to see why the US and China so easily take Olympic gold in all these sports. Nothing wrong here (as NS would say I’m sure!) so ABCD/s do what they’re good at.


      1. Mixture of both. Same as any kind of education. Some is formal – literature, music, history – where a class can really help. Some is informal – customs and traditions that vary across families and ethnic groups.
        The problem is uptake. Why do ABCD kids “rebel”? Is it the content or manner of the informal learning? I always wonder about the root of this problem….


    1. Vinay your comments are quite perceptive! I like it!

      Spelling Bee is a resume builder with a nationally recognized scorecard. A high rank in Bee (or Intel Talent Search or math-science gifted exams) is a nicely weighted academic indicator to stand out “in the pile”.

      Things are changing though. There are a lot of American kids offering fairly stiff competition in Bee, and there are more ABD kids entering sports.

      I’ve seen that Hindi is well favored in social situations but Tamil (or any of the other South Indian languages) is less favored. I’ve mostly put this down to just the numbers: everyone north of MP can generally understand each other in Hindi, but Kannadigas don’t speak Tamil and Telugus don’t speak Malayalam. I often wonder about Act 2 here: how can things change?


  3. Very interesting thought. With 1500+ languages and so many cultures the nation does need a common thread that can tie the pieces together. Is it an irony that it turns out to be a foreighn language.


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