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Explained: How Indian Americans came to dominate US spelling bee contest

Success in the competition is seen to be a matter of prestige as many families spend thousands of dollars in registration and coaching to increase odds of success.

, Edited by Explained Desk | Updated: June 5, 2019 5:29:21 pm
US spelling bee, national spelling bee, indian american spelling bee, indian-origin spelling bee, 2019 national spelling bee, indian express E.W. Scripps Company CEO Adam Symson, right, joins Sohum Sukhatankar (354), 13, of Dallas; Rishik Gandhasri (5), 13, of San Jose, Calif.; Shruthika Padhy (307), 13, of Cherry Hill, N.J., and the other winning spellers to hold the trophy at the end of the 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee in Oxon Hill, Md., early Friday, May 31, 2019. The bee ended in an unprecedented 8-way championship tie after organizers ran out of challenging words. (AP Photo)

Written by Rithupar Pathy

The 92nd Scripps National Spell bee yet again saw Indian-Americans dominate the stage. Between 2008 and 2018, no non-Indian had been crowned champions of the event. This year, with the exception of Erin Howard, seven of the eight champions crowned were of Indian Origin.

The Spelling Bee is an annual event held by Scripps which tests middle schoolers of their spellings. The event was founded in 1925 and has since 1994 been nationally televised by the ESPN. Participants are expected to spell a given word in a stipulated period of time. They can also access hints such as the definition of the word to aid them to spell the word.

How did an immigrant community forming barely one percent of the entire population come to dominate a nationally televised competitive event?

The Spelling Bee has come to be seen as an essential part of the Indian-American experience. Preparation for the Bee becomes a family activity with parents and siblings acting as coaches and assistant coaches. Success in the competition is seen to be a matter of prestige as many families spend thousands of dollars in registration and coaching to increase odds of success. Documentaries such as Spellbound which documents the 1999 edition of the competition (which was won by Nupur Lala, an Indian American) too have played a part in raising the profile of spelling bees.

Multiple feeder competitions and coaching services have arisen. The North South Foundation is an educational organisation which organises spelling bees solely for students of Indian Origin. It is also an unmissable fixture for those who wish to succeed in the National Bees. Similarly, the South Asian Spelling Bee organises its own Bee restricted to those with a south-Asian lineage and like the former is a must attend for those who wish to compete in the National Bees. Of the seven Indian winners in the 92nd edition, six had attended the South Asian Bee.

Spellers who no longer eligible to compete due to age restrictions too remain a part of the ecosystem as mentors and coaches. The Sibling duo of Shourav and Sobha Dashari who were finalists of the Spelling Bee founded SpellPundit, a website focussed on training spellers for the Bee. The modules provided had 472,000 words and covered all but three words used by Scripps in the Spell Bee finals. Six of the Eight winners were also users of the SpellPundit website.

Winners of the Spell Bee have gone on to have successful careers. Nupur Lala, went on to be a Neurologist as have many other spellers who have gone on to be admitted in Ivy Leagues and contributed in various fields from medicine to competitive poker.

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