I have watched the US spelling bee competition on TV a few times when visiting the US. For excitement and entertainment I would place it below the Olympics, the World Cup and a good cricket test match but above a 20/20 junket or the Eurovision song contest (which in recent times has just become ridiculous).
But there is something remarkable that is showing up. This year 6 out of the 12 championship finalists, and the top four, were of Indian origin.
The Hindu: Indian-Americans Sriram Hathwar of New York and Ansun Sujoe of Texas shared the title after a riveting final-round duel in which they nearly exhausted the 25 designated championship words. ………. The past eight winners and 13 of the past 17 have been of Indian descent, a run that began in 1999 after Nupur Lala’s victory, which was later featured in the documentary “Spellbound.”
…… although it’s an American competition open to students from all over the country, students of Indian origin have dominated the competition by a significant margin over the last several years. In fact, in both 2012 and 2013, all the top three contestants were of Indian origin.
From 2008-2013, the winner of the Scripps National Spelling Bee has been Indian American: Sameer Mishra, Kavya Shivashankar, Anamika Veeramani, Sukanya Roy, Snigdha Nandipati, and Arvind Mahankali. Since 1999, only five winners have not been of Indian descent, meaning 67% of winners over the last 15 years have been Indian.
Is the ability to spell then learned or is it genetic or both? From the manner in which Indian-Americans have swept this competition in the last few years, there is clearly some genetic component.
Spelling ability is not a measure of intelligence. But intelligence is a necessary – but not a sufficient – ingredient. Excellent spelling ability as exhibited in the spelling bee competitions would seem to also need memory, drive, focus, education, supportive families and peers in addition. They also practice a very great deal. A recent winner trained for 4 hours a day and a few thousand hours in total and committed some 100,000 words to memory. Spelling ability and reading skills are known to be linked but it is not too clear as to which depends upon which. Good spellers have been found in some surveys to be more organised than the “average”.
The Age: Kids who are good readers are often great spellers too, and now Australian scientists have uncovered a genetic explanation as to why. Researchers from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane tracked 650 sets of young twins to work out how much reading and spelling abilities are controlled by genes.
The study found that the ability to read and spell were about 50 per cent inherited, with a child’s upbringing and schooling controlling the other half. But what was most remarkable, says University of Melbourne researcher Anne Castles, was the discovery that the same genes were involved in both activities. ……
…… The scientists also evaluated the two main skills involved in reading – the ability to sound out words aloud and the ability to recognise words by sight that don’t follow the phonic rules, like “yacht”.
They discovered that these specific skills involved two distinctly different sets of genes, which explains why kids are often competent at doing one but not the other.
Poor spellers may be subject to a neurological deficiency. Lesions in the right brain which impaired some visual activity are known to have also causes spelling difficulties – a “spelling dyslexia”. It is also thought that personality traits have some connection to the ability to spell. It is thought that spelling ability is associated with a deep interest in language, its roots, in words and how they sound. Many good spellers make and use mental, visual representations of words.
There may not be a specific spelling gene, but genetics surely have a part to play.
Learn that word:
Why is a population that makes up roughly 1% of the US population so heavily represented at the event?
1 – The American school system and culture has a conflicted relationship with memory-based learning. Indian culture values academic achievement highly and values memorization as well, as a building block of higher-level knowledge. This, by the way, is also the reason why Indian Americans are not only dominating the Spelling Bee, but also produce much more than their statistical share of doctors, engineers and executives.
2 – Indian Americans/South Asians maintain tightly knit family and social communities, and place a paramount value within their community on academic performance. Social expectations around academic performance tend to be much higher than in other demographic groups. Academic success therefor has a big social pay-off.
3 – Last but not least, the success at Spelling Bees is fostered by various initiatives that exclusively support Indian American/South Asian students. NorthSouth Foundation and the South Asian Spelling Bee are both set up to support the Indian American/South Asian community of aspiring champions.
It’s great to win the first prize at the Scripps National Spelling Bee by competing with 10 million students for over $40,000 in prizes. There is certainly more incentive to dedicate the thousands of hours of intense study needed knowing that you can also apply these skills at the South Asian Spelling Bee, where you compete with just a few thousand other kids for a $10,000 first prize.