Posts Tagged ‘spelling bee’

An Indian spelling gene which is triggered by geography?

May 27, 2016

Indian Americans now totally dominate the US Spelling Bee competition. It was the third straight year of joint winners at the 2016 Scripps National Spelling Bee. Nihar Janga, 11, of Austin, Texas, and Jairam Hathwar, 13, of Corning, New York, were declared co-champions at the National Spelling Bee on Thursday.

May 26, 2016; National Harbor, MD, USA; Jairam Hathwar, 13, of Painted Post, N.Y. (L), and Nihar Janga, 11, of Austin, Texas (R), celebrate as co-champions during the 2016 Scripps National Spelling Bee at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center. Image : Reuters

Seventeen out of the last twenty one winners (from 1999 to 2016), including all champions for the most recent nine years (from 2008-2016, including 2014, 2015, and 2016’s pairs of co-champions, for a total of twelve champions during this interval), have been Indian Americans, reflecting the recent dominance of students of this community in this competition. Indian Americans make up less than one percent of the U.S. population. In 2016, Nihar Janga from Austin, Texas, became the youngest ever champion when he won the title at the age of 11.

The 2016 Scripps National Spelling Bee featured co-champions for the sixth time in the competition’s history, the previous occurrences having been in 1950, 1957, 1962, 2014, and 2015. (Wikipedia)

It must be genetic. But for some reason the spelling gene does not express itself in India. Obviously some epigenetic factor is in play.

My hypothesis is that all Indians have the spelling gene but it is only expressed when triggered by a geographical factor to be found only in the US.


Why are Indian-Americans sweeping the US spelling bee?


Indian-American domination of the Spelling Bee – by the numbers

May 29, 2015

The domination of the Spelling Bee by Indian-Americans continues. It resembles the domination of long distance running events by East Africans. It is highly unlikely that a genetic component is not involved.

Vanya Shivashankar of Olathe, Kansas, and Gokul Venkatachalam, St. Louis, Missouri lift the trophy after becoming co-champions after the final round of the 88th annual Scripps National Spelling Bee at National Harbour, Maryland on Thursday.

  1. Vanya Shivashankar and Gokul Venkatachalam, both 8th graders, jointly won the 88th Scripps Spelling Bee.
  2. Vanya is the first sibling of a past champion to win, with her sister, Kavya, winning in 2009.
  3. 285 spellers took part in the 88th US Scripps Spelling Bee competition.
  4. They came from the 50 U.S. states, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Department of Defense Schools in Europe, the Bahamas, Canada, China, Ghana, Jamaica, Japan and South Korea.
  5. Though Indian-Americans make up just 1% of the nations population, they (64 or 65) constituted more than 20% of the Spelling Bee contestants .
  6. Three contestants, all of Indian origin, Vanya Shivashankar, Jairam Hathwar, and Srinath Mahankali, had siblings who have previously won the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
  7. Indian Americans have won for seven years in a row and all but four of the last 15 years.
  8. At the semi-final stage 29 of the 50 contestants were Americans of Indian origin.
  9. Seven of the ten finalists were Indian Americans.

Why are Indian-Americans sweeping the US spelling bee?

May 30, 2014

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 HinduIndian-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.”

American Bazaar:

…… 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. 

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