Why Indian Americans Excel at the Spelling Bee
When Arvind Mahankali won the Scripps National Spelling Bee on May 30th this year, he became the sixth consecutive Indian American winner and the 11th Indian American in the last 15 years to win the title. The statistics surrounding this winning-streak are astounding: Indian Americans make up 1% of the total US population. However, their representation in the Bee is significantly higher: This year, (as reported in the Times Of India) 20% of the 281 Bee contestants were of Indian origin; seven of the ten finalists were of Indian origin, as were the three finalists. It is no surprise, too, that the youngest participant this year (8yrs) is of Indian origin. This phenomenal representation by one ethnic minority has merited much commentary.
Here are some of the headlines from popular media reporting on the 2013 Spelling Bee:
Desis Dominate the National Spelling Bee (from NPR’s Code Switch)
Why Are Indian Kids So Good At Spelling? (Slate.com)
Why Indian Kids Win Spelling Bee: Habit, family and ecosystem. (Times of India.com)
In their attempt to uncover the forces behind Indian-Americans’ success at the spelling bee, the articles above describe a few characteristics that contribute to this outstanding performance. Notably:
(1) The North South Foundation: The NSF is a non-profit organization that raises money for under-privileged youth in India wanting to study abroad. The NSF, with its over 60 chapters across the US, trains up-and–coming Indian-American spellers. They hold regional competitions, the winners of which end up at the National Bee. The NSF alone could account for the high number of Indian American participants in the Bee.
(2) Study Habits: The study habits of Indians are well matched to what is required in spelling competitions: Rote learning is a huge part of (traditional) education in India, as the Times Of India elaborates:
Explanations for the Indian dominance range from the community having developed a winning habit and maintaining an ecosystem to sustain the momentum (like Kenyans and Ethiopians with long distance running), to more complex elucidations about Brahminical traditions and predisposition to learning by rote, encouraged by the so-called "tiger moms" and "leonine dads" pushing their kids.
(3) Intense preparation. Many Bee contestants attest that training for the bee is a family endeavor. Everybody pitches in.
(4) Immigrant desire to be part of the mainstream.
(5) Relative proficiency of Indian Immigrants in English.
Dr. Pavan Dhingra, Senior Advisor and former curator of Smithsonian’s Indian-American Heritage Project, elaborates on the intensity of preparation by Bee contenders in a blogpost: “They put in hours of preparation; they go through rounds of competitions; they compete on a national stage for money and fame; and they take winning seriously. It is not a coincidence that the Spelling Bee is broadcast live on ESPN.”
Interviewed in an NPR podcast, Prof. Dhingra states: "The fact that Indians would ever win is noteworthy. The fact that they would win more than once is impressive. But the fact that they would win at such a dominating level becomes almost a statistical impossibility. It's phenomenal, really. There is more than randomness going on."
I would like to respond to Prof. Dhingra’s assessment, in particular, his opinion that “the fact that Indians would ever win is noteworthy.” This statement indicates a lack of acknowledgment of essential attributes of the demographic in question. The analyses of other commentators in the media, too, seem to have overlooked important factors that contribute to the uber-performance of Indian Americans in the Bee. I would therefore like to bridge this gap in the commentary on why Indians are dominating the Spelling Bee. I present the argument that the historical-linguistic baggage of the average Indian immigrant and the linguistic repercussions that carry-over onto their children (the ones taking part in the Bee,) are particularly suited to excelling at the Spelling Bee:
There is scarcely another ethnic group in America besides Indians that is better equipped to deal with the task of perfecting spelling in English, a language that has more exceptions than rules. Consider some facts that bear upon this argument:
The English Language has had a presence in India for about 400 years. Early exposure of English to India was through commerce by the East India Company in the early 1600s. English came in an official capacity in 1858 after the Sepoy Mutiny when Britain colonized India. But already by then, there was a hundred and fifty year history of English as a language for commerce with the East India Company. Therefore, India has a 400-yr old legacy of deciphering, interacting with, borrowing from, incorporating and finally adopting English as a language of its own. This linguistic legacy has far-reaching repercussions –perhaps as far as the E.W. Scripps Spelling Bee in America!
Even though only a minority of Indians have native-fluency in English and use it as their primary language, the ones who immigrate are overwhelmingly from this sub-category. Furthermore, the average Indian who is fluent in English also speaks other Indian languages. I speak two Indian languages; in contrast, my maternal grandparents can/could speak five Indian languages in addition to English. My estimate is that the English-speaking Indian is, on average, conversant in three Indian languages. What does knowing other languages have to do with expertise in English? And why do Americans, who have an equally long history with the English Language not have a comparable advantage? The answers to these questions have to do with the benefits of multilingualism/bilingualism.
To quote an early and eloquent description of the merits of knowing many languages (from Hayward Keniston’s 1938 paper on the “Underlying Principles of Foreign Language Study”):
It has been the experience of centuries, and it is no less true today, that the understanding of one’s own native language is greatly enriched by the study of other languages. The reasons are many. First of all, such a study provides a perspective, by offering comparisons of identity, or divergence of expression. It awakens the mind to a consciousness of distinctions in meaning made possible by differences in form or function; it sharpens the sense of values in word meaning through association with foreign cognates; it encourages a more precise and careful articulation in speech by providing a basis of comparison with other tongues. The foreign language teacher is the chief ally of the teacher of English. (Emphasis added)
Today, based on research from multiple vantage points, the merits of bilingualism/multilingualism have been established to an even greater degree. We have converging evidence from psycholinguistics and neurolinguistics that knowing more than one language has benefits in areas as diverse as creativity, cognition, mental health, perception and more. This is an issue that needs its own space for discussion, so the exposition here is limited to only a few findings that relate to the topic at hand:
When the human brain is exposed to a second language early in life, it configures itself in ways that make it easier to learn a third, fourth or subsequent language compared to monolinguals whose brains have only been exposed to one language. For example, bilingual children outperformed monolingual children in a task where they were required to learn words from an invented language that bore no resemblance to the languages they spoke.
Knowing and using more than one language entails a lot of experience with blocking out and ignoring competing information from the language(s) not being used. There is a wealth of evidence from studies where bilinguals performed better than monolinguals in tasks that required blocking out distractions and switching between two or more different tasks. Similarly, researchers have found that certain cognitive abilities such as maintaining attention amidst distraction, short-term and long-term memory for language tasks are better in multi-linguals than in monolingual speakers.
The organization of language-related functions in the brain in monolinguals versus that of bilingual/multilingual speakers is qualitatively different. As a result, there are differences even in the patterns of age-related deterioration and disease. The onset of mental deterioration in the form of Alzheimer’s and dementia is delayed in multi-linguals compared to monolinguals. Similarly, patterns of language-loss due to stroke are different for multi-linguals versus monolinguals.
A much acknowledged feeling among foreign-language learners is that it was only when they learned a second or third language that they truly understood the grammar of their native tongue. Thus, the linguistic perspectives that one gets from learning a second or third language can never be obtained from the confines of a single language no matter how much one may immerse oneself in that single language.
The essence of this focus on knowing multiple languages is that when all other factors are equal, both multilingual learners and multilingual teachers are better at the language tasks they are aiming to accomplish compared to speakers of a single language.
Historically, English has had influences from multiple languages (Latin, Greek, French, etc.) and language families (Italic, Germanic, Romance...) as well as word-borrowings from dozens of languages (Arabic, Japanese, Yiddish, Spanish…) This aspect of English is particularly salient with regard to spelling. English spelling is challenging because of the many languages that have imposed their sound and spelling conventions onto English. Therefore, in theory, a person with experience with multiple languages would fare well when dealing with the idiosyncrasies of English spelling. Therein lies the Indian advantage.
Besides Indians, there are other immigrant groups in America that are multilingual. Similarly, there are other immigrant ethnicities that have highly structured and disciplined study ethics for their children (think tiger-moms). However, no other ethnic group is dominating the Bee to the extent that Indians are. It is this unique combination of being multilingual and having a centuries-long relationship with English that seems to be the perfect match to what is required to excel at the Spelling Bee.
While second generation Indian-American children don’t have linguistic repertoires as impressive as their parents and grandparents, many are bilingual or at least somewhat familiar with one Indian language that their parents speak. Research has shown that one need not be equally proficient in both/all languages to reap the benefits of bi/multilingualism. It is the use and not proficiency of a second language that contributes to the benefits. A preliminary look at the personal bio-data of the Indian American contestants of the 2013 Spelling Bee reveals that many have indicated that they speak an Indian language. It would not be rash to wager that a large majority of these children may be conversant in an Indian language. Furthermore, it is first-generation Indian immigrants who run the North South Foundation that propels the multitudes of Indian children toward the National Bee. These NSF organizers are uniquely familiar with what is needed to tackle a challenging spelling system that derives from multiple language sources. When one adds to these attributes the tradition of rote learning, and structured training, it would be surprising to not see the kind of dominance by Indian immigrants that has made recent news.
Good theories must have testable predictions; let’s examine the predictions of this argument:
First, a re-capitulation of the main points:
Second-generation Indian immigrants have the unique advantage of:
(1) Having multilingual parents who oversee their spelling training and who themselves have negotiated the vagaries of English spelling while learning English as a primary, second or third language. Recall that multilingual perspectives on language are more enriched than monolingual ones.
(2) Living in a (somewhat) bi-lingual home environment (the extent of this is yet to be verified, but even a prudent estimation would be that a good proportion of Indian American Bee participants/winners are conversant in a second language.)
(3) Having parents whose confidence in handling the challenges and peculiarities of English dates back several centuries. If there is such a thing as a collective experience with language, then Indians have one of the most impressive collective linguistic experiences. Navigating through multiple languages, English being one of them, is something that many Indians do, not as a laudable feat or accomplishment, but as an unremarkable aspect of everyday life in India.
If it is indeed the historical-linguistic legacy of first-generation Indian immigrants that is manifesting in the exemplary performance by their second-generation immigrant children, then, the further away one goes from this legacy, the less of an effect one would see.
When the linguistic legacy of the Indian immigrant is diluted by assimilation, it would cease to show a significant effect.
When first generation Indian immigrants are no longer mediating the performance of the contestants by way of training or providing a bilingual home environment, the power of their legacy would be depleted.
One testable prediction, therefore, is that third, fourth and subsequent generations of Indian Americans would not perform as well as their second-generation counterparts at any point in time.
In other words, when the Indian American participants in the Bee are no longer in a significant relationship (through parentage or NSF training) with people who directly carry the historical-linguistic baggage described above, the spell of Indian domination will be broken.