Just a cursory scan across their faces is an insight into a steely culture of excellence that’s been dominating American spelling contests.
Seven of the eight winners this year are of Indian descent. And no, they’re not born great — they’re made great through a culture that instills a drive for achievement and mastery of the English language.
A culture that breeds spelling greatness
South Asian-Americans have come out on top each of the past 12 years.
In 2015, Shalini Shankar, a professor of anthropology and Asian-American studies at Northwestern University, told CNN that spelling bees can be a prestige activity for Indian-American parents. Many immigrants from South Asia are well-educated, success-driven professionals and they want their kids to be that way too.
“Parents invest a lot of their time with their kids,” she said. “They prioritize education and have the economic means to have a parent stay at home. It’s much more a socio-economic factor than a gene.”
That same year, writer Gurnek Bains argued that one reason for South Asians’ dominance in spelling bees was steeped in history. Over millennia, Indian culture developed “15 elaborate mnemonic devices,” aiding in a near-perfect oral transmission of India’s sacred Vedic texts like the “Mahabharat.” That cultural and linguistic feat was so impressive that UNESCO proclaimed in 2003 that it represented “a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity.”
Shankar spent six years researching parents of children who excelled in spelling bees and published “Beeline: What Spelling Bees Reveal About Generation Z’s New Path to Success” this year. She argued that so-called Bee Parents represented a new type of parenting style that could extend beyond the Indian-American community.
In a CNN opinion article published on Friday, she wrote that she observed an increasing focus on a performance-oriented childhood. “This suggests a shift may be underway — away from a play-based childhood to one marked by competition and recognition, especially through digital platforms.”
South Asian students prepare through a network of national competitions
One key to success is the South Asian Spelling Bee, which sponsors numerous regional spelling competitions in the run-up to a national South Asian spelling competition.
This year, one of the eight winners, Sohum Sukhatankar, cut his teeth by taking home that prize. And he shares his glory atop the Scripps National Spelling Bee with Abhijay Kodali, who was the national runner-up in the South Asian Spelling Bee.
And there’s something particularly special happening in the Indian-American community in the Dallas area: Three of the eight Scripps co-champions this year hailed from north Texas, the Dallas Morning News reported.
Besides spelling-specific competitions, Indian-American students also prepare via academic competitions run by the North South Foundation. The non-profit runs competitions in 35 states in which more than 18,000 students participate, according to 2015 data.
Of the Scripps National Spelling Bee finalists this year, 25 of the 50 were Indian-American.
Sukhanatar, the co-champion from Dallas, was just one of many North South Foundation alumni whose national spelling bee success the group has trumpeted.
CNN’s Carma Hassan contributed to this story.