Another bee, another slew of articles about why Indian Americans are so darn good at spelling

(c) Scripps National Spelling BeeYesterday, without even reading the news, I knew that yet another South Asian American had won the Scripps National Spelling Bee.  (Well technically, it was two South Asian Americans — Vanya Shivashankar and Gokul Venkatachalam were crowned co-champs this year when the bee ended in a tie.) How did I know, you ask? Was it a culturally specific form of ESP? As much as I’d like to say yes to that, the real reason is that my post from last year about what’s up with South Asians and spelling bees was suddenly very popular.

Articles about why South Asian Americans keep winning the Scripps National Spelling Bee have become a perennial favorite. Major news organizations from the Wall Street Journal to NPR to Foreign Policy all seem to have a version of this story from the last year or so, which goes something like this: “Indian kids keep winning the spelling bee.  What’s up with that? Is it because they’re naturally smart? Is it because they like to study and memorize things? Is it because they’re the children of immigrants who want to be part of the mainstream? Is it because they have their own spelling bee circuit? Yes, yes, and yes.”

The ghettoization of spelling?
With something like 14 out of the last 18 winners being of South Asian descent (including co-champs), publications can basically count on the Indian-winning-the-spelling-bee article being an annual mainstay. (It’s basically replaced the giant squid article as a yearly story you can count on.) But as the NPR article about South Asian American spelling bee champs points out:

Being master of the obscure doesn’t always help a kid fit in. And some Indian-Americans worry about spelling bee champs being stereotyped or pigeonholed.

“There’s a kind of strangeness and exoticism to it,” says Lehigh University professor Amardeep Singh. “It’s a particular kind of academic niche. And there is also the danger of — well, you know, the difference between niche and a ghetto is fine line.”

What started as an interesting little factoid is quickly turning into a cultural stereotype that prompts people to make unfair assumptions like “Indians are only good at spelling because it’s rote memorization” or “these kids must be getting pushed too hard by their parents” or “these kids aren’t going to become happy people later in life.” (My previous post goes on a nice long rant about this faulty logic, by the way, if you’re curious.)

In defense of spelling bees
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: “In my opinion, good spelling isn’t actually rote memorization. Nobody can memorize every word in the language, especially since so many words we use aren’t actually English. You have to learn how to recognize the root of a word and the rules that come into play as a result (that’s why being bilingual can provide an advantage).” For example, knowing that knaidel comes from Yiddish would give you a clue that the word should start with kn- rather than just n-. Knowing what it is (a kind of dumpling) also makes you very hungry.

That being said, rote memorization has become much-maligned lately, which is why the Scripps National Spelling Bee forced contestants to define words this year, not just spell them. (For the record, I agree with Slate that the new format is indefensible and is slowly turning the bee into a standardized test … or a vocabulary bee, which is an entirely different thing.) The idea was that memorizing definitions (rather than just spelling) would somehow better promote “real learning.”

But as a kid who memorized random crap with no prompting from my parents, I can tell you that rote memorization (whether it’s spelling, vocabulary, or geography) can actually be extremely useful when it’s paired with analysis — and our move away from it entirely in the American education system is kind of a bummer. I used to love staring at atlases and memorizing the order of countries on maps using weird mnemonic devices — which managed to score me a spot as a contestant on “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?” circa 1992. I didn’t win (you can watch the video and read all about my loss, if you’d like) but to this day, I’m surprised by how much I still remember.

What’s the point, you ask?  Well, for example, I’m able to recognize how geography has changed in the last 20 years — new countries that have sprung up, others that are no more… (for example, what happened to Zaire?) I’m able to ask why. That’s the invaluable, intangible thing that memorization gives you — the knowledge of what you don’t know and what you probably should. As for memorizing how to spell words, learning about etymologies and roots can give you a sense of wonder about linguistics and how interconnected so many languages are (and others aren’t) by history and geography. I know for me, it’s turned me into a language-lover for life.

A recent NPR profile of former Scripps National Spelling Bee contestants (some champs, some not) illustrates just that. Sure, these kids spent hours, days and weeks studying information that ranges from useful to totally obscure. And no, this might not correlate exactly to a skill that they use in adult life. But they’ve gone on to be language lovers and highly detail-oriented people who are successful … and probably killer at trivia night at their local bars (and at Jeopardy, as it were). It’s taught them how to pursue something that requires focus, and it’s given them the perspective that sometimes, even after working your hardest, you don’t come out the winner, and that doesn’t make your effort less meaningful.

Eventually, I figure the “Indian Americans love spelling” articles will die down. But the Scripps National Spelling Bee will keep on keeping on, probably with more and more changes to satisfy the ESPN2 coverage, live-Tweeting, and whatever else the future holds. To me, a televised and Tweeted spelling bee says far more about the culture of our society than the ethnicity of the kids who win it.