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.

Man Wakes Up From Coma Speaking New Language: The media’s love of xenoglossy

© genialbaron - Fotolia.comEvery couple years, there’s a story in the news that goes something like this: Man (or woman) wakes up from coma speaking previously unknown foreign language.

Most recently, this is the story that’s been making headlines: Australian Man Awakes From Coma Speaking Fluent Mandarin. It turns out this Australian man isn’t alone, either. He’s in good company with:

So what gives?  Can a brain injury really result in new foreign language skills?

Speaking in tongues?
Believe it or not, there’s a word for suddenly speaking in a language that’s previously unknown to someone under normal conditions: xenoglossy. Traditionally, this has applied to saints or mystics speaking ancient, archaic languages used in religious scriptures (sort of like Therese Neumann von Konnersreuth …that’s a story for another time). But the modern-day miracle of xenoglossy is one that the media typically attributes to the mysteries of science and the complex nature of the brain.

Indeed, the brain is a fascinating thing — and these are all rather remarkable stories about how the brain acquires language.  But what stands out across all these cases are two common threads: 1.) The people lost the ability to speak their native language after a physical trauma, and 2.) They had some exposure to a secondary language that the brain thrust into primary use. As the doctor of the Australian Mandarin-speaker posited:

‘Mahon’s English “circuits were damaged,” so when he woke up his “Mandarin circuits got engaged” like they never had before.’

Unfortunately, this means there isn’t really such a thing a foreign language syndrome (that is, acquiring entirely new language skills as a result of a brain injury). That one appears to be a wishful overstatement by the media — because, hey, the idea of xenoglossy is pretty cool. But the idea that you can temporarily ‘forget’ your native language and be forced to rely on another language stored in the deep recesses of your brain is still pretty incredible. And perhaps that’s why we get the slightly hyperbolic “Man Awakes From Coma Speaking New Language” story every few years.

Bonus tip: There is such a thing as foreign accent syndrome, or a pattern of speech that results from severe medical conditions such as a stroke or head trauma (a famous example of this is George Michael, who woke up from a coma with a temporary new accent). But once again, although the news media typically ascribe a specific regional accent (i.e. American woman suddenly starts speaking with British accent), the speakers apparently develop non-specific, random changes to their speech pattern that only resembles familiar accents. Fascinating, nonetheless.

It’s time to rethink how we use the word “Sherpa”

© Byelikova Oksana

On April 18, sixteen Nepalese guides, known to us as Sherpas, were swallowed by an avalanche on Mt. Everest that “looked like a big snake coming down the mountain.” All are now presumed dead, making it the single deadliest accident on Everest.

The tragedy has brought to light the complex, dangerous nature of the Sherpas’ livelihood. Outside magazine senior editor Grayson Schaffer recently put it this way: “Sherpas are Everest’s workforce—the literal backbone of the climbing industry there …Without the hard work of the Sherpa porters, it would be largely impossible for Americans and Europeans with slightly above-average physiology, and well above-average disposable income, to scale the world’s tallest mountain.”

Schaffer also notes that: “No service industry in the world so frequently kills and maims its workers for the benefit of paying clients.” It was only a matter of time before they demanded better working conditions, fair pay, and insurance in the event of the unthinkable. It turns out, that time is now – and one of the things coming to light is that what it means to be a “Sherpa” is widely misunderstood.

The mythology of the mountaineers
The Sherpa as trusty guide and porter entered the Western imagination when Edmund Hillary became the first man to reach the top of Mount Everest, along with guide Tenzing Norgay, in 1953. But even this relationship was fraught with controversy over who allegedly reached the summit first. (Was it Hillary or Norgay? Who was the mountaineer with more skill?)

After Norgay’s famous ascent, the word “Sherpa” suddenly became synonymous with “porter” or “guide” in the context of climbing Everest. (Many mistakenly assumed that Sherpa was actually Tibetan for “guide.”) In fact, Sherpa comes from the Tibetan word sharpa, which means “inhabitant of an eastern country.” Today, the word refers to “a member of a Himalayan people living on the borders of Nepal and Tibet.”

In other words, Sherpa isn’t an occupation – it’s an ethnic group. And as one Sherpa who went to college in New Zealand poignantly wrote, to be Sherpa means being part of a bizarre model minority in the West (and apparently, being asked how much weight you can carry up a mountain):

“Uncharitably, I imagined them imagining themselves as conquering heroes, assisted by a legion of Sherpa faithful ready – and cheerful – to lay down sweat and lives in service for arduous, but ultimately noble and glorious, personal successes. Still, it is undeniable that, in “post”-colonial democracies where ethnic minorities carry the burden of insidious and vicious prejudices at every turn, Sherpas are fortunate. Everyone loves us, everyone trusts us, and everyone wants their own collectable one of us.”

This image of the cheery, willing and able Sherpa is compounded by the notion that climbing is literally in their blood, which has adapted over time to have an ‘oxygen affinity’ that makes living at higher altitudes possible. As a result, the Sherpa has come to be seen as part of the landscape, or a given part of the Everest experience. This translates to the idea that climbing isn’t just a job – it’s a calling. It’s who they are.

Anytime work is seen this way – as something that a particular group is expected to do because of who they are – it’s immediately undervalued (Why pay them money for something that’s simply part of their identity, right?) Not to mention, it’s pretty problematic to rigidly associate specific jobs with an entire group of people – after a while, this starts to sound uncomfortably like a caste system.

When we view Sherpas as an ethnic group in a poor country performing extremely dangerous work to make a living (rather than as cheerful porters effortlessly scaling mountains), it suddenly makes sense why there is a movement to “Reclaim Sherpa” from the “misappropriation and commodification” of the term by Western brands and companies. (No, kicking ass at marketing does not make you a Sherpa.)

With that in mind, it’s time to separate the word “Sherpa” from a romanticized notion of conquering Everest and create a culture where Sherpas don’t have to choose between their lives or their livelihood.

Bells on what tails ring? Holiday lyrics we love to butcher

© Guido Vrola - Fotolia.comEvery holiday season, we resurrect the songs we learned as kids — and continue to sing them like 8-year-olds, guessing at lyrics we never really understood in the first place. (Just watch Amy Poehler and Billy Eichner trying to get people to sing Christmas carols with them on the streets of New York…)

This hilarious and bizarrely fascinating practice of substituting words for what we think we’re hearing in a song (i.e. did he say Parson Brown or pants of brown?) has an equally wonderful name — a mondegreen.  A good example of a holiday mondegreen is ‘Olive, the Other Reindeer,’ a book and movie that sprung from the line in ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ that starts, “All of the other reindeer…”  You get the picture.

Last year, I dug into a few lyrical questions that raise eyebrows every time Christmas rolls around: Who the hell is Parson Brown is in ‘Winter Wonderland’? What exactly are good tidings in ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’?  Why do we deck the halls/don gay apparel/troll the yuletide carol?  What part of speech is is ‘Jingle Bells’?

This year, I add a few more to the list to help raise our collective Christmas carol IQs:

1.) The 12 Days of Christmas: There’s no such thing as a calling bird.
I used to pride myself in knowing the song pretty well, until I found out I was totally butchering the fourth day of Christmas — you know, “Four calling birds,” right? Well, unless you’re talking about a penguin on an iPhone, there’s no such thing as a calling bird.

But a colly bird, on the other hand, is a blackbird — which fits a whole lot better with the three french hens, two turtle doves, and that good old partridge. I felt a little better knowing I wasn’t alone on this — NBC recently ranked this the #1 most misheard holiday song.

2.) Jingle Bells: Bells on what tails ring?
Perhaps one of the greatest debates around ‘Jingle Bells’ is what part of speech it is — who, if anyone, is jingling those bells? But even the lyrics, which seem fairly simple at first, have one little line that tends to trip people up: “Bells on bobtail ring.”

It turns out there are an inconsequential number of people asking the Internet what exactly that means. Well, in the 1800s, there was a practice of cutting horses’ tails short (which has since been deemed cruel). This shortened tail was known as a bobtail. There you go.

3.) Here We Come A-Wassailing: Apparently, this song isn’t about waffles.
There’s a reason why the title of this song has changed over the years to ‘Here We Go A-Caroling’ — nobody seems to know what wassailing (or wasselling) is anymore.  As a kid, I heard this as “Here we go a waffling,” imagining that maybe the song came from Belgium.

It turns out wassailing actually sounds like a way better version of caroling, because it involves drinking wassail (a hot mulled cider). FYI, the term wassailing translates to “be in good health” and it stems from a tradition of promoting a good harvest for the coming year.

So there you have it. More fun holiday song factoids for you to bust out around the open-fire. Happy holidays!

On the origins of ‘assload’ and ‘buttload’

© Eric Isselée - Fotolia.comIn America, we like big things — big cars, big beverages, and big stores that like to stay open on Thanksgiving so people can buy big piles of big stuff. (Fun fact: One of my top tourist stops when friends and family visit from abroad is Costco. Blows their minds every time…)

We’re so into the idea of “more is more” that we’ve built up a delightfully colorful vocabulary around expressing “an extremely large quantity of something.” Think about it — in our daily speech, we’re used to saying things like “an insane amount” or “a ridiculous quantity.” And when the amount of something really blows our minds, we’ve got hella, ginormous, crapload, shit-ton, and various other words of similar flavors.

It all started with a donkey
I started wondering how the excrement-inspired phrases came to be, seeing as a crap isn’t exactly a specific unit of measurement.  What is a crapload, and why do we think that’s a lot?  Well, my theory is that it all started with a donkey.

Once upon a time, an ass’s load was, well, how much a donkey could carry. The term was used in the Bible (according to this annotated Bible from 1832, an ass’s load was almost equivalent to 8 bushels) and it also appeared in one of Aesop’s fables and in arithmetic books through the 1800s. It seems the term started falling out of favor when people stopped using donkeys to carry things and as units of measurement became more exact.

Today, we think of assload as a vulgar American slang term that means “a lot.” But just for the record, next time someone says they have an assload of something, you know they mean roughly 8 bushels… Naturally, I assumed that words like  buttload evolved from assload over time — but surprisingly, I was wrong.

A buttload = 491 liters
As I started digging into the word buttload, I was surprised to find that a “butt” is an actual unit of measurement.  It’s an outdated term referring to a large cask used for liquids (esp. beer, wine, or water) or a specific unit of liquid measurement equivalent to 108 imperial gallons, or 491 liters. So yes, a buttload is a whole lot of liquid and it’s very specific.

From words like assload and buttload, it seems we applied our trademark American creativity and fashioned words like shitload, crapton, and all the other fabulously filthy words that end with -load or -ton to express our awe at having a whole lot of stuff.

So with that, I wish you a happy Thanksgiving filled with an assload of food, family and reflection.