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.

Loose language in media’s coverage of U.S. government ‘shutstorm’

© nebari - Fotolia.comBy now, you’ve probably figured out that you can’t visit Yosemite,  federal workers are on furlough, nine million women and children usually served by the WIC program can’t  get access to nutrition, and some random guy has taken it upon himself to mow the lawn at the Lincoln Memorial.

There are many words to describe the government shutdown (now in its 10th excruciating day), but the most fitting one that comes to mind involves a storm of excrement. Of course, the Twittersphere and ‘The Daily Show’ have taken a shining to #shutstorm and Shutstorm 2013 — and lately, I have too.

But the madness isn’t isolated to the government. The media coverage has also come under scrutiny, particularly for relying on loose language that confuses the issues. The result is a generally misinformed public about the root causes of the shutdown and what needs to happen to bring Shutstorm 2013 to an end. Here are a few sample offenders:

Obamacare vs. Affordable Care Act
The real name of the new health care law is the Affordable Care Act, but you’ve probably heard it called Obamacare far more often. What’s in a name? Jimmy Kimmel illustrated this beautifully in a segment on his show, where he found that some Americans support the Affordable Health Care Act but not Obamacare (remember, they’re one and the same).

The problem is that the term Obamacare was actually coined by opponents of the law, but it’s become so ubiquitous that nearly every media outlet — from Fox News to NBC to NPR — has used it. (Thankfully, NPR recently announced that it will use the term ‘Obamacare’ less often.) Objective coverage of the shutdown starts with not using loaded terms.

Shutdown vs. Slimdown
“You know, paying federal employees for their work is a sign that our government is bloated. We need a slimdown” … said nobody ever. Well okay, Fox News seems to think the current crisis is basically a diet to help the government slim down.

This analogy is particularly offensive when you consider the millions of Americans in poverty (including children) who have lost access to food as a result of the shutdown. Fox has been rightfully shamed for this, but slimdown has still become the ubiquitous word of choice on their website for discussing the crisis.

Stalemate vs. Brinkmanship
The words you hear most often in the shutdown coverage are stalemate, gridlock, and standoff, which suggest two equally matched parties who can’t reach an agreement despite active negotiations. But what we’re actually witnessing is brinkmanship, or one party allowing a situation to become dangerous in order to get the results they want.

As John McCain observed, moderates in both parties are being held hostage by the extreme views of Tea Party Republicans. He even described their effort to defund the Affordable Care Act as a “fool’s errand.” In other words, this isn’t a stalemate or a negotiation — it’s hostage-taking.

The debt ceiling deadline is only a week away, and the U.S. government could default on its debt obligations for the first time ever.  The stakes are high. The words we use matter.

Think Like an Editor: 5 tips for better blogging

© Mimi Potter - Fotolia.comLast week, I attended a class at CreativeLIVE, a startup-to-watch that offers free, high-quality live workshops on everything from photography to design to marketing taught by world-class experts. (If you can’t attend a live class online, you can purchase the course later to access the video and all the bonus materials).

The course was Fearless Marketing by Barbara Findlay Schenck, a marketing strategist and small-business advocate whom I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the years. During her course (which I highly recommend if you’re a freelancer or creative entrepreneur), she asked me to weigh in as an editor on what makes a blog post stand out and more likely to be shared. So, I thought I’d round up my top five tips for better blogging:

1. Establish your expertise. What sets you apart in the crowded blogosphere?
As of a year ago, there were nearly 42 million blogs in the U.S. alone. So getting noticed can be a real challenge. While it can be tempting to blog about everything that interests you (who doesn’t love talking about baby pandas and existential cats?), it’s often better for your readers — and easier on yourself — if you establish a theme that relates to your expertise, focuses your energy, and gives readers a sense of what to expect from you.

Remember: Pick a topic you can keep up with for more than just a few months. As WordPress notes, “Many of the bloggers you admire have probably been at it for at least a year.” Before you blog, brainstorm as many story ideas as you can in five minutes. If you can’t think of more than three, your topic is too narrow or doesn’t deeply interest you. Think about what you have to say on a topic that hasn’t already been said ad nauseam.

2. Be timely. Tie your posts into notable birthdays, anniversaries, or hot topics.
Inspiration to write strikes at unlikely times. When that happens, write — but don’t necessarily publish right away. In the editorial world, timing is essential. A story about Patrick Swayze’s best lines from Dirty Dancing is evergreen, but it’s more likely to get shared on social media on his birthday or the anniversary of the movie’s premier. Research notable birthdays, anniversaries, or hot topics related to your industry or theme.

The second piece of this is to keep a calendar. If you’re writing a post about the hot new toys for the holiday season, publishing in mid-December is way too late — you need to strike while the iron is hot before Black Friday, even earlier. Keep track of major events and milestones in a calendar so you can plan for those in advance. That way, you can save those on-the-fly, quick-response posts for relevant hot topics in the news.

3. Think visually. Images and videos are highly shareable, but quality matters.
If you have a knack for presenting info in a visual manner, tap into that. If a recent study comes out and you can break it down into a compelling infographic that simplifies the data, your picture will be worth a thousand words. Are you rounding up a list of local startups or small businesses of note? Get photos. Do you have a great idea for a video series related to your industry? Don’t be afraid to put something together for YouTube.

And for that matter, make sure you have quality images (either a headshot or photos of your business) that you can share if reporters come knocking on your door. If you get a press mention, be sure to post the video or a screenshot of the article on your website. Press begets more press, and prospective clients, consumers, and media outlets view these kinds of mentions as you having credibility and thought leadership in an industry.

4. Use bullets, numbers, and bold headings to make your post scannable.
People love lists. In fact, they love lists so much that there’s a new term for an article in list format — a listicle.  We’ve all seen those lists from sites like BuzzFeed and Upworthy circulate on our social media feeds: “51 Corgi GIFs That Have Changed the World” (seriously) or “27 Way More Awesome Things to Buy With $38 Than Facebook Stock.” You’d be tempted to click, right? They’re funny, interesting, and highly shareable.

Think about topics in your industry that lend themselves well to lists. Even if you don’t use numbers or bullets, use bold headings to make your post scannable. Remember: People are reading on devices the size of an index card, and you only have a matter of seconds to grab and hold their attention. A list that promises six items helps readers know how much time they need to commit to your post — and they’re more likely to make it to the end.

5. When it comes to promotion, think like the tortoise rather than the hare.
If you build it, they won’t necessarily come. That’s one of the hardest things to accept about blogging or building an online presence in general. So what do you do if you feel like the only feedback you’re getting is crickets chirping?  Well first, remember it’s slow and steady wins the race. Building an online following of the right audience takes work and time. While it’s tempting to go after quantity, you should focus on quality instead.

Gimmicks to get people to like your profile or post might work in the short-term, but they don’t build the long-term following of readers or influencers you’re trying to attract. Always respond to people who post meaningful comments, and be sure to follow like-minded people, from fellow business owners to reporters covering your industry. And remember — don’t just promote yourself. Share interesting ideas from others. Be an invaluable resource.

Finally, if you’re wondering why blogging is worth it, remember that relevant content is what brings people to your website or business. Aside from being good for SEO (search engine optimization), it shows that you have authority and personality — two valuable traits in setting yourself apart and getting noticed.  For further reading, I recommend two sources:
The Resources page on Barbara Findlay Schenck’s website,
 Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger

Good luck, and happy blogging!

She Who Must Not Be Named: J.K. Rowling and the power of pseudonyms

© Marijus - Fotolia.comFor a few fleeting weeks, anonymity meant freedom for J.K. Rowling.

A London law firm apologized late last week for exposing Rowling’s secret pseudonym — that is, Robert Galbraith, the supposed first-time author of the critically acclaimed but modestly-selling detective novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling.

Soon after the secret was leaked, The Cuckoo’s Calling skyrocketed to the top of the Amazon best-seller list, with first edition copies going for over $1,000 a pop. Great news for her publisher, no doubt, but Rowling was not pleased.

She who must not be named
So what exactly is Rowling griping about? For starters, a respected law firm leaked her identity in a major breach of confidentiality. But more than losing a sense of privacy or anonymity, Rowling lost her ability to experiment and play without the pressure of expectation. As she notes in the FAQ section of Robert Galbraith’s author website, her pseudonym wasn’t a marketing ploy, but rather a desire to fly under the radar: “If sales were what mattered to me most, I would have written under my own name from the start, and with the greatest fanfare.”

Rowling also notes that eventually, things may have gotten complicated with requests for interviews with Galbraith coming in — but she hoped to reveal her pseudonym on her own terms, if it came to that. For people wondering why in Voldemort’s name Rowling wouldn’t publish under her own name in the first place, just consider the very public lukewarm reviews she received for The Casual Vacancy, her first work following the Harry Potter series. It was impossible for her to dabble in a new genre without constantly hearing from fans or reviewers that it wasn’t as masterful or immersive as Harry Potter. A good problem to have, in a way. But I understand Rowling’s desire to have a secret, just for a little while.

The purpose of pen names
These days, it feels like there are so few secrets.  That’s why we get such glee out of mysteries like the anonymous writer behind the hilarious Ruth Bourdain Twitter account, which satirized food writing with particular relish (excuse the pun). In the age of personal branding and over-sharing, it was hard to imagine someone not taking credit for creating something so popular. I guess sometimes, a pen name is about the sheer joy of mystery.

Of course, there’s the dark side to anonymity as well. Anonymity on the Web makes it possible for people to share questionable and sometimes downright harmful ideas without having to be accountable for the consequences of their actions. To be sure, there’s power and bravery in putting your name on a piece of writing that’s open to ridicule, debate, or misinterpretation by anyone in the world with access to the Internet. But not everyone’s lucky enough to be granted freedom of expression, and sometimes pseudonyms serve a real purpose. Here’s a look at why a few famous writers adopted their pen names:

George Sand (a.k.a. Amantine Dupin)
George Sand was a prolific French author, writing in the mid-1800s with contemporaries like Victor Hugo and Honore de Balzac. As a woman, she struggled to find publishers who would take her seriously — which is eventually how she stumbled on the nom de plume of George Sand (a lover named Jules Sandeau supposedly helped her settle on the name).

Mark Twain (a.k.a. Samuel Clemens)
Samuel Clemens was America’s first celebrity author, but one of his earliest jobs was piloting riverboats.  “Mark Twain” was a term referring to the second mark on a line that showed where the Mississippi was two fathoms deep. It became Clemens’ pen name when he became a reporter — a common practice, especially to protect crime reporters.

Dr. Seuss (a.k.a. Theodore Geisel)
Theodore Geisel adopted the pen name Seuss, his mother’s maiden name, after he was banned from writing for Dartmouth’s humor magazine (he got caught drinking with friends in his dorm room). He upgraded himself to Dr. Seuss after graduation. A playful pen name bolstered the sense of whimsy he created in his books (true for Lemony Snicket, too).

Robin Hobb/Megan Lindholm (a.k.a. Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden)
Hobb, a best-selling science fiction author, first published her work under the name Megan Lindholm. She was originally going to publish as M. Lindholm, when an editor told her it was important for women writers in science fiction to “declare themselves.” Eager to explore new styles and perspectives, she later took on the pen name Robin Hobb.

Like Rowling, she likely realized that maintaining two successful author personas as just one real person wasn’t going to be easy — and she eventually revealed herself as the writer behind both identities. Today, she continues to publish under both names.

The lesson for the rest of us writers? If you’re in a rut or paralyzed by a vicious attack of “what ifs” (What if they hate it? What if it’s no good?) consider writing under a different name, even if it’s just on your blog — you might find a voice you never knew you had.