What makes Indian-American children such formidable spellers?

Karthik Nemmani, the 2018 Scripps National Spelling Bee champion, the 19th winner of Indian-origin in the last 23 years
Indian, ESPN and prime time are words you would normally hesitate to use in the same sentence. Our sporting facility is embarrassingly limited, and baseball and American football are as alien to us as a polar bear would be to the Atacama Desert.

Yet, for the past two decades, following every Memorial Day weekend, a bunch of Indians has been astonishing us with sorcerous feats on ESPN, some of which have included “koinonia”, “marocain”, “gesellschaft”, “scherenschnitte” and “guetapens”. 

What do these superhuman athletes do? They spell. And rather well. So much so that they are routinely pitted against the dictionary and mostly end up triumphing. That is going up against almost half a million words and prevailing, sometimes with the most unflinching ease. Imagine. 

To state a sporting analogy, beating an Indian-American kid at the Scripps National Spelling Bee is like thwarting Rafael Nadal at the French Open — it remains the most gargantuan, daunting task in all of sport. Since 2008, all Scripps National Spelling Bee champions have come from the community that forms a minuscule 1 per cent of the American population. 

In 2015, when a colleague at Business Insider revealed these numbers to Sam Rega, the filmmaker instantly realised that they were in the midst of a spelling bee dynasty. “After months of research, we realised that this was more than a coincidence. It was a perfect storm of events. We had our film,” he says. “I was intrigued that this was a story that people hadn’t heard of, yet it was happening right before our eyes.”

Rega’s documentary, Breaking the Bee, which  premiered at the Cleveland International Film Festival in April, captures the astounding trend of this Indian-American domination through four precociously talented protagonists: the 7-year-old whiz-kid Akash Vukoti, the adorably lively Ashrita Gandhari, 10, and the marvellously articulate duo of Tejas Muthusamy and Shourav Dasari, both 14. All of them are distinct and likeable in their own ways, but are united by their undivided love for the English language. 

Rega quite brilliantly and effervescently depicts their journeys heading into the 2017 edition of the Bee, by far the most celebrated academic competition in America. “I’m fascinated by stories of people stretching themselves to the limits mentally and physically. In this case, we are watching children achieve incredible success at such a young age,” the New York-based director explains.

Sam Rega
Achieve they do, but not alone. Winning competitive spelling contests is only made possible by enormous parental support — most of them become their kids’ coaches, with the siblings chipping in as assistant coaches. “Being a ‘spelling family’ is about the journey. It’s beyond knowing words in the dictionary or winning a trophy. These children and families put in years of work,” says Rega, 32.  

In these households, preparing for a spelling bee is like strategising for war, with each coming up with what it believes will be the unique winning formula. Dasari relies on the secret database of 125,000 words that his parents have aggregated. Muthusamy, once he has memorised all the words, uses a stone given to him by his fifth-grade teacher while on stage — it keeps him calm, he says. 

Perhaps most pertinently, none of these parents abide by the philosophy of tiger parenting — the kids genuinely enjoy spelling and accumulating life lessons that accompany both victory and defeat. 

But what is it that has made the Indian-Americans such an insuperable juggernaut at this event? Rega says he wishes he could give one reason. For starters, Indians enjoy a considerable edge because they are multilingual, armed with a pretty much unrivalled grasp and understanding of different languages. And then they are further helped by closed domestic competitions such as the South Asian and North South Foundation spelling bees that allow them to compete all year, acclimatising them to the high-pressure climate that is central to spelling competitively.

Other Indian-American contestants during the event
“A lot of these students have a natural gift with languages. Still, an enormous amount of learning is required,” feels Rega. “One must learn roots, parts of speech, meanings; you have to be a complete student of the game.” 

In the run-up to the 2017 Bee, Dasari, for instance, was learning 2,000-3,000 words on weekdays, and as many as 8,000 on weekends. Vukoti can spell out “humuhumunukunukuapua’a” in one go. Yes, you might want to try pronouncing that one again. 

And do not let the pedagogic nature of it all throw you; spelling bees make for the most gripping theatre, something that Rega demonstrates quite stirringly in Breaking the Bee. The film’s breathless, edge-of-the-seat pace is straight out of the stuff we see on a sports field. There are no goals scored or shots hit, yet, with the spellers stuttering and the audience gasping, Breaking the Bee sparks an emotional roller-coaster that can put the most thrilling of sports in the shade. 

Over the years, however, this sustained success of the Indian-American community has given rise to a racist, anti-immigration rhetoric, which has become all the more ubiquitous after Donald Trump became president. “What makes it worse is that we are dealing with children. Most of them shake it off or do not even know about it. But we hope this film makes people realise that we are all Americans in this country,” says Rega. 

Despite the unfortunate negativity, no amount of politics or xenophobia seems potent enough to derail these kids’ charge. “The winners keep inspiring other members of the community. I don’t see things changing any time soon,” says Rega. And you thought Nadal was good.

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