Why Indian-Americans Reign As Spelling Bee Champs Indian-Americans make up less than 1 percent of the U.S. population, but they've won the past four National Spelling Bees and 9 of the past 13. How has this tiny community become a spelling dynasty, and why are they so driven to win?

Why Indian-Americans Reign As Spelling Bee Champs

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Hundreds of sweaty-palmed kids will take the stage over the next two days just outside Washington D.C., hoping to spell their way to the championship of the 2012 Scripps National Spelling Bee. When it's over there's an excellent chance that the winner will be Indian-American.

As NPR's Tony Smith reports, in the past decade or so, South Asians have built something of a dynasty on the spelling bee circuit.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Indian-American kids are our on such a winning streak, one commentator compares their dominance to Kenyans winning marathons.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: The National Spelling Bee Champion, Anurag Kashyap.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Sukanya Roy is your champion.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Our winner, Kavya Shivashankar.

SMITH: Indian Americans have won nine of the past 13 national bees

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Anamika Veeramani...

SMITH: ...even though they make up less than one percent of the population.

PAWAN DHINGRA: It's stunning. There's more than just randomness going on, in other words.

SMITH: Pawan Dhingra curating an exhibit on Indian Americans at the Smithsonian that'll showcase their spelling bee dynasty.

DHINGRA: The fact that Indians, whenever win, is noteworthy. The fact that they would win more than once, is impressive. The fact that they would win to dominating level, it becomes almost a physical - almost impossibility for this to happen. It's phenomenal, really.



SMITH: Twelve-year-old Arvind Mahankali came close the past two years, and is opening this year, to win the bee. Like many others, he got inspired watching other Indian-American kids when. And he was encouraged by his immigrant parents who, like so many others, are drawn to spelling bees because of the competition, the academic focus, the discipline it takes, and the way their tight-knit family can team up to train together.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: OK, next word. From Middle English

SRINIVAS MAHANKALI: But influenced by Greek.


SMITH: Arvind's eight-year-old brother and parents spend several hours a day drilling him from the dictionary. Arvind air scribbles in his palm as he spits out the letters.


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Correct, good job.

SMITH: Arvind's dad, Srinivas Mahankali, says spelling is a great way to learn everything, from history to science, and naturally appeals to a culture like his that emphasizes learning.

MAHANKALI: Even in Sanskrit actually there is the slokas that is the same thing. You know, if you learn something, nobody can take it away from you.

SMITH: While memorization tends to be scorned in American schools these days, it is central to Indian education, and he says, very much valued by parents like him.

MAHANKALI: My dad used to tell me some Telugu poems. He used to recite straightaway and then reverse. Reverse doesn't make any sense, but they use - there used to be competition to just chant it in reverse, actually. You know?


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The MetLife South Asian Spelling Bee.


SMITH: In recent years, farm leagues, that are South-Asian only, have popped up as a kind of breeding ground where many Indian versions of the tiger moms start their kids at six years old. Mahankali says it's important to these immigrant parents that their kids excel academically, but especially in English.

MAHANKALI: The immigrants once improve themselves, that they belong to the mainstream, right? Basically, the satisfaction that you master the cornerstone of the culture here, the language.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Arvind, come, my best friend.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: Arvind, I want to marry you.

SMITH: Arvind is definitely in the-in, in his public middle school in Queens.

MAHANKALI: I am somewhat of the celebrity, and I think what you would call cool.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: So, Arvind, you now have the chance to steal Anderson's...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I hate this game...


SMITH: The national media attention helps. How cool, for example, to get invited on TV to show up Anderson Cooper?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Your word is abecedarian.

MAHANKALI: Oh, OK. That's...

ANDERSON COOPER: You know this?


COOPER: Wow, I've never even heard this word...

SMITH: That's the flip side to being a word wiz. Being master of the obscure doesn't always help the kids fit in, and some Indian Americans, like Lehigh University Professor Amardeep Singh, worry about kids being stereotyped or pigeonholed.

AMARDEEP SINGH: There's a kind of strangeness or an exoticism is to it. And it's a particular kind of academic niche and there's also the danger of, you know, the difference between a niche and a kind of ghetto is a fine line.


SMITH: For his part, Arvind, says he is equally opened to a career in theoretical physics or basketball. His parents say they're OK with either, that is as long as long as he pursues it as seriously as he does his spelling.

Tovia Smith, NPR News.

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