Indian-Americans and the Spelling Bee conundrum

In the US there is a closely watched annual contest for school kids called the Spelling Bee. Over the years, whenever I have seen the results of a Spelling Bee contest I have always noticed that there were quite a few Indian kids in the final rounds. It seems like other people have also noticed this.

One of my favourite programs on TV is the Daily Show with Jon Stewart on Comedy Central. The program covers current affairs and manages to be both funny and incisive. A few weeks back when President Bush was in India the show covered his trip. Here is a clip from one of those shows (you will need a broadband connection). On the same show there was another segment where Stewart, talking about the US-India nuclear deal, says, "We’ll help India build nuclear reactors if their children stop crushing us in Spelling Bees." He then goes on attribute Indian kids’ spelling prowess to their long names. Sivaramabalamuralikrishnan Aghilandanayagaswami Iyenggar anyone?

I decided to investigate this further. I looked at the top 10 contestants in the Spelling Bee contest from 2001 to 2005. Since the contest has elimination rounds, I had to take more than 10 contestants when they were tied for positions. Of the  59 kids, including repeat participants, who made it to the final rounds in these  years, 12 had Indian names. Or roughly 20%.

So I then went to Wikipedia and looked at their entry on Indian-Americans. According to Wikipedia, there are 2.4 million Indian-Americans in the US, or just 0.8% of the population of the United States. Well that doesn’t compute, I thought. I then normalized for the college educated section of the population. According to the US Census 28% of the US adult population has a college degree. According to the same Wikipedia entry 64% of the Indian-American population is college educated. So college educated Indians are 1.8% of the total college educated population in the US. That is still a far cry from 20%. Clearly demographics don’t even begin to explain the Spelling Bee conundrum.

There are some other reasons that could explain this difference but in my opinion don’t do it adequately. The college educated Indian immigrant population is not a random sample from the college educated population of India. They represent the cream of the crop. I would have said ‘immigrant vigour’ was another contributing factor, but then America is a land of immigrants, so that doesn’t count.

How do you explain this mystery? Do Indian genes or the Indian family environment predispose us to be good at rule-based logical tasks (spelling bee contests are all about spelling rules and not about memorizing wayward English word spellings)? Does that explain the success of the Indian computer programmer as well?

I can’t say that I know the answers to these questions. All I know is that I would like Spelling Bee to be included as an Olympic sport. It would be nice to get a gold medal for a change.


  1. Patrix says:

    I think, the “ratta-maar” syndrome from our school days has helped us gain an edge in the Spelling Bees…it has persisted for so long that it has become hardwired into our genes 🙂


  2. SamY says:

    ha ha, so u’v succumbed to idea that this is the way to earn a medal @ the olympics ;))


  3. I think Patrix you are right. Sometime back I’d also posted about spelling bee competition on my blog. Here’s what I think:


  4. Queer says:

    I believe, a large percent of the Indian-american kids are home schooled. That could be a contributing factor. Plus as patrix pointed out….memorizing is ingrained in us:)


  5. amIda1 says:

    “There are some other reasons that could explain this difference but in my opinion don’t do it adequately. The college educated Indian immigrant population is not a random sample from the college educated population of India. They represent the cream of the crop. I would have said ‘immigrant vigour’ was another contributing factor, but then America is a land of immigrants, so that doesn’t count.”

    i think its the cream! Its true that America is the land of immigrants but nowhere is education so much valued as in india. its the only way to get out of your economic misery! it maybe the same attitude carried forward

    i guess a really healthy sign of india’s prosperity to see more indians as sportsmen , artists etc .


  6. neelakantan says:

    I agree with Patrix on this – ratta maro combined with some garnish of parental pressure, keeps spelling bee busy. I am sure no kid will be motivated to know the spelling of chiaroscurist or xanthosis…


  7. Ram says:

    If an Indian gold medal is what is desired through spelling bees,perhaps the Indian-American kid born in the U.S is not the best candidate as desperate one might be for an Indian gold medal.

    Most of the spelling bee winners,schooled in spellings in the U.S would probably identify more with being American than Indian.

    Now,if we are talking of an Indian origin olympic gold medal,which is probably as rare a commodity perhaps adding spelling bees to the olympics could be of strategic value to India.

    Ofcourse being an Olympic gold winner in India might garner more visibility,sponsorship in India than in the U.S and might motivate Indian American kids to choose the Indian umbrella.

    There are ofcourse several instances of the above,we find several Olympic medal winners who practically learned and practice their craft in the U.S but identify themselves with a different country.This augurs an interesting question,more so in a flat globalized world:

    What truly constitites an Indian Olympic gold?

    Indian Passport?-If this is the standard,we should try getting a pool of probable gold medal winners to switch.

    Indian schooled and trained?

    Indian born?

    Needless to say,the Indian media will make headlines if any of the above were true


  8. R. Sridharan says:

    Hi Basab,
    Numbers alone are unlikely to explain this phenomenon. However, part of the answer is provided by you yourself. The Indians who go to the US are not merely “college-educated” professionals, but the brightest the country produces. So the kids don’t just have a genetic headstart but also parents–typically, first-generation immigrants–who drive them to excel at school. It may be interesting to find out how many of the historical winners or finalists of the Bee were children of first-generation immigrants from India.


  9. hg says:

    yeah. that is weird. you guys should be mad about the movie “Akeelah and the bee” – no American-Indian representation whatsoever from what I can tell.
    I think most of it is due to the fact that we get the brightest of the bright Indians coming to U.S. I work with some Indian friends for some of my classes and boy they are SMART. Even in Christianity, there’s Ravi Zacharias who’s considered one of the leading Christian thinkers in the world!


  10. Sylvia says:

    Just a minor quibble. Not all Indian names are Hindu or what some would consider obviously Indian. There are Christian Indians with last names like Thomas/Johnson/George and also some with Portuguese last names (Goa was a Portuguese colony).


  11. Ash says:

    The Indian kids have their parents that encourage them, as they see a good education assuring their future, just as it has allowed their parents an entry into US. No wonder the first 2 choices for the average Indian kid in US are medicine and engineering. But that may change soon, as Indians from India are becoming more affluent and therefore allow themselves a much wider choice of careers. What is interesting is how affluence seems to bring in excellence in sports… look at Bindra, and Indian, who won an Olympic medal in China. And we clearly see this as an example of economic status affording the kind of training/nutrition/coaching needed to assure an entry into high end sports. You know when India and Indians are becoming affluent when they become like the rest of us… when you see them cheerleading, sports…


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