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.