Spelling Bee Notes

Kavya Shivashankar won the 2009 Scripps Spelling Bee Championship, as has been widely reported. I watched the last few rounds of the contest. The Bee doesn’t sound like an exciting sport to watch, but once you get into it, it can be quite riveting.

The only word that I knew how to spell in those last few rounds was ‘menhir’. Amazingly, it tripped up Aishwarya Pastapur, who tied for second place. Why did I know how to spell menhir? Because of Asterix – that amazing comic book series that is unfortunately not widely available in the US.

Three years ago, I blogged about the unusual success that Indian kids were having in Spelling Bee. The post was titled Indian-Americans and the Spelling Bee Conundrum. Only 1.8% of the college educated US population is Indian-American. But as many as 20% of the top ten finalists from 2001 to 2005 were Indian-American. Obviously, this is way outside the bounds of random variation.

Well, that percentage this year was more than 50%. 6 out the 11 finalists (Scripps list) were Indian-American. There is an interesting interview on NPR of Balu Natarajan, the first Indian-American winner in 1985. He credits this success to the North-South Foundation a non-profit that promotes education in India. NSF organizes a Spelling Bee every year in the US which effectively is the breeding ground for the National Spelling Bee winners. Kavya won the junior NSF Bee in 2004. Incidentally, Balu Natarajan, in 1985 won on ‘milieu’, which would be a softball for today’s contestants.

It is ironic that Indians, whose mother tongues all spell words the way they are pronounced, should excel at Spelling Bee which exists because of the illogical, wayward spellings in the English language.

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