What a Streak!

Why Have Indian-Americans Won the Last 10 National Spelling Bees?

Ananya Vinay, a 12-year-old from Fresno, became the 2017 Scripps National Spelling Bee champ by correctly spelling the word marocain (it’s a type of dress fabric). Vinay is the first solo champ since 2013 and, in addition to her winning word, successfully spelled cheiropompholyx, durchkomponiert, and tchefuncte to earn her top spot at the top. Vinay’s achievement is her achievement alone. But it’s also one that keeping in pattern: she’s the 13th consecutive South Asian-American — including co-champions from 2014, 2015, and 2016 — to win the competition. Is there a reason for the streak? Scientists have studied the streak for the past few years to figure that out.

The most commonly cited factor of Indian-American spelling dominance is cultural, as Indian-Americans have invested heavily in education as the path to successfully escaping the disadvantages that often come with being an immigrant. More than one-third of Indian-Americans end up with post-graduate degrees, with another third having at least a college degree. In America, Indian-Americans attend college at a high rate, but once there are virtually absent from sports, music, and other activities.

And considering that an estimated 90 percent of Indian-Americans who go to college earn their degrees in technical fields, primarily engineering, it seems that there is an underlying cultural understanding of what fields and activities should and should not be pursued. And with this strong emphasis on education, children of professionally successful Indian-Americans have owned the Spelling Bee for more than a decade. These parents now have the economic means to give their kids the resources to succeed, and for most Indian-American parents, that means education. But there are other factors that are believed to come into play.

Some have speculated that Indian-American spelling domination is a result of British colonialism, as Indians have been taught English, giving them a natural familiarity with the language. Others insist that Indian-Americans place a high value on memorization in education, while the general American education system makes memorization a small part of the general curriculum. Still others believe that the competitive advantage comes from the South Asian-American “minor league” spelling bee circuit, where aspiring spellers can get a leg up by already putting their skills to the test against other top spellers.

Ultimately, there’s no one reason for the prolonged spelling supremacy by Indian-Americans, and each individual speller deserves credit for their accomplishments. But understanding the context of the community only makes this streak even more remarkable.

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