Vantage point

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Indian-Americans and Spelling Bees: Adding some nuance

It's that time of the year again. The only night of the year when desi people dominate ESPN primetime in the United States. The Scripps National Spelling Bee. Yet again, the winner...or rather co-winners..came from the families of Indian immigrants.

This has been happening for over a decade now, and every year, the aftermath of the Bee in Indian media and Indian and Indian-origin social media follows a similar pattern. There are a few think pieces about why Indian-Americans are so good at spelling bees. Some folks go all uber-patriotic extolling the superior virtues of our intellectual tradition and what not (cue...Bhaaaaarrrraat maaata kiiii.......). And some folks sneer, indulging in a mild form of communal self-loathing. I don't have kids but my close Indian-American friends who do are very emphatic about how they will not make...or even let their kids participate in something as nerdy and inherently uncool as a spelling bee.

Through Twitter I came across this post that quotes Varun Grover's interview in the excellent excellent documentary I Am Offended (do watch if you haven't) which references spelling bees. That blog, and Varun in that documentary, are making a larger point about how the Indian education system is centered around rote learning, stifling creativity and basically preparing "middle managers". And that the success in spelling bees is a symptom of that.

While I agree with Varun and Auctorly on the larger problem, I don't think it is correct to link spelling bees to that problem. I see where they are coming from, and the reason for that is a couple of myths about spelling bees in general which merit some attention.

Myth #1 Spelling Bees are all about memorizing thousands and thousands and thousands of words, and regurgitating them on stage.

I used to think the same way, but it's not really that way. A few years ago, I had a long chat with a student of mine (I am a college professor) who in her school days had participated in the spelling bee. She didn't win, but talked to me about how much fun it was, and ended up giving me a different perspective on this activity that I too once sneered at. Then I read some more about it, watched the documentary Spellbound, talked to some more students over the years, and I think it is necessary to add some nuance to how we view the "sport".

Spelling bee as a contest is more about pattern recognition than just rote memorization. Don't get me wrong. Of course it is important to know and remember many many words to participate in a spelling bee. But the same is true of scrabble. Or crosswords. Or trivia quizzing. Heck, memorization is key even in chess. A serious chess player will have thousands of moves and games memorized.

Just like all those activities/sports, spelling bee is about, yes, having a memory bank of relevant information, but at the top level, it is often about recognizing patterns, working out clues, and then formulating an answer by accessing the relevant information from your brain.

You know how the kids ask for meaning, language of origin, use it in a sentence etc etc? It is not for theater. It has important information, and many times, can even help you make an educated guess at the spelling of a word you've never heard of by using what is basically pattern recognition.

Let me give you an example about how I, without memorizing any words, was able to correctly guess one of the words in the final this year. The word was chremslach. When it was first uttered, I thought it would start with "Kr" and maybe end with "che" or "kh". Then I heard that the word was Yiddish. And the meaning was a kind of passover pastry. Instantly I thought of a pastry that a Jewish deli near my house excels at - rugelach. The end sounded the same. So it had to end in -lach. And the different pronunciations of the starting syllable suggested chr not Kr. The repeated usage by the moderator further confirmed what I had in my mind. A pattern emerged and voila. There the spelling was.

I felt thrilled at having worked it out before the contestant answered. It was a thrill similar to the one I get as a trivia quizzer when I crack a cleverly framed Final Jeopardy style "workout-able" question. Or the thrill I get when I crack a particularly cryptic clue in crosswords.

The aforementioned student kept stressing about how much fun the whole thing was for her. She said it was a form of solving puzzles. And I saw what she meant. I asked her, isn't it boring to memorize thousands and thousands of words. She said no, she LOVES words (sidenote - she always wrote the most well-crafted and thoughtful term papers in my class). And again, I see her point.

When you enjoy any activity built on pattern recognition so much that you want to seriously compete in it, you don't think of the underlying memorization as a drab chore. I like to play scrabble semi-competitively, and it is fun for me to have those cruel 2 letter words memorized so I can gain advantage on the board despite not having great tiles. And I'm sure poker players don't think of probability calculations as mundane.

Myth #2 These desi spelling be winners will most likely end up as middle managers, code coolies, cogs in the corporate machine....just total drones.

Although it seems like Indian-Americans have been winning the bee for ages, in reality, it's been less than two decades that it has been happening consistently. So the sample of winners is not statistically significant, but from whatever I read in "where are they now" type stories, I saw very few, if any, ending up in those drone type jobs.

A lot of them were in some form of research, which to me, as an academic researcher, makes sense. Research is like the rigorous grown-up impactful form of pattern recognition that is built upon a deep memory bank of knowledge about a subject. A bunch of them were doctors and lawyers. One was a professional poker player (again, pattern recognition and memory). And so on. I even googled a few names of winners and always found that the person was doing something really cool.

Maybe a systematic study will throw up more details.

Myth #3 We Indians are just awesome at English and we are such brainiacs and we have the bestest education-centric culture so we are awesome at Spelling Bees

While the first two myths were in the self-loathing category, this one is in the uber-patriotic category. I have no problem with Indians or Indian-origin feeling proud or elated or whatever at this dominance, although I am personally from the Bill Hicks school of thought when it comes to patriotism.

But let us dispel with this notion that there is something really inherently culturally genetically special about Indians that our kids just go to America, show up at spelling bees, and start winning them left and right. There is actually a pretty strong and well-organized training infrastructure that is making all this possible. Remember that these contestants train with the rigor and discipline of athletes. It is not done in isolation, but requires broader support like with any sport or activity.

What you see on ESPN is the culmination of a year of smaller contests, local spelling bees, practice bees, and other such events on the local circuits. And there's a kind of feedback loop that forms. Successive generations build on the success of previous generations. Legacies and even "dynasties" are created and inspire some to adhere to it. I could keep going, but I came across this article that explains the quasi-institutional reasons behind the dominance in more detail.

If some other community starts taking such a deep interest in the sport and organizes in such a serious grassroots way, other communities could start dominating too.

One thing to note is that the winners have all been kids of Indians who migrated to the United States. Recent Indian immigrants, much like recent immigrants of other communities, tend to socialize more with their compatriots and do so in a very community-based way, with associations and groups and mandals and so on. But second generation Indian-Americans are more assimilated in the American mainstream. So when they grow up and have kids of their own, they are not as plugged into the Indian-American groups and associations as their parents were.

So you don't see many (or even any?) third generation Indian-American children winning the spelling bee or even making it to the national finals, because they don't have automatic access to that community-based infrastructure.

The best way to end this post is to quote a now-grown-up Nupur Lala, the star of the Oscar winning documentary who arguably started this Indian-American phenomenon.

“Having watched Spellbound, I realized that several of my competitors weren’t any worse than me ability-wise, but they didn’t have the same advantages—economic privilege, educational background, family dynamics,” she says. “I know that played a big, big role in my success. As a 14-year-old, I really thought I was one of the best spellers out there. In hindsight, I think, yeah, I was a very good speller, but I also had some of the best preparation and resources out there. I had a mom who had a graduate degree in linguistics. Parents who have literally hundreds of books in the house, and who were very motivated to help me succeed.”