|Vanya Shivashankar (left, 13) and Gokul Venkatachalam (14), winners.|
So how in the world do two Indian kids wind up tying for the National Spelling Bee championship, which began with a million competitors? The kids are Vanya Shivashankar (13) and Gokul Venkatachalam (14), a couple of finalist veterans of the competition. Their tie is the first since 1962 and probably could not have been predicted.
An Indian winning the competition, however, would have been a good bet. There were 10 Indian champions in the past 14 years--before this year.
Learnthat.org gives us some hints about why Indians excel in these competitions:
1. Indian culture values memory-based (memorization) learning, which is what spelling depends on.
2. Indians in the U.S. have tight family and social communities, which value learning.
3. Organizations support Indian-American kids' efforts.
But there's probably more, beginning with the fact that people who speak more than one language tend to spell better and that immigrants--especially educated immigrants--tend to consider spelling important. Americans often poo-poo the value of spelling and grammar, much to the horror of people like me. Just take a look at Facebook any time of any day if you want some grammatical atrocities from otherwise intelligent people.
A list of Bee champions, seems to show Balu Natarajan as the first Indian champ in 1985 (and I'm guessing Balu Natarajan is Indian). After that, we have another Indian in 1988 and finally a succession of Indian names beginning in 2002. (Here are the winners.)
I recall clearly a few years ago when Taiwan was consistently winning the Little League World Series because it had become isolated internationally (through no fault of its own; China was flexing its muscles as the "real China") and national pride was at stake. Most of the kids in the rest of the world played baseball for fun; in Taiwan, it was a calling like military service. (Here is an interesting look at Taiwan Little League baseball.)
The Indian kids seem to prepare for the Spelling Bee harder and find it more important to them and their values. That is a powerful incentive.