Spelling bee champs

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We have often discussed spelling bees and related phenomena on Language Log, e.g.:

"Spelling bees and character amnesia"

"Character amnesia and the emergence of digraphia"

"Of toads, modernization, and simplified characters"

Especially in the first post cited above, we have noticed the amazing domination of students of Indian descent in spelling bees.  Even though we had a very lively, lengthy exchange on this subject, with many different hypotheses being put forward, no consensus was reached for why Indian students are so overwhelmingly successful in spelling bees.

Now again this year, Indians excelled, so much so that — for the first time in 52 years — there were co-champions at the National Spelling Bee, and both of them were of Indian ancestry:  Ansun Sujoe (age 13!) of Fort Worth, Texas, and Sriram Hathwar (age 14!) of Painted Post, New York.  Not only that, Gokul Venkatachalam of Chesterfield, Missouri, who finished third (there was no second place because of the first-place tie) and Ashwin Veeramani of North Royalton, Ohio, who finished fourth, are also Indian-Americans.  All four are boys.

The last eight national champions and thirteen of the last seventeen have been of Indian descent, a string of victories that began in 1999 with Nupur Lala's win.

Given the extremely difficult and competitive nature of the spelling bees, it is impossible that the continuing domination of the spelling bees by Indian students over such an extended period is a fluke or an accident.  There must be a rational explanation for their success, some secret to their prowess.  Consequently, I would like to reopen the debate on this subject and welcome suggestions for making sense of this astonishing phenomenon.



47 Comments

  1. Sili said,

    June 1, 2014 @ 12:44 pm

    Parental ambition.

  2. jd said,

    June 1, 2014 @ 12:48 pm

    You state "Given the extremely difficult and competitive nature of the spelling bees, it is impossible that the continuing domination of the spelling bees by Indian students over such an extended period is a fluke or an accident. ".
    That is not how statistics work. It is quite possible to have a fluke.
    As for actual opinions about the matters see the 2010 article: http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2010/06/why_are_indian_kids_so_good_at_spelling.html

  3. MattF said,

    June 1, 2014 @ 12:55 pm

    For the same reason Koreans own half the dry cleaning business in the US. It's easy for a minority group to find a niche and shape in-group norms in order to dominate in it.

  4. Y said,

    June 1, 2014 @ 1:22 pm

    For a while Thais were consistently winning American Scrabble titles.

  5. Ben said,

    June 1, 2014 @ 1:31 pm

    "For the same reason Koreans own half the dry cleaning business in the US."

    You can't run a family business doing spelling bees.

  6. leoboiko said,

    June 1, 2014 @ 1:36 pm

    What I'd like to know is whether they just have a culture of working hard until memorizing the spellings, or if they have any interesting learning techniques we could apply more widely in pedagogy.

  7. Wei said,

    June 1, 2014 @ 1:54 pm

    Model minority myth + relatively high parental educational attainment + relatively dominant focus on education as a factor for economic national and self-improvement in India = focus and effort on a competitive academic pursuit that promotes self-improvement, memory, and competition. Why Indians specifically and not, say, Chinese-Americans or Vietnamese-Americans? Media attention for one; Spellbound was released in 2002 and since then there have been a preponderance of Indian-American winners. That has to have been inspirational to a lot of immigrant families, especially those who didn't see sports as a sufficient discipline for raising successful children. And institutions for two; see this Slate article on the North South Foundation (http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2010/06/why_are_indian_kids_so_good_at_spelling.html).

    Spelling is also very individualistic. I know with my parents who didn't find much of an immigrant population where they were, they often found it hard to connect with the larger community. When they did try to reach out, it would end up being a very traumatic experience such as when they were invited to and attended a Baptist sermon. So my parents would often skip the activities I participated in that required social interaction. But spelling bees were a boon because even if there were other people around, the parents would be focusing too much on their own children to strike up a conversation.

  8. MattF said,

    June 1, 2014 @ 2:15 pm

    @Ben
    I don't understand the argument you're making.

  9. AndrewD said,

    June 1, 2014 @ 4:13 pm

    Another comment on this spelling bee
    http://freethoughtblogs.com/singham/2014/05/31/another-reason-to-hate-the-spelling-bee/

  10. Piyush said,

    June 1, 2014 @ 4:23 pm

    One interesting factoid is that in most Indian languages, a spelling bee type competition would be trivial: the scripts these languages have (with the notable exception of Urdu and Kashmiri) are phonetically rather honest, and hearing a well-enunciated word is usually as good as seeing it written. As such, I am not so sure how much far the success of Indian-Americans in spelling bees can be explained using the linguistic culture of India.

    Regarding the memorization techniques Prof Mair mentioned in his first post linked above: I went to school in northern India, and although a small but significant portion of our early language instruction involved memorizing poetry (years later, I still remember verses from many of my favorite poems), we were never taught about using the mnemonics used by Sanskrit scholars. I concede, however, that these mnemonics may be more well known in southern India or Maharashtra, where it is much more common for children to be taught some Sanskrit, at least among certain communities.

  11. William Steed said,

    June 1, 2014 @ 6:39 pm

    I imagine, though have no proof whatsoever, that a small factor may be the social benefit that can be gained in India and Pakistan from knowing clear, idiomatic and grammatical English (extending into spelling). If that cultural factor transfers to life in the US (perhaps through the first generation of immigrants who may have worked very hard to develop their English), it might continue with their children.

    A very long shot in terms of the structure of Indian English – I believe that Indian English tends to use fewer schwas, and often maintain (or reintroduce) spelled vowels in the phonology. If this continues in the English of Indian-Americans (any idea of this?) it would certainly mean less guesswork at lower levels of the competition.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    June 1, 2014 @ 7:08 pm

    @jd

    If you believe that Indian domination is possibly due to a fluke, then why bother to quote "actual opinions"?

  13. the other Mark P said,

    June 1, 2014 @ 7:13 pm

    Why boys? Because obsessive focus, literally becoming an obsession, is a thing boys tend to do.

    Why Indians? Because their parents speak good English at home (thereby excluding quite a few other immigrant groups), combined with no desire to see their boys "waste" time playing sport (so excluding other US minorities who focus on that).

    My experience of Indian immigrants (admittedly not in the US and obviously hardly exhaustive) is that many of them live vicariously through their boys, and conflate their own worth with the academic success of their boys. Not girls mind.

    My daughter was naturally very good as spelling, and could easily have competed at a high level. However my wife and I would have actively discouraged her from spending time learning word lists had she shown interest in doing so. We just don't value the things that Indian parents value.

  14. Piyush said,

    June 1, 2014 @ 9:28 pm

    @Mark P:

    I believe the contestant who started the trend of Indian-Americans winning spelling bees was a girl, and in the twelve Indian-American sounding names in that list since then, I can count five girls. This would seem to fly in the face of your conclusion your observations about the attitudes of South Asian parents towards their sons vis-a-vis their daughters. (It also seems to fly in the face of what I saw growing up in India, but that would merely be anecdotal evidence).

  15. Anubhav Chattoraj said,

    June 1, 2014 @ 10:48 pm

    @Piyush re. Indian-language spelling bees:

    Having gone to school in Bihar, I can say that Hindi spelling bees are certainly a thing. Hindi spelling is, indeed, rather phonetic, but one would do well to note the rather.

    Bengali spelling, by contrast, bears little to no relationship with pronunciation.

  16. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 1, 2014 @ 11:13 pm

    I know very little about the details, but my impression is that many Indian personal names are associated with particular regional origins (or "caste" or other ethnicity-like factors), e.g. Patels tend to come from Gujarat while Mukherjees tend to come from Bengal. It would be interesting to know (although it would require someone with the knowledge both to decode the names in that light and knowledge of the demographics of the Indian-American community, and that someone is very definitely not me) whether those doing so well on the spelling-bee circuit are a broad/representative cross-section of the Indian-American community or disproportionately come from some identifiable subgroup(s). If such-and-such memorization technique is more common in South India than North India, a higher-than-chance percentage of spelling bee champs whose family origin was in the former might be suggestive, for example, and the absence of any such pattern might be equally informative (by ruling out a particular hypothesis of causation).

  17. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 1, 2014 @ 11:55 pm

    Those interested in shifting ethnicity patterns in winners of academic-type competitions for American teenagers might want to look at this http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Regions_Mathematics_League#Past_Individual_Winners (which has winners from 1979 through 2013, with only one winner with, to my eye, a South-Asian-sounding name and dominance of contestants with East-Asian-sounding names only solidifying in the last 10-15 years). If anything, the comparative absence of South-Asian-sounding names is perhaps at least as notable as the recent strong run of East-Asian-sounding names, since it's not hard to find people with South-Asian sounding names generally doing very well in math-intensive fields in the US.

    For what it's worth (and with my own bias as a competitor for 3 years running in the early 1980's in this particular event) this might be slightly more meaningful because of a deeper pool of contestants and a more coherent motive to do well. By the latter I mean that spelling-bee competition at the highest levels is basically a stunt — getting from the 99th percentile to the 99.99th percentile of your age group in spelling proficiency requires a lot of extra work without being that intrinsically difficult (assuming good memorization skills) but has no real payoff extrinsic to the competition, whereas getting to the 99.99th percentile as opposed to 99th percentile of your age group in math problem solving proficiency has real academic/career payoffs (if pursuing a STEM career is your kettle of fish — I burned out because by the time I was in 11th grade and taking college-sophomore math I became less interested in eigenvectors and Laplace transforms and more interested in poking around at that fascinating list of PIE roots in the back of the American Heritage Dictionary . . .), and doing well in math competitions is a good rough measure of that independently valuable capability rather than being an otherwise useless end in itself.

  18. AG said,

    June 2, 2014 @ 1:33 am

    Wei's list of factors seems to be the most plausible and well-articulated to me so far.

    I would (very unscientifically) agree that the situation is probably something like what Wei described – a mix of historical, cultural and social influences mostly unrelated to linguistics per se.

    Important among the factors in this mix, I'd venture, could be the stereotypical aspiration of Indian-immigrant parents for their kids to be doctors or lawyers, both of which involve memorizing thousands of obscure words.

  19. Dick Margulis said,

    June 2, 2014 @ 1:41 am

    Why not Chinese-Americans instead? Perhaps because Indian parents are native speakers of English and most first-generation Chinese-Americans are not. (Just a guess.)

  20. Piyush said,

    June 2, 2014 @ 2:11 am

    @Anubhav Chattoraj:

    I am a native Hindi speaker, and I am finding it hard to conceive of a serious spelling bee like competition for Hindi. Aside from schwa deletion (which is rather easily dealt with, and would be less of a problem when words are enunciated the way they are in spelling bee contests), Hindi spelling is completely phonetic (no "rather" needed). The only other issues I can think of are the "श" vs. "ष" and "न" vs. "ण" distinctions which are sometimes not observed in everyday speech. But, then, I expect the environment of a spelling contest to be exactly the kind of environment where these distinctions will be observed, and once you have that, spelling (at least for kids beyond say the fifth grade) would be more or less trivial.

    Indeed, the most common "spelling" mistakes I have seen in Hindi writing are not with longer words, but between words like "कि" and "की" (the difference being one between a short vs a long i). That's hardly the kind of stuff out of which one can carve out a spelling contest.

    I am much less familiar with Bengali, but the little I know of the language suggests that it is much closer to Hindi and Sanskrit on the "phonetic script" scale than it is to English.

  21. Piyush said,

    June 2, 2014 @ 2:23 am

    @J W Brewer:

    Re: geographical distributions of Indian names: I don't think this is any more surprising than names of people from different European countries being distinguishable (say German names vs French names).

    Re. the distribution in the Scrips list: Out of the 12 Indian American names on the list for the last 16 years, I would classify 6 as being definitely from "South India" (Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu or Andhra Pradesh), one from east India (probably Bengal) and 3 from various parts in North India, while I am unsure about the remaining two (though I would strongly expect one of them to be from the east)

  22. Lugubert said,

    June 2, 2014 @ 4:35 am

    Piyush said, "Hindi spelling is completely phonetic (no "rather" needed).

    Well, if you disregard the problem of pronouncing the inherent "a"s or not… And you can for example spell words with nasal vowels in more than one way and other variant spellings. गर्म or गरम gar(a)m 'hot', or हिन्दी or हिंदी 'Hindi'. Would both be accepted in an Indian spelling bee, or is there a body that officially prefers one over the alternative?

    Anyway, the most fascinating thing to me on those bees is that so many of the crucial difficult words are foreign loans! Hearing an American pronounce gestalt or schottische, how could you even identify the word? Or the 2013 controversy on if Knödel should be spelled knaidel or kneydl in English…

  23. Anubhav Chattoraj said,

    June 2, 2014 @ 5:38 am

    @Piyush:

    I'm natively Hindi-Bengali bilingual.

    The "rather" certainly is needed if you want to talk about how Hindi speakers pronounce Hindi words, instead of making a circular argument along the lines of "Hindi orthography is perfectly phonetic because anyone who doesn't pronounce Hindi words exactly as spelled is wrong because Hindi orthography is perfectly phonetic".

    The न/ण and श/ष distinction aren't just "sometimes not observed in everyday speech"; the श/ष distinction is essentially never observed, and the न/ण distinction is very rare. Quite a lot of people don't maintain a distinction between श/स, and the distinctions between characters with and without nuqtas (क़, ख़, ग़, ज़, फ़) range from "observed by ~50% of speakers" to "essentially non-existent". (This has been discussed on LL before.) Also, ह does strange things to the vowels around it. And then we have what Lugubert mentions @ 4:35 am: Schwa deletion, or, worse, schwa epenthesis.

    I'm going off childhood memories here, but in the spelling bees I remember most of the words were long tatsama words where a lot of these factors (and more) were in play: unpronounced स/श/ष , न/ण, and रि/ऋ distinctions, unpronounced final इ/ई and उ/ऊ distinctions, orthographic consonant clusters pronounced with epenthetical schwas, phonetic consonant clusters spelled with schwas, and unpronounced visargas or ह/visarga distinctions.

    As for grade levels, the spelling bees I remember went up to class 8th (same as English spelling bees in the USA). Spelling bees are not an adult activity in any language.

    Re. Bengali spelling: I don't have the patience to map out what languages fall where on a Sanskrit—English—Japanese scale of phonetic orthography, but Bengali spelling is certainly much less phonetic than Hindi spelling.

  24. Anubhav Chattoraj said,

    June 2, 2014 @ 5:55 am

    @Lugubert: Re. "Would both be accepted in an Indian spelling bee, or is there a body that officially prefers one over the alternative?"

    There is in fact an official body that (among other things) supposedly regulates Hindi spelling, but no one gives two hoots about its opinion.

    Indian spelling bees (whether in English or a local language) are generally single-school or inter-school events. The organizing school decides what spellings to accept.

  25. richardelguru said,

    June 2, 2014 @ 6:00 am

    orthografys overraited enywaie…

  26. Burt said,

    June 2, 2014 @ 6:49 am

    Genetics?

  27. Victor Mair said,

    June 2, 2014 @ 8:46 am

    From an Indian Studies colleague:

    Spelling bees have long been the domain of Indians. Just as Japanese and Chinese excel on the piano and violin, Indians excel in spelling bees and in Silicon valley. Indian parents drive their kids in this because it has been a tradition that Indians win spelling bees. It has become part of the NRI (non-resident Indian) culture in the US.

  28. AG said,

    June 2, 2014 @ 9:44 am

    @ Lugubert – your last paragraph gets at what is so annoying to me about these contests, and about competitive Scrabble too.

    They both hinge on a weird English / US thing where it's assumed every word in the world, from any source language, has a single correct spelling IN ENGLISH, and that some spelling bee / Scrabble body has the authority to make the definitive list of those spellings.

    Both of those assumptions are so obviously false that my main reaction to these contests is amazement that they exist and are treated with as much seriousness as they are.

  29. Victor Mair said,

    June 2, 2014 @ 10:09 am

    A few desultory notes:

    1. India wins very few Olympic medals. For a country with such a huge population, that is as striking as the domination of the spelling bees by Indian Americans. Is there some sort of inverse relationship operative here? At least one other commenter has alluded to the de-emphasis on sport among Indian Americans.

    2. I think that J.W. Brewer's regional analysis, taken up by Piyush, is definitely germane. Indeed, already in previous years, I was noticing a preponderance, though not an overwhelming one, of South Indian surnames, many of which appear Brahmin to me.

    3. The Indian intellectuals I know — from all parts of India — are generally (i.e., tend to be) highly verbal and articulate, conspicuously so in comparison to those of many other ethnic groups in the American melting pot.

  30. Darkwhite said,

    June 2, 2014 @ 10:14 am

    AG: I'm not sure if there's any better way of doing things, if you do want spelling competitions. I assume the exotic words are more or less a necessity because the contestants are too good otherwise, and I also assume that the list of correct spellings isn't kept secret.

    Burt: Culture is always the default assumption. If the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of genetic factors, then we claim methodological flaws and no scientific consensus.

  31. Darkwhite said,

    June 2, 2014 @ 10:19 am

    jd: That is actually exactly how statistics work, depending on how strict a p-value you want for 'impossible'.

  32. Victor Mair said,

    June 2, 2014 @ 11:04 am

    @Darkwhite

    That may be how statistics works, but it is not how real life works. In real life, one has to take both probability and possibility into account.

  33. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 2, 2014 @ 11:38 am

    I appreciate the rough geographical breakdown from Piyush and Prof. Mair — I hope I wasn't taken to imply that that sort of patterned regional variation in "Indian" names should be surprising or unexpected given the diverse and multilingual character of the subcontinent – I was merely confessing my own lack of the requisite skills to do the classification.

    6 out of 12 is almost certainly too small a sample size to be meaningful, but fwiw, looking at the finest-grained US census data I have at hand on languages-other-than-English spoken at home by US residents it looks like only about 20% of US residents with a South Asian L1 have a Dravidian L1 — if you look at individual languages by size of speaker population you have to go down to #6 before you hit something non-Indo-European (the sequence is Hindi >Urdu > Gujarati > Punjabi > Bengali > Telugu). The IE-speaking majority is also going to include immigrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh (plus a few from Sri Lanka, Nepal, etc., and perhaps also some from Trinidad & Guyana that retain some knowledge of their ancestral tongue), so you'd need to adjust for that if this is really a strictly "Indian-American" rather than "South-Asian-American" phenomenon.

  34. Rodger C said,

    June 2, 2014 @ 11:49 am

    I was in the National Spelling Bee so long ago that I don't remember any Indian kids around me (though there was a light scattering of Asian kids in general). But then there weren't that many South Asians in the US in 1958-60.

  35. Piyush said,

    June 2, 2014 @ 12:50 pm

    @Anubhav Chattoraj:

    sometimes not observed in everyday speech"; the श/ष distinction is essentially never observed, and the न/ण distinction is very rare.

    This does agree with my everyday Hindi experience, but not with the the Hindi I heard in my Hindi classes at school (I went to school in eastern UP). These arcane distinctions were exactly the kind that were emphasized in schools, which is why I have the impression that a spelling bee would be trivial. Further, your nukta examples would not be relevant to the spelling bees you describe, since nukta>i> characters would not appear in the tatsam words your competitions comprised. As I said, predicating a spelling competition on essentially two pairs of consonants does not quite lead to the difficulty level of an English spelling bee. The argument about the environment of a spelling bee is also not circular: a selling bee like competition is much more likely to be run by the kind of people who care enough about the "purity" (bordering on prescriptivism) of the language that they would observe technicalities seldom observed in everyday speech.

    Also, "phonetic consonant clusters spelled with schwas" is more of a dialectical thing. At least in my experience in eastern UP, "standard" Hindi means that you insert no schwas between consonant clusters., certainly not for tatsam words.

    Re Bengali script: Yes, it is less phonetic than Hindi, but much more so than English (I got the impression that you said it is not phonetic at all).

  36. Piyush said,

    June 2, 2014 @ 12:58 pm

    Lugubert:

    The pronunciations of गरम or गर्म are eminently distinguishable (one is even longer than the other), and I would imagine potential spelling bee contestants to hear the difference. As for हिंदी vs. हिन्दी, I would imagine any reasonable spelling bee as being accepting of both (in any case, Sanskrit-derived pronunciation rules would anyway prescribe the same pronunciation for both हिंदी and हिन्दी, which would be significantly different from that of हिनदी)।

  37. Fernando Colina said,

    June 2, 2014 @ 1:09 pm

    Venezuela has been singularly successful in producing beauty contest winners. This is a singularly non-linguistic endeavor (apart from the need to articulate "world-peace" answers to silly questions), but it may provide a hint to the Indian-spelling bee association. There are aspects of national pride and personal fulfillment that seem to be more important in my mind than natural predisposition. All ethnic groups have attractive women and smart kids after all.

    I would look for the answer in the kind of tipping-point arguments that Malcolm Gladwell makes in his book.

  38. Darkwhite said,

    June 2, 2014 @ 2:04 pm

    Victor Mair:

    I think we're talking past each other. In your original post, you write: "Given the extremely difficult and competitive nature of the spelling bees, it is impossible that the continuing domination of the spelling bees by Indian students over such an extended period is a fluke or an accident." This is what I'm agreeing with, and disagreeing with jd over.

    This is statistically accurate, in the sense that p-value analysis shows it extremely unlikely to generate the results you describe, given the assumption or null hypothesis that Indian-Americans are no more likely to win than anybody else.

    As such, it is very likely that there is some bias causing the over representation of Indian-Americans, though we cannot be sure if it is genetic, cultural or parental, if it might be related to them growing up with multiple languages, if it simply reflects increased interest and participation among Indian-Americans, and so on.

  39. Victor Mair said,

    June 2, 2014 @ 2:08 pm

    @Darkwhite

    Thanks for the clarification.

  40. Victor Mair said,

    June 2, 2014 @ 2:19 pm

    From Philip Lutgendorf:

    Yes, in fact the current Smithsonian exhibition (in the Natural History Museum in DC) on Indo-Americans includes a "spelling bee" section, where you can participate in a simulated one.

  41. Eidolon said,

    June 2, 2014 @ 6:10 pm

    Another article explaining the phenomenon: http://www.npr.org/2012/05/29/153898668/why-indian-americans-reign-as-spelling-bee-champs

    It looks to me that there is a distinctive Indian-American sub-culture built around spelling bees, which is sustained not only by community values but, specifically, by family traditions. A spelling bee family is thus liable to pass its own spelling bee success to the next generation, and thereby firmly entrench the tradition within the lineage.

    However, the article also mentions other contributions: the Indian education system's emphasis on rote learning, the belief within Indian culture that spell bees aid in logical ability, the prioritization of education over other endeavors within Indian-American communities, etc. Of course, the fact that English is an official language in India also helps. But when it comes to beating the 'native speakers at their own game,' so to speak, my default explanation is to look for incentives and sub-cultures.

  42. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 2, 2014 @ 6:39 pm

    http://public.spellingbee.com/public/spellers/speller_roster is a list of all of this year's 200+ competitors at the national level, giving both a sense of a) how high a percentage have Indian-sounding names (including some perhaps initially non-obvious ones like "Jacob George" which in context probably = "Christian family from Kerala which at least ancestrally spoke Malayalam"); but also b) that there are plenty who don't and who display a fairly broad range of other ethnic backgrounds to the extent one can fairly infer that from surnames etc.

  43. Son Ha said,

    June 3, 2014 @ 12:40 am

    Is there a connection between the Brahmins of pre-modern and modern India memorizing the Vedas and the kids in the U.S becoming really good at studying dictionaries, memorizing words and their intricate etymologies? Maybe the kids' families are not Hindu priests or don't have priestly relatives but because of their cultural upbringing and environment, encourage memorization and studying of dictionaries in-lieu of the Vedas?

  44. AG said,

    June 3, 2014 @ 9:24 am

    Do Pakistani kids whose families were originally from India also destroy the competition at Koran-reciting contests? Because then we'd really be on to something here

  45. Rahul said,

    June 4, 2014 @ 1:03 pm

    I want to point out that Indian-American kids dominate the National Geography Bee at the same level as they dominate the Spelling Bee. The Geography Bee does not get as much press as the Spelling Bee.

  46. Vish said,

    June 5, 2014 @ 1:36 pm

    What you have to understand is most of these kids grow in multilingual homes with friends and relatives speaking more than one languages, they often learn alternative meaning of words in native languages, more importantly breaking down syllables, Take an example of name (Venkatraman Ramakrishnan in case you didn't know he was a nobel price recipient for chemistry ) when it comes to pronouncing his name almost most will flutter The key here is to break down the name as (Ven'kat'rama'en Rama'krish'nan) the names have more syllables unlike most american names with 2 syllables,their exposure to multiple languages gives this edge and with their parents encouragement to go further they are able to excel.

  47. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    June 8, 2014 @ 6:21 pm

    I knew a spelling bee competitor who went to nationals more than once. She grew up speaking English and Chinese, read at a very early age, and after her first fluky win at the spelling bee began studying for it each year she competed.

    I've always thought that people who spell well in English have good pattern recognition skills in addition to language processing skills, but the spelling bee isn't so much about reading skills.

    I wonder if bilingual children have an advantage in spelling bees because exposure to more than one language in the critical early years leads to more brain connections in the area of the brain that processes language, leading to more paths that can be strengthened through memorization and practice. Whether the brain builds more connections when the two languages the child learns are radically different would also be interesting to learn — does someone who comes from a family with parents who speak two different Romance languages develop as many connections as a child who comes from a family that speaks Gujarati and English, if indeed more brain pathways develop as a result of dual-language upbringing?

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