Spelling bees and character amnesia

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An article in today's Want China Times entitled "Audience of Chinese 'spelling bee' forget how to write" begins thus:

Chinese characters are difficult to learn not only for non-native speakers but also for natives as well. This was made evident in a contest held by China's state broadcaster CCTV to test teenagers on their ability to write Chinese characters, reports the internet portal Tencent.

Although Want China Times is a pro-China publication from Taiwan, there are a number of reports on this show in mainland publications as well (here, here, and here).

The show, which is clearly a clone (like so many other things in China today) of American spelling bees, is referred to by the first source above as a tīngxiě dàhuì 听写大会 ("dictation conference") and by the third source as Zhōngguó hànzì tīngxiě dàhuì 中国汉字听写大会 ("China conference on Chinese character dictation"). Parenthetically, I should mention that tīngxiě 听写 (lit., "hear-write", i.e., "dictation") is one of the most common devices in the Chinese language teacher's toolkit.

The second mainland source cited above bemoans the fact that "tí bǐ wàng zì chéng dāngxià Zhōngguó rén tōngbìng" 提笔忘字成当下中国人通病 ("'picking up a pen and forgetting how to write a character' has become a common failing of contemporary Chinese").

Before proceeding, it is worth mentioning that the characters displayed in front of the table behind which the judges sit (as seen in the photo at the top of the Want China Times article) are oddly misshapen, despite the fact that the characters are positioned within large squares divided into quadrants to help keep the elements in proper proportions. In any event, they read: qiātóuqùwěi 掐头去尾 ("break off both ends; leave out the beginning and the end; do away with unnecessary parts [details] at both ends; nip off unwanted parts").   Presumably this was one of the items that a contestant had to "spell", and he / she did so by writing the characters on a panel that displayed in front of the judges and elsewhere in the hall.

Among other tidbits related in the Want China Times article, we learn that only 30% of the contestants and 10% (!!!) of the adult audience were able to correctly write the characters for làiháma 癞蛤蟆 ("toad"). Never mind that this is not a particularly obscure word; the inability to write even more common words has become epidemic among "literate" Chinese. I have referred to this phenomenon as "character amnesia" and have explained why it is happening in this post, where I pointed out — among other things — that very few people can write the Chinese characters for "sneeze", even though it is a common word.

One of the beauties of the dictionaries in the ABC Chinese Dictionary Series published by the University of Hawai'i Press is that — because they are arranged according to a single sort alphabetical order — you can look up a word by its sound even if you do not know how to write any of the characters of which it is composed.  In fact, the ABC-Wenlin Chinese data base, which has well over 200,000 entries and is growing rapidly, has become the mainstay of many IT products because of its alphabetical ordering and overall high level of lexicographical standards.

It goes without saying that the overwhelming majority of all Chinese character inputting nowadays is done with Romanization (Hanyu Pinyin).

In closing, I'd like to mention a related phenomenon that I discovered recently, namely, the overwhelming dominance of students of Indian (South Asian) descent in English spelling bees. Over the years, I've noticed that a conspicuously large proportion of the top contestants (including the number one position) of the Spelling Bee have been of Indian descent (somebody told me that it's as much as 60% [though I'm not sure 60% of what — I presume that he meant of the overall top winners]) — and how few are of Chinese descent. I wonder what that tells us. I've often thought about it.

The last six national winners were all of Indian descent (!), and there were others before that. The sheer numbers of entrants and the highly competitive nature of the contest ensure that the Indian superiority in spelling competitions could not be accidental. In an effort to determine what the secrets of the Indian students are and to demonstrate that their winning ways are not pure coincidence (in other words, to understand the reasons for their excellence in spelling), I asked a number of Indians and non-Indians what they attribute Indian spelling excellence to. Here are just a couple of the responses that I received.

From a colleague of Indian descent:

I was the CYO Spelling Bee champion of New Jersey in 1986. I arrived late, prepared very little with the other students of my school, and won handily on the word 'bayou' because my brother introduced me to Creedence Clearwater Revivial when I was a kid (and I remembered their song Born on the Bayou spelled on the album cover). I am not sure what the facility with spelling is but my parents never pushed me AT ALL. In fact, they still don't have any idea what I really do for a living as a professor and never really took interest in my education hands-on. They just took care of me and gave me a lot of encouragement. I think that, as you are suggesting, Victor, there is something about Indians' ability to hear words, work with language, and perhaps enjoy word games that is acculturated and somehow passively socialized (think antyAkSari, an ancient Sanskrit game still played with Hindi film songs, where the last or penultimate syllable of the third or last quarter of a verse leads others to recite the next one).

From one of my graduate students who is married to a Bengali woman:

Spelling in Bengali is often considered difficult and confusing – there are 3 ways to write s, two for j, a short and a long i that are pronounced the same, and several other vestigial holdovers from Sanskrit that are no longer differentiated in pronunciation. But as far as I know, there are no bees like we have here. One Bengali speaker says that the spelling is "so hard that we wouldn't even think of having a competition for it", but the same could of course be said for English – there just already exists an infrastructure and culture in the US for spelling bees. Maybe it has something to do with a higher degree of bilingualism, even among second generation learners? It is common for Bengali children in India to learn the English alphabet before the Bengali abugida. Since the question is why Indians dominate spelling bees, it might also be interesting to look at where in India the winners' heritage is.

I'm not the only person to have noticed the superiority of Indians in spelling contests, since this phenomenon has been featured on NPR, in Psychology Today and even in Foreign Policy.

Indians have traditionally been capable of incredible feats of memory. The Vedas, dating back thousands of years, were meant to be chanted, not written, and were recited backwards and forwards.

The Aṣṭādhyāyī of Pāṇini (fl. 4th century BCE), which established the foundations of Sanskrit grammar, consisted of 3,959 rules concerning morphology, syntax, and semantics. They are extremely terse and almost mathematical in their precision, yet they have customarily been recited aloud.

When Indian Buddhist monks brought sutras (scriptures) to China, they carried them in their heads, not in manuscripts, which astonished their Chinese hosts who asked them, in essence, "Where's the book?"

The Mahabharata and Ramayana are vast epics, yet bards could recite them without reference to promptbooks. The same is true of folk epics like that about Pabuji.

There is even a term for this kind of religiously inspired memorization, and it is called smṛti ("that which is remembered").

So uniquely rigorous and complex are the techniques of Indian memorization that it is worth quoting this capsule description from the Wikipedia article on smṛti:

Prodigious energy was expended by ancient Indian culture in ensuring that these texts were transmitted from generation to generation with inordinate fidelity.[8] For example, memorization of the sacred Vedas included up to eleven forms of recitation of the same text. The texts were subsequently "proof-read" by comparing the different recited versions.

Forms of recitation included the jaṭā-pāṭha (literally "mesh recitation") in which every two adjacent words in the text were first recited in their original order, then repeated in the reverse order, and finally repeated again in the original order.[9] The recitation thus proceeded as:

word1word2, word2word1, word1word2; word2word3, word3word2, word2word3; …

In another form of recitation, dhvaja-pāṭha[9] (literally "flag recitation") a sequence of N words were recited (and memorized) by pairing the first two and last two words and then proceeding as:

word1word2, word(N-1)wordN; word2word3, word(N-3)word(N-2); …; word(N-1)wordN, word1word2;

The most complex form of recitation, ghana-pāṭha (literally "dense recitation"), according to (Filliozat 2004, p. 139), took the form:

word1word2, word2word1, word1word2word3, word3word2word1, word1word2word3; word2word3, word3word2, word2word3word4, word4word3word2, word2word3word4; …

That these methods have been effective, is testified to by the preservation of the most ancient Indian religious text, the Rigveda (ca. 1500 BCE), as a single text, without any variant readings.[9] Similar methods were used for memorizing mathematical texts, whose transmission remained exclusively oral until the end of the Vedic period (ca. 500 BCE).

Perhaps today's English spelling bee champions of Indian descent are the heirs to these traditions and techniques, whether consciously or not.

Since I am not a pukka (Hindi पक्का / Urdu پكّا pakkā ["proper; real; genuine"]) Sanskritist, I may have gotten some of the details wrong, but I hope that I have at least conveyed a sense of the nature and importance of memorization in Indian culture.

[Thanks to David Moser, Deven Patel, Sunny Singh, Ben Zimmer, Philip Lutgendorf, Fred Smith, Leopold Eisenlohr, and Arif Dirlik]


  1. Dan Lufkin said,

    August 7, 2013 @ 9:00 pm

    The jaṭā-pāṭha procedure looks like a method for forging high-strength Markov chains. Worth a try.

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 7, 2013 @ 10:12 pm

    http://www.nationalgeographic.com/geobee/2013-state-winners/ gives the list of national finalists (50+ because one from each state plus DC/Puerto Rico etc.) for the Geography Bee run by the National Geographic people. There are approx 18 South-Asian-sounding names and maybe 3 East-or-Southeast-Asian-sounding ones. Presumably an instance of the same phenomenon but even harder to tie to hanzi-v.-pinyin issues. (But if e.g. Vietnamese-American kids are also absent from the spelling-bee scene by comparison to Indian-American kids, you can't blame that on hanzi.)

    Without getting into millenia worth of cultural heritage, it may also be worth noting that because India was in more recent times a British colony whereas China and Korea were not, the average level of parental English proficiency for first-generation immigrant South-Asian-ancestry kids in the U.S. may be materially higher than for otherwise similar East-Asian-ancestry kids, which could have an impact on why the first set of parents (with e.g. a possible comparative advantage in helping the kids practice) might be more drawn to spelling bees than the second.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    August 7, 2013 @ 11:22 pm

    @J. W. Brewer

    Since these are probably mostly 2nd or 3rd generation youth who are likely not highly proficient (if at all) in Asian languages and scripts, I wasn't even thinking of hanzi vs. pinyin vs. devanagari, etc. Judging from the students of Asian ancestry I've been teaching at Penn for the past three+ decades, most of these contestants are essentially native speakers of English who came to America before the age of 11 or were born here. There seems to be some other, perhaps deeper, ingredient that is not so obvious as a nodding acquaintance with this or that Asian language or script.

  4. dw said,

    August 8, 2013 @ 1:17 am

    Vedic/Hindu culture has historically been distinctive in its emphasis on the spoken over the written word. Masica claims that this is reflected in the absence of a major tradition of calligraphy (a striking contrast with both Muslim and Chinese cultures).

    Not sure how this leads to excellence at English spelling, but maybe someone else can make the leap.

  5. turang said,

    August 8, 2013 @ 1:54 am

    Indians are overrepresented in spelling/geography bees, not just when compared to children of other Asian immigrants but also when compared to other groups. There may be other, some not really deep, reasons for this. The Indian immigrant population generally comes from a highly educated slice of Indian population that emigrated voluntarily looking for economic and other opportunities. There may be a snowball effect with initial successes triggering more of the same (chess in Russia and to a lesser degree more recently in India?).

    Apart from memorization, there are a lot of verbal "fun" activities that some sections of Indians have pursued. An interesting one is what is called avadhaana (literally attention). These are shows in which the performer performs a number of tasks simultaneously (eight and hundred seem popular) such as composing a metrically correct verse with arbitrary conditions set by an audience member like the use of a certain letter in a certain place, use of a certain meter, etc., keeping track of the number of times a bell ringer rings a bell at arbitrary intervals. I have heard of Telugu performers who do this. There is a Kannada/Sanskrit performer Shatavadhani Ganesh whose performances are available on youtube for anyone interested (Example:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m3GnorRNjXE – this one is in Sanskrit).

    There are also Karnatak musicians who perform avadhaana pallavis that are sung to two rhythms at the same time, with the singer keeping time in two ways with his/her two hands.

  6. Deirdre said,

    August 8, 2013 @ 2:06 am

    One theory about this from Slate


    Shockingly, it seems that something to do with practicing.

  7. Levantine said,

    August 8, 2013 @ 6:38 am

    I'm somewhat surprised that people are trying to explain this by referring to ancient traditions of orality and the like, as if these traditions run in the blood as inherited traits. In the UK, it was once the case that many (perhaps most) newsagents' shops were run by immigrants from the Indian Subcontinent. I can't say why this was, but I'm sure the prevailing factors were sociological and context-specific rather than anything to do with an 'inherent' South-Asian expertise in selling newspapers and sweets. Turang's explanation above (specifically the first paragraph) seems the most sensible to me, and I agree with him/her that we're probably dealing with a snowball effect.

    Regarding Masica's claim as relayed by dw, Islamic culture is often noted for its emphasis on the spoken word, so I don't think the calligraphy argument holds up.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    August 8, 2013 @ 7:28 am

    I watched part of the show on avadhaana cited by turang. Just sitting through the first 4:23 of the credits (including to Sanskrit and other intellectual advisers), which come at the beginning of the hour-long film, shows how utterly seriously the Indians take these complex mind games. Of course it's "not in the blood" (that would be silly), but it certainly is in the tradition.

    I like Deirdre's point about practice. But the weight of the traditions and the value placed upon them surely have something to do with the willingness of the young ones to put in countless hard hours of practice.

    I have long been fascinated by the complex tabla rhythms and sitar ragas of Indian music. Sitting through a concert by masters such as Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan always leaves me with the distinct sensation that they are engaged in profound mind games.

    My office is on east wing of the 8th floor of Williams Hall at the University of Pennsylvania. The west wing houses the South Asia Studies Department. At the corner of the hallway is a fairly large music room presided over by Allyn Miner (http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~aminer/). It is a center of activity during the day, but the room really comes alive in the evenings and even more so at night. I usually stay in my office until quite late, and I'm often amazed by the number of Indian students who are practicing their traditional singing and instruments, so many, in fact, that they spill out of the music room and into the hallways. They practice for hours, even beyond midnight, and especially toward the end of the semester.

    I hear them speaking English among themselves, and they sound like native Americans. But yet here they are practicing all these old musical forms, and they do it with great joy and earnestness at the same time.

    All of this is an enigma to me, one that is pleasant to contemplate.

  9. Pflaumbaum said,

    August 8, 2013 @ 7:41 am

    How openly recognised is it in mainstream Chinese culture that much of the literate population can't remember how to write commonplace words? In David Moser's 'sneeze' anecdote, it came across as a kind of open secret that everyone was embarrassed by but perfectly aware of.

  10. Levantine said,

    August 8, 2013 @ 8:08 am

    High-achieving children of South Asian background constitute a phenomenon in the UK too, but I don't think I've ever heard it explained with reference to anything other than hard work and diligence (often, it is said, with the encouragement of the proverbial pushy parents). I think one would have to actually ask these youngsters what sort of upbringing they had before trying to link their achievements to age-old traditions that they may or may not have been exposed to growing up.

  11. quodlibet said,

    August 8, 2013 @ 8:42 am

    "my brother introduced me to Creedence Clearwater Revival when I was a kid (and I remembered their song Born on the Bayou spelled on the album cover)"

    Good thing the word was "bayou" and not "credence"!

  12. cameron said,

    August 8, 2013 @ 8:58 am

    Is it only Indians who are over-represented in spelling competitions or are Pakistanis over-represented as well? I realize that immigration patterns from the two countries are quite different: the typical Indian immigrant here in NY is an engineer or medical professional, and the typical Pakistani immigrant is a cab driver. But the Pakistanis would come from a very similar cultural background, of course with one important rupture in their family histories.

  13. JMU said,

    August 8, 2013 @ 12:11 pm

    Two comments:

    I first heard the oral traditon story from Stanley Insler in his intensive intro to Sanskrit course at Yale. In Insler's version, it was not that there were no spelling variances in the Vedas at all; rather, it was that, when the Germans went to India to compile a variorum edition, they only uncovered about a dozen variants in all the manuscripts they studied. The point is that, while literati tend to look down on oral traditions, they can be achieve laser-like resolution for extraordinary lengths of time provided they have the right social and cultural support. (Think about that the next time you hear someone dismiss the possibility that Amerind tales couldn't possibly refer back to actual volcanic eruptions like Crater Lake ca. 7700 BP.)
    As for characters, it started becoming obvious in Japan as early as the 1980s that word-processor usage caused people to forget how to write characters with pen and paper. That isn't the only reason that people forget characters, but it is definitely an contributing circumstance.

  14. dw said,

    August 8, 2013 @ 12:17 pm


    There are no Pakistani- (or Indian-Muslim-) looking names in the list of past spelling bee winners, or in the list of state winners for 2013.

    On the other hand, US immigrants of South Asian origin probably include far more Hindus than Muslims: this Pew survey indicates that, even for the entire "Asia-Pacific" region, there are about 50% more Hindus than Muslims among green-card holders.

  15. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 8, 2013 @ 1:20 pm

    There are said to be very few manuscript variations in the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew scriptures. This is generally not attributed to the awesomeness of an oral tradition but to the awesomeness (in terms of avoiding miscopying and the associated inadvertent introduction of new variations) of a scribal tradition once the text finally stabilized, possibly quite a number of centuries if not millenia after it had been created. (There is much more variation in the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament because the Christian scribal tradition was sloppier or at least less uniform across time and space.) We know from the Dead Sea Scrolls, from the rival Samaritan version of the Pentateuch, and, to some extent, from reverse-engineering the early translations of the Old Testament into Greek and other languages (where we often have earlier surviving manuscripts than we do of the Hebrew), that there was during an earlier period more variation among Hebrew manuscripts – variation that largely disappeared once the Masoretes reached consensus as to the correct readings of each chapter and verse and word and letter and made sure that all new manuscripts produced going forward conformed fairly strictly to that consensus. It seems like you would have to know a lot about how manuscript copying in the relevant culture(s) worked over the quite lengthy period between when the Vedas were first committed to writing and the 19th century when the Herr Doktor Professors arrived on the scene before you could be confident about what to attribute to the original oral tradition and what to subsequent developments.

  16. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 8, 2013 @ 1:40 pm

    Levantine: part of what's notable here is that in the U.S. we have become used both to stereotypically academically-high-achieving South-Asian-immigrant kids (perhaps with a certain accompanying stereotype of the parents) AND stereotypically ditto East-Asian-immigrant kids (perhaps with ditto parents). Since the two groups of kids are often stereotypically perceived to excel in the same sorts of activities, it thus may seem noteworthy (and lead some to search for an explanation) that in this particular context one group is very heavily present but the other is not. (An example in the other direction might be that East-Asian-immigrant kids may be much more common on the piano-recital circuit than South-Asian-immigrant kids, perhaps in part because it is more common for the latter's parents place greater value on the old-country musical tradition.)

    But to give a parallel to your UK newsagent example, in Manhattan in recent decades, quite a lot of newsstands are run by South Asian immigrants but not very many by Korean immigrants, while quite a lot of bodegas (maybe = BrEng cornershop, but I'm not sure) are run by Korean immigrants but not very many by South Asian immigrants. It is highly unlikely that this distinction is best explained by ancient underlying differences in the cultures of origin.

  17. George Amis said,

    August 8, 2013 @ 1:42 pm

    @Victor Mair
    I'm quite sure that musicians like Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan are "engaged in profound mind games." They are also playing games involving complex rhythms with their tabla players. I once saw something exactly similar in a solo Indian dance recital (with tabla and tamboura) in which the dancer and tabla player challenged each other to reproduce increasingly long and complex rhythmic patterns. I found this fascinating but finally impossible to follow.

  18. Levantine said,

    August 8, 2013 @ 3:28 pm

    J.W. Brewer, thanks for providing some context. I very much agree with the conclusion you reach in your second paragraph, and I would apply it to the academic sphere as much as the commercial.

  19. Ken Brown said,

    August 8, 2013 @ 6:11 pm

    Corner shops in London are overwhelmingly South Asian. Where I live mostly Tamil. Five minutes walk away they are different, but still Asian (In the UK sense).

  20. Ambarish Sridharanarayanan said,

    August 9, 2013 @ 12:32 am

    I'm an immigrant of Indian ethnicity living in the US for 10+ years. This is an exceedingly complex issue, and there have been a lot of insightful comments above, but we have to strike a balance between, on the one hand, drawing valid conclusions about a culture, and on the other, generalising about a billion people, a population larger and possibly more diverse ethnically and linguistically than Europe.

    I feel there are many issues going on here, some of which are cultural stereotypes and some of which are simply the fact that US^H^HWestern immigration policy selects Indians who are genetically and otherwise predisposed to the kind of skills and hard work that Spelling Bees require.

    While I'm a touch excited at the attention my native culture's getting, I'm also wary of possible exoticisation. Statistically, European school children test better at Math(s) than North American school kids, but would we be trying to find cultural reasons? Probably not – we'd be trying to see what the schools in Europe are doing different. Generalisation about European "values" would only get us so far; likewise, about Indian "values" too.

    BTW, regarding the Sanskrit tradition of rote memorisation, here are 2 videos of modern-day ghanapāṭha:

  21. joanne salton said,

    August 9, 2013 @ 6:03 am

    I can think of quite a few reasons why Indians might be good at English spelling, and the attempts to link it to ancient culture are worryingly reminiscent of the recent attempts to link air crashes to Korean culture.

    Also, both "toad" and "sneeze" are common in Chinese but rather difficult, somewhat like the word "eczema" in English. As we have discussed before there are many examples like this in Chinese, but if we must keep hearing about "sneeze" in particular then we should bear this point in mind.

  22. Victor Mair said,

    August 9, 2013 @ 6:27 am

    @joanne salton

    "I can think of quite a few reasons why Indians might be good at English spelling…."

    Let's hear them.

    I and others (please also see the comments) gave lots of evidence for the continuing role of tradition in contemporary Indian culture. It's quite an illogical jump for you to link that to air crashes by Korean pilots!

    "Toad" and "sneeze" are representative instances of the hundreds of common words that Chinese are forgetting how to write by hand because of character amnesia. Is your point that there are few words like this in English (e.g., "eczema") and many in Chinese? If not, what IS the point of your last sentence?

  23. Levantine said,

    August 9, 2013 @ 7:08 am

    I'm with joanne salton on this. There's no less logic in her bringing up the recent airplane crash than in others' trying to tie good spelling with ancient Vedic memorisation and complex musical rhythms. I personally find a lot of what's been said in this post essentialistic and bordering on offensive (even if it is speciously flattering to the culture in question).

  24. Victor Mair said,

    August 9, 2013 @ 8:51 am


    The techniques I've described may have ancient roots, but they are alive today. See the videos cited by turang and Ambarish Sridharanarayanan (there are many others you could watch if you are willing to consider the evidence, or you could go to India and witness them live for yourself), and note my comments about the Indian students on the 8th floor of Williams Hall at Penn. George Cardona, emeritus professor of Indian linguistics at Penn, was deeply immersed in these techniques; I'm confident that he would tell you they are far from dead.

    I can't understand why you are labeling this evidence as "essentialistic and bordering on offensive (even if it is speciously flattering to the culture in question)". Your remarks are rather inflammatory and not the sort that we would prefer to have on Language Log.

  25. Victor Mair said,

    August 9, 2013 @ 10:06 am

    It seems that the spelling bees and character dictation contests have provoked a lot of soul searching in China, so much so that an editorial in today's People's Daily entitled "Nǐ hái huì xiě duōshǎo hànzì" 你还会写多少汉字 ("How Many Characters Can You Still Write?") (kindly sent to me by Anne Henochowicz) takes an amazingly forthright look at the state of the Chinese writing system today. Not only does the editorial explicitly recognize the problem of character amnesia, it also confronts the issue of irreversible changes in writing technology (including Hanyu Pinyin inputting) and the radical impact they are having upon the ability of students and adults to write Chinese characters.

    For those who are tired of "sneeze" and "toad", the editorial mentions other common words that very few people can write, including jiù 臼 ("mortar") and chōng 舂 ("pestle; pound").

  26. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 9, 2013 @ 11:00 am

    Let me offer another hypothesis as a partial cultural explanation for the Indian-American boom in spelling bee winners that does not require as much time depth. The Indian-American population is largely a phenomenon of immigration to the U.S. within the last 50 years. 50 years ago is a good first approximation of the timing of the fairly radical shift away from emphasis on "rote memorization" (which became pejorative in some circles …) in U.S. K-12 education. In the earlier part of the 20th century, U.S. schoolkids did not afaik memorize the Vedas but were routinely required to memorize lengthy chunks of poetry, often of a nationalistic/didactic variety (Hiawatha/Paul Revere/spare-your-country's-flag-she-said). That culture had largely vanished by the time I was in school (born '65, graduated high school '83); as far as I can recall the only class I ever took at any level in which I was required to recite poetry from memory was Homeric Greek in college (in which we were supposed to memorize a brief passage in the original). Similarly, I was aware of the spelling bee as a vaguely old-fashioned sort of thing one sometimes saw in movies and tv shows, but at no point in my K-12 career did any teacher say to me (and I was an extremely good speller) "you ought to think about entering this county-wide spelling bee coming up next month." As far as I knew, they were as obsolete/marginal as quilting bees, or at least sock hops. So I did math team, science Olympiad, a statewide competition for Latin students, etc. instead.

    The interesting question, it thus seems to me, is whether Indian-American kids born in the 1990's would have the same edge over median-American kids born in, say, the 1930's (and thus brought up in a more memorization-oriented educational culture than the U.S. now has) that they do over median-American kids of their own generational cohort. Absent time travel, one might in principle be able to assess this if there are good enough records of old spelling-bee championships to make comparisons of competitive level over time possible. For example, are the words over which the final-round competitors stumble over and thereby get eliminated significantly more difficult now than they were in 1950, or about the same despite the changed ethnic mix of competitors at that level?

    Sports analogy: South Asian immigrants and/or their kids are dramatically overrepresented among championship-caliber cricket players in the U.S. (I believe making up the overwhelming majority of such players who are not of formerly-British-West-Indian ethnic background). Is this because of a strong South Asian cultural obsession with cricket (even if of post-Vedic vintage)? Well, yes, in part. But an equally important factor is that approx. 97% of the US population is indifferent to cricket and is thus not putting up any serious competition. (So, by comparison, the recent prominence of immigrants from the Dominican Republic in baseball is more impressive, because a much wider demographic swathe of the US population is trying to excel at the same thing.) I'm not sure that the percentage of American parents interested in their kids becoming spelling-bee champions is all that much higher than the percentage interested in their kids learning to play cricket. (The percentage of parents interested in their kids becoming good enough spellers to get good grades and high SAT's is significant, of course, but my sense is that the skills/knowledge needed for championship spelling-bee competition are several orders of gratuitous magnitude above that, and thus wasted incremental effort if that's your goal.)

  27. Victor Mair said,

    August 9, 2013 @ 12:06 pm

    @J. W. Brewer

    Now THAT's a thoughtful, helpful, and civil response, for which many thanks! I completely agree with you about the de-emphasis on memorization in contemporary American education.

    One additional thought to follow up on what you've said: many other relatively recent immigrant groups to the United States come from countries that put extraordinary emphasis on memorization (I know this because I've often lived and taught in them since 1965), yet they are not doing as well in the spelling bees as the Indian entrants. I still think that it's not a fluke, and that there must be some additional factor(s) beside sheer diligence, parental encouragement (think Chinese Tiger Moms and my Indian colleague who was a spelling champ in 1986 and who said that "my parents never pushed me AT ALL"), and a willingness to memorize. The overwhelming numbers of Indian winners indicate to me that the quality / nature / motivation / background of their memorization is different.

  28. julie lee said,

    August 9, 2013 @ 12:14 pm

    @J.W.Brewer, Ambarish Sridharanarayanan (– I thought Thai people had the longest surnames!!–) and some others:

    Yes, perhaps selective immigration has given us more brainy Indians than brainy Chinese immigrants as a whole. However, I also wonder if there are as many Chinese as Indians entering these spelling bee competitions. As J.W. Brewer suggests, the Chinese may not be that interested in spelling bees. Victor Mair may have a special interest in them because of his interest in Chinese character amnesia. And Indians may have a special interest in them because of their interest in and large repertory of mind-and-memory games and exercises. I know I've always thought spelling bees the least interesting of student competitions (sorry, Victor). I know of Chinese students winning Latin , math, science, piano, poetry, painting, swimming, and baseball competitions in America, and entering short story, origami (requires tremendous memory), and fencing competitions in America. I don't know about spelling bees. Haven't heard of Chinese-American interest there (I'm ethnic Chinese).
    Re amnesia: Quite a few of my Chinese friends (golden oldies) from Taiwan have told me they often forget how to write common Chinese characters. These friends have all been spending most of their spare time avidly improving their English (with great success) and seldom write Chinese anymore. They're out of practice.
    Re memory: I believe all the intellectual subjects (math, science, piano, poetry, foreign language, even fencing) require great memory. Take wit or beauty of a word or line in poetry–it requires great powers of data storage, search and retrieval.

  29. Victor Mair said,

    August 9, 2013 @ 12:29 pm

    Here are two randomly selected full episodes of the two main Chinese "spelling bee" shows, courtesy of Matt Anderson

    Hanzi Yingxiong: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0NdvmkRHzZc

    Zhongguo Hanzi Tingxie Dahui: http://xiyou.cntv.cn/v-15097bae-fc5c-11e2-b387-d43d7e062524.html

  30. Rodger C said,

    August 9, 2013 @ 12:30 pm

    @J. W. Brewer: I grew up in the memorization culture and was in the National Spelling Bee three years in a row (1958-60). When I started giving my literature-survey students a recognize-the-quotation final, I intended it as a mercy. Instead, they dread it as the hardest part of the course. Most of them can't even remember if a work is in verse or prose.

  31. Victor Mair said,

    August 9, 2013 @ 12:40 pm

    julie lee's points are also well taken. Perhaps it's partly a matter of self-selection: Chinese students may just not be that interested in spelling, whereas Indian students clearly are, and are phenomenally good at it. That then leads to the questions of why the Chinese students aren't interested in spelling bees and why Indian students are willing to work hard at them and bask in the glory of winning them. Is there some predisposition in the two groups that push them this way and that? If so, what accounts for those predispositions?

    As I've pointed out so many times in this debate, Indian excellence in the spelling competitions is not mere happenstance.

  32. turang said,

    August 9, 2013 @ 1:57 pm

    @J.W. Brewer

    I don't know about detailed historical records of words that eliminated finalists, but the list of winning words is available at


  33. julie lee said,

    August 9, 2013 @ 3:44 pm

    @Rodger C:

    That brings me to one of my pet peeves —that American children are not made to memorize more or at all. The culture of memorization, which once prevailed in the West, the East, the South (African native cultures) and… is now lost in America's schools apparently. They say memory is a muscle–the more it's exercised the stronger it gets. Even today the NYT says how abysmal the school test scores are in New York. With the pet peeves are my two pet theories about American schoolchlldren's low test scores : no memorization and poor diet (too much pizza, fat clogging the brain). Compare this to the school lunch-menu of an average school in China reported in London's _Independent_ newspaper some years ago–rice with four dishes and a soup, each with fish, meat, poultry, eggs, or tofu and each with one or more veggies—four to eight veggies a meal, menu changed daily. Make me Commissioner of Schools in New York and the first thing I'll do is, agitate for 1) memorization of prose and poetry, 2) no to pizza, and a school lunch like China's.

  34. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 9, 2013 @ 4:45 pm

    Singapore is a place with a predominantly-Anglophone educational system with a population that is majority ethnic-Chinese but with a substantial ethnic-Indian minority (plus ethnic Malays with the arguable advantage of a cradle/heritage language standardly written in the same alphabet as English). Do they have English-language spelling competitions there? What's the ethnic mix of the winners?

    Perhaps to give a more concrete illustration of how "essentialist" arguments can be used to account for negative as well as positive phenomena seemingly linked to ethnicity, the New York Times earlier this year ran a whole speculative piece on whether "han or hwabyung or some other shared heritage" rooted in Korean culture somehow explained why two Korean-Americans (not a very large sample size for doing social science, you would think . . .) had committed mass murder. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/31/magazine/should-it-matter-that-the-shooter-at-oikos-university-was-korean.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

    I would say that rule number one of any language log comment thread is "don't aggravate the host" (and be aware that different hosts have different styles and personalities that may be relevant to that issue), but I have enjoyed and learned from Levantine's substantive contributions to other recent comment threads and would encourage him to figure out how to continue to contribute constructively.

  35. Levantine said,

    August 9, 2013 @ 5:17 pm

    Professor Mair, I was giving my personal opinion in response to your post, which I thought was the point of the comments section. I wasn't being inflammatory, and I chose my words carefully to express my honest feelings on the matter. I can't see how this is a breach of Language Log etiquette.

    I don't consider any of the cases discussed to be real evidence. No-one is denying that Indian oral and musical traditions live on, but it's quite another matter to argue that American youngsters of South Asian origin are good at spelling because of these traditions. As I said in an earlier comment, one would have to ask these kids what sort of home environment they grew up in to substantiate the claimed correlation. Why is it any less likely that such children simply practise an awful lot, as an earlier commenter suggested? Perhaps it really is the case that they're sitting at home reciting the Vedas or playing complex rhythms on their instruments, but without more than anecdotal evidence, it all seems very questionable to me.

    Why does this way of thinking seem to pertain so overwhelmingly to non-Western cultures (including, I should add, that of my parents)? Why are the actions and habits of white populations so seldom explained with reference to medieval or ancient customs? This disparity perpetuates the notion that non-Westerners are living fossils, somehow more attached to their traditions than white Americans and Europeans.

    I can't help but be troubled by the kinds of claims made in your post and some of the comments in response to it, even though I realise that no-one is actually setting out to cause offence.

  36. Levantine said,

    August 9, 2013 @ 5:31 pm

    J.W. Brewer, while I appreciate the advice, I don't think I have anything to 'figure out'. I left honest feedback in response to a post with open comments. I was more measured in my earlier comments but felt I had to reveal the true extent of my feelings after the rather dismissive response to joanne salton, whose remakes I wholeheartedly agreed with. I was not setting out to aggravate anyone.

  37. Phil said,

    August 9, 2013 @ 7:37 pm

    It has become practically a cliché in postmodernist and postcolonialist academic humanities circles to derisively label someone else's discussion of cultural patterns as "essentialist." It is always somebody else who is being "essentialist," while the wise guys making this accusation are generally smug about imagining themselves as being above this sort of grievous ideological error. The notion that Euro-Americans or so-called "whites" are somehow beyond linkages with their medieval and ancient past ignores the persistence of Judaeo-Christian and Greco-Roman thought and analogues, such as a certain academic's comparison of a US president mediating between Palestinian and Israeli leaders with a Roman emperor trying to make peace between two feuding local ethnic chieftains on the outskirts of the empire.

  38. Levantine said,

    August 9, 2013 @ 8:16 pm

    Phil, I presume that was directed at me. I wrote that the linkages are most usually (not to say exclusively) made in relation to non-Western cultures, which is true. If people are sensitive to such essentialism (I can't see the need for scare quotes), it's because it exists and is problematic. I somehow missed Ambarish Sridharanarayanan's earlier comment, even though it is probably the most important response of the lot, since it comes from a member of the community in question. Is it not significant that he is, in his own words, 'wary of possible exoticisation'? (To clarify, I am not suggesting that he would agree with my subsequent comments; he may well not.)

    It's not like it would be particularly difficult to establish the likelihood of the claims being made here. The youngsters in question exist, are known, and can be interviewed. All that's going on at the moment is pure guesswork, much of it based on vague notions of cultural homologies.

  39. Stephan Stiller said,

    August 9, 2013 @ 9:19 pm

    In Cantonese, 匙羹 (ci4 gang1, "spoon") is considered one of the hardest words to write, as is 抑鬱症 (jik1 wat1 zing3, "depression"), commonly in this spelling in HK. The latter is also used in Mandarin, but the character 郁 in the simplified spelling 抑郁症 is easy.

  40. Victor Mair said,

    August 9, 2013 @ 9:21 pm

    No, Levantine, I have talked at length to these "youngsters" and to many of their parents and elders as well (I have lived and taught in East Asia, Southeast Asia, and South Asia for many years of my life, and have had a great deal of close contact with students and colleagues from India while teaching at Harvard, Duke, and Penn. So I'm not just imagining things when I talk about the role of tradition in Indian techniques for narrative recitation and memorization. I even wrote several books and many articles about it, including Painting and Performance.

    I truly appreciate Phil's remarks about essentialism. Many times during the last few decades, I have tried to figure out how it became an academic slur (as you meant it). Lord knows that it has a long past in intellectual history, and it wasn't always intended as a kind of deprecation.


    As for your characterization of what I wrote as "bordering on offensive" (you were the one who used the word, not I), it would have been more honest for you to just call what I had written "offensive". Why did you say "bordering on offensive"? Because you didn't want to take responsibility for flat out saying that what I wrote was "offensive"? You say that you "left honest feedback", but if it was "honest", then why did you use that weasel word "bordering", as if to squirm out of what you yourself had written?

    I just received this note from a young scholar of Korean descent:


    I think the words "offended" and "offensive" are overused in the US. It's perfectly fine to express skepticism at someone else's evidence (with arguments), but these two words are often used as a weapon. Sometimes (if done in person) it's done in bad faith and for improper reasons (say, to establish a position of power), but more often it's just an ingrained conversational habit of some people. It's often a conversation killer.

    This is trailing off-topic, but I need to let it out: The latest fad is of Asian-Americans claiming offense at being asked, "Where are you originally from?" There is a lot I'd like to say about this topic (after having thought about it for a long time and after, I hope, having "figured it out"), but we can do it some day in person :-)


    As for your mention of "the notion that non-Westerners are living fossils", Westerners are also castigated for not paying sufficient attention to the cultural heritage of non-Westerners. Perhaps you can make useful suggestions for how they can avoid criticisms for both failings.

  41. Levantine said,

    August 9, 2013 @ 9:57 pm

    I said 'bordering on offensive' because that's precisely how I regarded what you wrote. I knew that you were not setting out to offend, but I nonetheless found your line of reasoning to be problematic and discomfiting — hence 'bordering on offensive'. Had I found it flat-out offensive, I would have said so. You called me inflammatory earlier, and now you're chastising me for mitigating my criticism of you!

    The 'youngsters' I'm referring to are specifically those winning the contests. I don't see how the continuance of various Indian traditions among certain sections of the Indian(-American) community is relevant to something as specific as doing well in a spelling competition. Perhaps it is, but the way to prove it is by talking to those actually involved in the rather small world of spelling bees (the link provided above by Deidre is helpful in this regard).

    With regard to your final paragraph, since I never castigated Westerners 'for not paying sufficient attention to the cultural heritage of non-Westerners', I can't very well speak for those who feel this way. But if I had to suggest an answer, I would say that being mindful of a culture's heritage is not the same as invoking that heritage to explain things that may have nothing whatsoever to do with ancient customs.

  42. Rodger C said,

    August 10, 2013 @ 12:07 pm

    @Julie Lee: Thank you. But try to introduce decent food to American schools and you'll suffer the fate of Jamie Oliver, who came to my home town to do that and was sat on very hard by the FDA and its corporate masters.

  43. Victor Mair said,

    August 10, 2013 @ 12:34 pm


    Now you're just engaging in polemics, and it's not very helpful in coming to grips with the problem we set out to address: why Indian contestants dominate in the spelling bees. What motivates them? Does their cultural heritage have anything to do with it? I and others in this debate have presented a considerable amount of evidence that shows Indian traditions of mnemonics, recitation, narrative, complex rhythm and ragas, etc. to be very much alive today (including among Penn students on the 8th floor of Williams Hall), but you have completely ignored the concrete instances to which we have referred, as though they were totally irrelevant. No one is saying that heritage is the sole reason for the success of the Indian students, but it may well be one possible factor, including serving as a motivational resource to study hard. I am concerned with contributing factors, not monocaual explanations. I still have no idea what kind of explanations you are seeking.

    Please go back and reread some of the evidence that has been adduced in the original post and the comments. Again, I encourage you to watch the films of contemporary Indian reciters cited by turang and Ambarish Sridharanarayanan (and, as I said before, there are many others available if you're interested); read the work of Ebeltje Hartkamp-Jonxis, Joseph C. Miller, Jr, John D. Smith and Ernst van de Wetering on Pabuji's par; take a peek at Painting and Performance; attend a concert of traditional Indian music and think about the organizational principles of the pieces played.

    You are so generous to grant that what I wrote was only "bordering on offensive", yet not really and truly offensive. But is this the kind of comment that we want on Language Log, where we do try to stick to substance and avoid casting aspersion?

    Please tell us what you mean by essentialism in your criticism of what I have written, in light of the issues Phil and I have raised above. And let us know your reaction to the comments of the young Korean scholar on offensiveness that I cited.

    "…essentialistic and bordering on offensive…" — did you intend those characterizations to be deprecatory? provocative? If so, wouldn't it be better to just stick to the substantive issues? If not, what did you mean by them?

    Engage with the materials. Don't just pontificate.

  44. Levantine said,

    August 10, 2013 @ 2:03 pm

    Professor Mair, I have not ignored what you call 'the evidence'. I have several times written that I fully agree that the traditions you and others refer to are alive and well, but that I need convincing as to the relevance of these traditions to good spelling among Indian-American children. You keep mentioning the film brought up Ambarish Sridharanarayanan, and yet you have not in any way acknowledged the rest of his comment. Accepting the continuing vitality of certain venerable traditions does not entail accepting a link between those traditions and other phenomena to which they may be entirely unrelated. As I have said (again repeatedly), if it can be shown that the same individuals steeped in the traditions you cite are the same ones who are good at spelling, then fine, you may well have a point, but the connections you have so far drawn strike me as vague and, yes, essentialistic.

    I have already explained my use of that word and the others you found so inflammatory. I was describing my personal response to your views, and nothing more. I do not expect you to agree with me, just as I shouldn't be expected to agree with you.

    I have responded to Phil directly, and I don't really see what your Korean correspondent's email has to do with me. Just because s/he thinks that the word 'offensive' is too readily invoked, it doesn't mean that I was wrong to use it, particularly given that it truly reflected how I felt.

    As to the kind of explanation I am seeking, I would say one that actually addresses the culture of the individuals in question: that is, the culture of young Americans of South Asian descent who have been brought up in immigrant households. As someone who was himself brought up in a comparable household in the UK, I know that the culture we developed in our new context was very different from that which my parents had left behind, even if there were inevitable continuities.

  45. turang said,

    August 10, 2013 @ 9:08 pm

    If I may take a shot at guessing what the culture of young Americans of South Asian descent may include –
    1. Most of them would be not be directly aware of the intricacies of memorization techniques of old Vedic scholars.

    2. There can be some techniques of memorization derived from old Vedic practices (repetition day-after-day, immediate repetition of new material twice or more times, sounding material out loud, careful monitoring of the student's articulation by the teacher) that they could be aware of and be using without being especially of their origins, since they could have come to them second-hand or nth-hand even, or been re-invented in the milieu in which their recent ancestors grew up.
    3. They would be aware of the possibility of large amounts of memorization. (games like antyakshari require a large repertoire of generally shared material; a number of older people around them would have a few hundred, or even a few thousand lines of verse memorized, religious or otherwise.

    How this background plays out in any specific activity (spelling bees, keeping up with old musical traditions, etc.) would depend on variations in the local environments and what happens currently in these environments.

  46. Levantine said,

    August 10, 2013 @ 9:20 pm

    Turang, that to me seems like a sensible outline of the possibilities. I fully agree with your concluding paragraph.

  47. Victor Mair said,

    August 10, 2013 @ 10:36 pm


    That is an excellent, reasonable, and civil statement, one with which I am in complete agreement. It basically supports what I wrote in my original post and have been trying to get across in my supplementary comments. Thank you very much for spelling it out so clearly and concisely.

  48. Nick Lamb said,

    August 11, 2013 @ 3:23 am

    The social network is a major influence. You arrive in a strange land, far from home with the telephone number of your cousin's husband's sister. She has somewhere you can sleep for a few days at least, and she understands what you're saying without elaborate pantomime. Now you will need a job. She knows many people here, but of them one (let's label him Mister X) stands out as constantly hiring and being sympathetic to people like you from the "old country" who maybe aren't as fluent in local language and customs as they had thought they were. She suggests you talk to Mister X, and soon you are one of hundreds of people from wherever it is you're from, doing whatever Mister X's business is. Maybe you're driving a taxi, or loading ships, or washing windows. But the natives, the people whose ancestors long since forgot where they emigrated from, they notice that people who look like you tend to do that job, and they might wonder if there's some inherent reason. They might even just ask you outright, although it's possible they'll be too afraid of appearing racist. But the truth is it's mostly because of Mister X, who just happened to get into that business forty years ago.

    Even when it seems there's an "obvious" connection it might not be as obvious as you think. Why are so many crew on ships from nations with a history of seafaring? Is it because those people have a special aptitude for the work after generations? Nope, those nations have major ports and that's where you hire a ship's crew. Nobody hires a Swiss crew because there are no ports in Switzerland.

  49. Victor Mair said,

    August 11, 2013 @ 6:24 am

    @Nick Lamb

    Excellent, positive contribution! Much appreciated.

  50. julie lee said,

    August 11, 2013 @ 10:45 am

    @Nick Lamb:
    Yes, Chinese in America have been associated a long time with laundries and restaurants, Indians with operating motels, Japanese with growing vegetables and flowers, Greek with pizza shops, Koreans with dry-cleaning and corner grocery stores, Mexicans with gardening, Jewish people with finance and banking ….
    As to why this is so, I recall Thomas Sowell, leading African-American intellectual, explaining why African-Americans as a whole don't do as well in school as Asians. He explained with "individual capital" and "cultural capital"—individual capital being the individual's own qualities (such as intelligence, industry, perseverance), cultural capital meaning the individual's cultural background.
    It's typical for a Chinese kid to sit down with a book, but not typical for an Afr.-Am. kid. The Afr.-Am. culture is more convivial and gregarious, with emphasis on doing things together.
    (Another Afri-Am. writer called it "the tyranny of the family".) Likewise an Italian-American writer explained why Italian kids typically didn't score as well in school as Asian kids. Italian kids were typically not provided with a desk at home. They were not expected to sit alone with a book. Italians were more convivial people. I remember my own Chinese mom was proud that she didn't let us play a lot. She was always telling us to sit down with a book. And she emphasized that even when we were refugees in the heart of China, she provided us with a square table around which we four sisters could sit down to read and write.
    And this may be a bit off-topic: I was impressed that author Joachim Fest towards the end of his biography of Hitler concluding that the German people were taken in by Hitler and other anti-Semitic writers because of the German reverence for the written word, a cultural trait in Germany. Michael Lewis in his account of how German bankers were the first in 2008 or so to set off the domino effect that ended in the financial crash of 2009 attributed it to the German cultural trait of obedience and deference. German bankers had deferentially looked for cues from Wall Street and had blindly followed American bankers into disaster.
    So with spelling bees, it's good to look at individuals or individual families but also at the larger cultural picture of the ethnic group.

  51. Dave Cragin said,

    August 11, 2013 @ 12:28 pm

    Discussion of “cultural patterns” can be an amazingly strong trigger for negative emotions. Recently on a linkedin Chinese business group, innocuous comments about cultural trends in the US & China ignited personal polemics from individuals from both countries. For some, acknowledging that cultural trends exist really bothers them, but they are obviously real or all cultures would be the same.

    The most useful perspective on culture I’ve ever heard came in a 1-day training class on Fr-US business culture from the Alliance Francais Philadelphia. Here’s what they said:

    When discussing culture, you have to be careful about assuming everyone is the same: every country has regional, ethnic, and individual differences.

    However, they said it’s even more dangerous to assume they are just like you. Most of what you think is human nature is your culture. It’s so much a part of you, you can’t imagine how others might think differently. They illuminated so many differences between French & Americans, I felt the course was worth well more than 50 hours of language class.

    Hence, the idea that the value of participation in spelling bees is perceived differently by various cultures makes much sense. JW Brewer’s cricket example is also on-point. As another example, over 40% of hotels in the US are owned by those from Gujarat India. There is clearly a cultural factor behind this.

  52. Levantine said,

    August 11, 2013 @ 12:50 pm

    Dave Cragin, why must that statistic be attributed to cultural causes? Is there a long tradition of running hotels in Gujarat? As Nick Lamb convincingly outlined, it's far likelier that particular immigrant communities carve out particular niches for themselves in their new environments, perhaps following the lead of the first members of their communities to make the move. The Turkish-Cypriot community in London, to which I belong, is known for running certain kinds of businesses (among them launderettes and fish-and-chip shops) that have absolutely nothing to do with what went on back in Cyprus. My grandmother, whose father was a yoghurt-maker, became a seamstress after her move to London, because that was the only kind of job that she (as a minimally educated woman who spoke no English) could do.

  53. Victor Mair said,

    August 11, 2013 @ 3:41 pm

    @julie lee, @Dave Cragin

    Thank you both very much for your welcome input to the conversation.

    So now we have, by way of summary and among other *possible* factors that have been adduced for the remarkable Indian success in the spelling bees, the following: tradition, exemplary / emulatable models, self-selection, social networks, cultural preferences, willingness to practice, non-aversion to memorization, mnemonic techniques, migration patterns, and so forth.

    Of course, it would be simplistic to assert that any one of these factors accounts for the Indian success. Indeed, it is undoubtedly due to a combination of diverse elements. Conversely, no one is saying that any one of these factors is going to cause all individuals to behave in the same way! Still, there clearly is something (some nexus of reasons) that has enabled Indian contestants to have such a statistically improbable domination in the spelling bees.

    Nothing essentialist or offensive in all this.

    I am grateful to everyone who has made a constructive contribution to our inquiry.

  54. Onymous said,

    August 12, 2013 @ 4:59 am

    Very interesting discussion. It drifts away from the original point into other sensitive issues which indicate to me, a cultural dinosaur born before World War II, how rapidly globalized culture is evolving.

    Remarkable, it seems, that People's Daily recognizes as irreversible the socio-cultural outcome that technology imposes through the overwhelming dependence on keyboard input by Hanyu Pinyin. Hand-drawn character input is also technologically possible. I suppose it's not nearly so much used as pinyin input precisely because of a priori character amnesia. Evidently the need to rely on phonetic computer input tends to reduce, if not fully remove, the distance between spoken and written dimensions of the language as it used to be. Will that ever go to the point of anyone turning to simply writing in pinyin? But even most speech beyond rather basic level — and hence writing in pinyin as well — is deeply tied to implicit expectation that the listener knows the characters that would be used to transcribe the speech. I've seen a comment that many serious academic lectures cannot be understood without having a text to read.

    I'm impressed by how many Chinese seem to prefer to write to each other in English these days. I think it's more than just trying to be an updated version of a 假洋鬼子. I think many Chinese recognize that writing in English promotes, even requires greater clarity of expression than is usually the case in Chinese, and that such clarity is an essential attribute of the evolving technologically dominated global culture. One of the recent widely used second year language texts by Jennifer Liu contains a passage that introduces the topic of regional Chinese accents to the foreign learner. But the concluding sentence ironically says that most Chinese university students are probably more concerned about the quality of their accent in English than in Chinese.

  55. Victor Mair said,

    August 12, 2013 @ 7:52 am


    Wonderful, wonderful comment!!!!

    So insightful and so apposite!

    It is refreshing that someone who learned his / her Chinese so long ago can be so forward looking about it now.

    Thanks for taking us back to the first part of the original post, which was what really prompted me to write it after all.

    A couple of notes:

    1, On jiǎ yángguǐzi 假洋鬼子 ("fake foreign devil[s]"), see:


    2. Your perception about the "implicit expectation that the listener knows the characters that would be used to transcribe the speech" is of particular importance, inasmuch as it points to a potentially profound disconnect between speech and writing that has always existed to a certain degree since the invention of the characters, but is being exacerbated now by creeping character amnesia.

    Every paragraph of your comment merits careful reflection.

  56. JMU said,

    August 12, 2013 @ 9:55 am

    John DeFrancis for one looked forward to a natural growth of digraphia. Onymous points to two concomitant challenges. One is the development of a robust colloquial written style that eschews words for which one must imagine the characters (or rely on a crib) without being too wordy. That may arise naturally, like digraphia. The other is owning up to the fact that Putonghua is an L2 for millions of Chinese. The government's refusal to deal forthrightly with that one is a tougher nut to crack, a bit like getting it to allow multiple time zones.

  57. Stephan Stiller said,

    August 12, 2013 @ 11:40 am

    Many HKers often write in English because their English is sufficiently good and writing in Chinese/MSM is quite difficult, as it requires either knowledge of a structural input method or knowledge of Mandarin character pronunciations (for being able to operate a phonetic input method, which would in HK normally be one based on pinyin). This is on top of the issue of diglossia: despite persistent protestations to the contrary ("we're so used to it, we hardly notice the discrepancy between speech and writing", "conversion from Cantonese to 'written Chinese' is automatic for us"), written Chinese/MSM is quite hard for large parts of the HK population, as is reflected by the frequency of vernacular Cantonese writing in informal communication. I also strongly suspect that the difficulty of writing Chinese/MSM is one reason for the prevalence of oral cellphone communication. (Typing in English requires knowledge of English, which shouldn't be overestimated for the general populace.) That said, input based on character recognition seems to be on the rise.

    In mainland China, even a fully fluent and literate native speaker of Mandarin will constantly need to go back and correct the IME's guesses. When I use pinyin input, I normally use tonal pinyin, which increases accuracy considerably, but most people aren't aware of the existence of tonal pinyin input for (some) pinyin IMEs.

    Even with a good algorithm and database, context is generally incapable of reliably discriminating 他, 她, and 它 (and insufficient for guessing well). For these an IME can in principle offer special input sequences, but that doesn't solve the underlying problem: even for pinyin without tones stripped off, too many homophone words remain. This is because of the nature of the writing system, which creates ambiguity where the spoken language has none (it's always "tā").

    Then of course many speakers are dialectal. It is extremely common for native speakers to not be able to distinguish -in and -ing; this is normal in Shanghai for example. The well-known Taiwanese mergers of zh-/ch-/sh- with z-/c-/s- are also frequent on the mainland, and many people merge n- and l- as well. There are more mergers. The existence of fuzzy-input settings in pinyin-based IMEs reflects the fact that these are problematic.

  58. Jerome Chiu said,

    August 12, 2013 @ 12:09 pm

    The Indian cultural heritage of memorizing texts – one really needs to personally encounter it, i.e. see it and hear it, to believe it.

    I've heard stories of learners of Sanskrit chatting with Indians in Indian trains, which frequently, if not invariably, include anecdote after anecdote of the Indian learning of the fact that the foreigner chatting with him is learning Sanskrit, and then delightedly move into "recitation mode", i.e. reciting from a famous Indian text (most commonly the Bhagavad Gītā) as an act of sharing, fully expecting his fellow passenger to join in, only to discover that this "learner of Sanskrit" has rather surprisingly not committed much of his Sanskrit to memory.

    We have to wonder how strong this heritage is going right now, but piecemeal information such as what we see in the film 3 Idiots tells us that rote learning is still quite universal in India, and the way it is done there is rather extreme by "global" standard. We also discover in the film that one of the protagonists attempts (but eventually gives up doing it) to perform the Vedic fire ritual in his dorm room, which might be looked upon as a reflection of Indian cultural conservatism, and the degree to which it still influences contemporary Indian life.

    The recently deceased Indologist Frits Staal did field work in a remote part of South Western India where he found small tribes of Vedic adherents still living their lives very much the Vedic way. He published some of the results in his book Agni in 1975. The abiding memory of reading this book is the account on how the Veda is transmitted from one generation to another, and the abiding image of this memory is the teacher grabbing the head of his pupil like a joystick, swinging it to, fro and sideways to keep it inline with each of the 3 correct accents. Thankfully we now have a video of this in youtube (the joystick method could be seen rather early on, at 1:09):

    The Wikipedia entry on smṛti includes several mnemonic techniques the Indians use, but I am sure there are other similar and equally effective ones not recorded there. I once heard a tape recording of a brahmin reciting Rig Veda 1.1.1 as a demonstration of how it is done, and it goes like this:

    (1) The whole verse with sandhi (internal and external);
    (2) The whole verse without sandhi (neither internal nor external);
    (3) Word1Word2, Word2Word1; W1W2, W2W3, W3W2W1; W1W2, W2W3, W3W4, W4W3W2W1; and so forth).

    I was convinced, there and then, that there was no way that a text memorized like this would let any inaccuracies creep in.

    And the Aṣṭādhyāyī of Pāṇini being "extremely terse and almost mathematical in their precision"? That's a huge understatement, Professor! What's with those "letters" used in it working like symbols in mathematical logic and also inflect correctly just like anything Sanskrit prescribed by Pāṇini should, certainly not least within the Aṣṭādhyāyī itself?

  59. Victor Mair said,

    August 12, 2013 @ 12:57 pm

    @Jerome Chiu

    The concrete, detailed, and vivid examples of Indian memorization techniques you have provided are very much to the point and deeply appreciated as a valuable addition to this thread.

  60. JS said,

    August 12, 2013 @ 10:55 pm

    The 2013 competition is showing up on Youtube; the first semifinal is here. For those tired of 'sneeze' and 'toad', it's interesting to note that the first two characters to give contestants pause (starting 6:30ish in) are 歇 and 嚼, independently writing the extremely common words xie1 'rest' and jiao2 'chew'. But if anything, the conclusion would seem to be that speakers of Chinese, though dealing with an exponentially more challenging task, are essentially similar to speakers of English in their increasingly casual attitude towards "spelling" — the ti2bi3wang4zi4 phenomenon, after all, is if more pronounced nonetheless parallel to English speakers' frequent reports of increasing reliance on computerized spell checkers.

  61. Victor Mair said,

    August 12, 2013 @ 11:52 pm


    There's a huge difference. Guess what it is.

  62. Apollo Wu said,

    August 13, 2013 @ 1:41 am

    Cultural gene (renamed as meme by Prof. Dawkins) is a powerful factor in human society, conditioning all aspects of a society. With a deep-rooted Chinese meme, most Chinese feel comfortable with their writing system, ignoring its shortcomings in comparison with alphabetic languages and English in particular. In a world with billions of people, biological genetic changes do not have much impact as it is difficult to influence a large number of descendants. However, memetic changes can create global changes with the means of advanced communications. This is evidence in the modern awareness of Global Warming etc. Progressive language policy as far as it tend to create memetic change will be very effective for cultural evolution for a better world. I believe a comparison of the Korean and Chinese writing systems and their cultural implications would be very interesting indeed.

  63. Anna Tchetchetkine said,

    August 14, 2013 @ 3:09 am

    I know I'm coming to this discussion late, but there's one relevant consideration I haven't seen anyone mention in the question of why there are so many spelling bee winners with Indian heritage, much more than with (for instance) Chinese heritage: their parents (often) speak very good English.

    Kids are more likely to win high-profile competitions when their parents support them and help them in these areas. Many (though not all) immigrants from all parts of Asia are a self-selected group of highly skilled professionals with an exceptional drive for providing a good life to their kids – so such parents are likely to help kids in this kind of endeavor. Tech professionals from just about any country can help their kids with math or programming, but spelling bees are based on English, and while most immigrants do learn English eventually, if they didn't speak it in their home country, it usually takes them a while to learn to speak it well, and maybe never perfectly. This gives parents from non-English-speaking countries a disadvantage in helping their child prepare for a spelling bee (even if the child is perfectly fluent themselves). India, for all its linguistic diversity, IS an English-speaking country, especially in the higher classes (which immigrants disproportionately come from), so they have that advantage over many other immigrants.

    I should acknowledge that I got this reason from reading a great analysis of this issue from someone I know who came very close to winning the Scripps bee: http://www.quora.com/Indian-Americans/Why-is-it-that-so-many-grade-school-level-national-competitions-e-g-the-Scripps-National-Spelling-Bee-are-won-by-Americans-of-Indian-descent

  64. Victor Mair said,

    August 14, 2013 @ 10:05 am

    "Why Chinese Kids Are Terrible At Spelling Bees"


    All students in China learn to read through Hanyu Pinyin. In the last sentence of the article cited here, we read that "lead scientist Li-Hai Tan suggested kids don't learn pinyin-based typing until they're past elementary school." That is an extraordinarily retrograde approach. If China is looking for a REVOLUTION, the quickest way to start one is to take away everybody's pinyin-entry cell phones and computers.

  65. Victor Mair said,

    August 14, 2013 @ 10:12 am

    @Anna Tchetchetkine

    Thank you very much for your valuable comment. I agree that the advanced English ability of Indian parents is another factor that we must take into consideration when trying to understand why Indian students excel in spelling contests. But what about immigrants from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Singapore and other countries where education is of high quality and English is widely (and well) spoken? While the advanced English ability of Indian parents is undoubtedly an asset, we can't lose sight of the other factors mentioned in this long discussion.

  66. Colin Fine said,

    August 15, 2013 @ 3:36 am

    One of the things that makes this discussion interesting is that it relates to a quaint and utterly alien custom (for a Brit) called the spelling bee.

  67. dw said,

    August 16, 2013 @ 11:34 am

    @Colin Fine

    quaint and utterly alien custom (for a Brit) called the spelling bee

    Perhaps alien no longer: http://www.timesspellingbee.co.uk/

  68. Victor Mair said,

    September 15, 2013 @ 9:40 pm


  69. Victor Mair said,

    November 7, 2013 @ 9:52 pm

    Indian choral group in Cincinnati

    Across America, Voices Rise To Reinvent India


    Video link at the bottom of the page. Excellent footage.

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