Why Are Indian Kids So Good at Spelling?

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May 31 2013 12:19 PM

Why Are Indian Kids So Good at Spelling?

Because they have their own minor-league spelling bee circuit.

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Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

After Spellbound, that changed a bit. After Balu Natarajan (winning word: milieu) became the first Indian-American to win Scripps back in 1985, he went on to a career in sports medicine. When Lala did it in 1999 with logorrhea, she became a movie star. (OK, a movie star and a neuroscientist.) Kavya has called Lala an inspiration—the license plate of Mirle's teal minivan reads "SPL BND." She's far from alone. In 2002, NSF had less than 20 chapters pulling in about 500 mostly middle-school-age spellers. Then pop culture galvanized an expansion to elementary schoolers; today, six times as many students compete in North South Foundation spelling events. "The parents were just excited," Chitturi says. "They saw that it was a possibility [to win the National Spelling Bee]."

It's no coincidence, then, that in the last decade North South Foundation has transformed from an SAT prep course into a training ground for Scripps. It wasn't too long ago that NSF standouts like Kamran Riaz and 2000 champion Ashley Thakur didn't compete at the National Spelling Bee. Riaz, for one, remembers NSF as a nice "alternative" to Scripps. Thakur's thoughts on the National Spelling Bee: "Not to brag, but I don't think it would be a hard cake to cut," she once bragged to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

It's not quite right to say that Riaz and Thakur didn't go to nationals because they didn't think it was a big deal. The more significant reason is that they simply weren't eligible. You have to be more than a great speller to qualify for the National Bee—you also have to live in a school district with a sponsoring newspaper or community organization. These days, parents seem to be paying a lot more attention to such logistics. When Mirle Shivashankar realized in 2005 that there was just one Scripps sponsor in all of Kansas, he beat the bushes to ensure that more kids from the state—his daughter, for one—would have the chance to go to nationals. Kavya subsequently gained all of her berths to the nationals by virtue of a brand-new sponsor, the Olathe News.

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The North South Foundation could dominate Scripps even further, if more of its spellers were eligible to compete. In areas with more gifted NSFers than competition zones, the battle to get into Scripps can be intense. Whereas regional North South Foundation competitions are run like standardized tests—the best scores get weighted against a national average to determine the national finalists—Scripps operates more like a crazy single-elimination tournament. The winner in each local bracket funnels into a pool of finalists, who repeat the same process to pick a winner. That can lead to some powerhouse regional showdowns. In San Jose, Calif., for instance, eventual 2009 NSF senior co-champion Ramya Auroprem had to beat out 2009 NSF runner-up Sidarth Jayadev just to make it into last year's National Spelling Bee finals.

North South Foundation winners don't have to worry about Kavya Shivashankar anymore—she has retired. At the Shawnee NSF contest this April, Swetha Jasti placed first, with a perfect score that qualified her for NSF nationals later this summer. But unfortunately for Jasti, she won't make it to Scripps this year. When the National Spelling Bee starts up this week, their region will be represented by a surprise challenger: Kavya's 8-year-old sister, Vanya, who drubbed Jasti in the National Spelling Bee's Olathe qualifier.

For youngsters like Vanya, this is Scripps' best selling point: Whereas the North South Foundation still divides contestants into junior and senior levels, the National Spelling Bee has no minimum age requirement. Vanya, who has taken to referring to herself and her sister as the Eli and Peyton Manning of spelling, will be the youngest competitor in Washington, D.C., this year. When ESPN recently showed up in Kansas to film a miniprofile for the contest, she grinned unabashedly. "Now it's my turn," she proclaimed to the room full of cameras. As with most things in the life of an NSF standout, the moment seemed well-rehearsed.

Ben Paynter is a writer in Kansas City.

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