June 04, 2005

How well do you spell?

I had a strange message waiting for me on my office voice-mail yesterday. A reporter from The San Diego Union-Tribune called to see if I knew anything about "why these children from India seem to be doing so well in spelling bee contests". The reporter clarified that he was not sure whether I (or we? I don't know if anyone else in my corner of Language Log Plaza also got this call) knew anything about this sort of thing, that at this point he was just on a fishing expedition, etc.

[Update, 6/5: two readers have sent me links to two related articles published this week: one on ESPN.com (6/2), the other in NYT (6/5). And here's the UT article (6/5).]

To be honest, I'm a little curious -- not so much about the abilities of "these children from India" (and let's put aside the reporter's poor choice of phrase here) but rather more about whether it is even true that "children from India" are doing significantly better than the norm on spelling bees. (I'm also a bit curious about what counts as being "from India" -- are we talking about first- or second-generation? But that's a separate question.)

So I went to the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee website, where I found that this year's winner -- just this past week -- was 13-year-old Anurag Kashyap of Poway, California. Poway is in San Diego County, about 20-30 minutes north of the city of San Diego. And Anurag was sponsored by The San Diego Union-Tribune.

So now I'm thinking that this has more to do with the Tribune wanting to put a little angle on a story about the National Spelling Bee winner that they've just sponsored. But looking at the list of National Spelling Bee winners, it turns out that 5 of the last 7 champions (including this year's champ) are "from India" -- which I at first tentatively discerned with the childrens' names, but quickly verified by finding this article about how there were "12 Indian kids" (out of 51 total) in the final round of this year's National Spelling Bee. According to the article:

Indian American children have doen [sic] very well in the Spelling Bee competition over the years. Balu Natraj became the first Indian American champion in 1985, followed by Rageshree Ramachandran in 1988, and later by Nupur Lala in 1999, George Thampy in 2000, Pratyush Buddiga in 2002 and Sai R Gunturi in 2003.

Coincidentally, the 1999 National Spelling Bee (when the streak of 5 began) was the one covered in the surprisingly compelling 2002 documentary about the National Spelling Bee, Spellbound. Both the 1999 champ, Nupur Lala, and another Indian American, Neil Kadakia, were among the 8 kids profiled in the film. The 2000 champ, George Thampy, also makes an appearance, and there are at least two other Indian names in the list of 21 credited and uncredited cast members on IMDB.

I'm still not sure what the significance of all this is (in the statistical sense, I mean), and I'm certainly not in a position to speculate about any possible reasons should it turn out to be significant -- which is why I probably won't be calling that reporter back. But this other article (which I dug up to comment on here) reminded me of something about Neil Kadakia in Spellbound:

Neil of San Clemente has an affluent, East Indian father who supervises a rigorous regimen of drills and tutors. Back in India, a relative has paid 1,000 people to chant prayers for Neil during the bee.

Neil didn't win, but he got far. He and his older sister Shivani are quite accomplished in other areas, so perhaps all the chanting has been successful. And maybe the spelling bee winners have had more than 1,000 chanters in their respective corners. Or perhaps better tutors.

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at June 4, 2005 03:25 PM