South Asian Dominance Of Spelling Bee 'Not A Coincidence'Play
This year's Scripps National Spelling Bee ended in a tie. Vanya Shivashankar, 13, of Olathe, Kansas, and Gokul Venkatachalum, 14, of Chesterfield, Missouri, battled until the very end - sharing the coveted title.
Both winners are of South Asian descent, and during the finals, six of the remaining seven participants were also South Asian.
One anthropologist says there's a reason for that. Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson spoke with Northwestern University professor Shalini Shankar, who has been studying South Asian dominance of spelling bee culture.
"I think that the activity of spelling bees has grown in prestige among certain South Asian-American communities," Shankar said. "I would say that it's not a uniform phenomenon among South Asian-American communities, but among those that do value this activity, they've really taken to it and they compete year round in different spelling bee circuits."
So what kind of preparation goes into winning a national spelling bee? The short answer is, a lot. So much that Shivashankar says she has heard her winning word, scherenschnitte - a German word for the art of paper cutting - "a bunch of times."
"You cannot win a national championship of this caliber unless you really dedicate hours a day, probably year round."Shalini Shankar
"You cannot win a national championship of this caliber unless you really dedicate hours a day, probably year round," Shankar says. "They make lists out of Merriam-Webster's Dictionary, which is probably why Vanya could say, 'I've seen that word several times,' because they're very thorough in their preparation. Additionally, they study root dictionaries of Latin roots, Greek roots and so on, and that really helps them decode words on the spot."
That preparation can take a toll, Shankar says, especially after spellers have passed the age of 15, the maximum age for entering the national spelling bee.
"One speller I interviewed had a very clever phrase that she and others used, which was 'PTSD' or 'post-traumatic spelling disorder,' because they have spent an inordinate amount of time focusing on spelling, and many of them really miss it," she says. "But because they have such active Facebook groups and Google groups, they do stay in touch with each other, and I think they continue to share their love of words with one another as they go through middle school and high school."
Shankar says that while adjusting to life after spelling bees can be difficult, most spellers go on to college and into a wide variety of careers.
"I think that they can do whatever they want," she says. "They're just so smart."
- Shalini Shankar, associate professor of anthropology and Asian American studies at Northwestern University. She tweets @shalini_shankar.
This segment aired on May 29, 2015.