Although I write reasonably well (so they say), I am not a good speller. Maybe it is something in my brain, which has similar difficulties remembering phone numbers. Maybe it is a feeling that I have that spelling a word correctly is not that important. So what if you spell a word with one “s” instead of two or use “c” instead of an “s”? As long as the reader gets it, what difference does it make? Also, in these days and age where your spellings get corrected automatically, why waste time in learning how to spell?
In this I am somewhat of a contrarian, considering the success Indian Americans enjoy at the Spelling Bee competitions. Obviously, some parents think that spelling correctly is very important. I had my own run in with a niece of mine who called me out for spelling a word incorrectly on a FaceBook post. I was irritated because the post referred to some gorgeous photos I had taken and I never thought anyone would be hung up on spelling.
Given my opinion about spelling, my initial reaction at Indians excelling in that area was — -why not excel at something that matters more in life than spelling? Although I have not moved from that position entirely, my thinking now is more nuanced. Having seen a recent documentary “Spelling the Dream” on Netflix helped me along.
Indians are not noted for physical prowess. In a country obsessed with success in sports this is a problem. You would almost never see an Indian athlete in any sport in US. Even in Olympics, the Indian performance is a disaster, winning hardly any medals while the athletes from another big Asian country rack up a hoard of medals.
Indians, meanwhile, are very good at intellectual pursuits. To make their children excel in studies is the primary goal of most Indian parents. So, for an Indian kid to be really good at anything in school, it has got to be intellectually oriented. Everyone wants to excel at something, it is human nature. No surprise then that Indians gravitate toward something like Spelling Bee where he/she can achieve high status.
Another benefit that the participants in Spelling Bee get is that they get exposed to a vast number of words that otherwise they would not know about. That may help them communicate better…express a thought more accurately than before. To communicate well is so important that this skill can take them far in their professional and social worlds.
There is no intrinsic reason why Indian Americans dominate Spelling Bee competitions, and not, say, Chinese Americans. One possibility is that most Indian who emigrated to this country got their English education in the good old days when perfect grammar and spellings mattered. They take their way of learning a language and impose it on their children. Once the dominance in a competition is established, it is hard to break because others with the same background have role models to follow, and the cycle continues. So here we are.
Finally, I am delighted that there are competitions that reward intellectual prowess and not just athletic. The intellectuals deserve to be recognized far more than they currently are. How many people know about Michael Jordan and how many Tim Berners-Lee? One was a great basketball player, the other changed the world by inventing the World Wide Web. It is about time our society recognizes intellectuals. In much the same way as athletes.