Indian-American Whiz Kids Continue to Dominate the National Spelling Bee
By Geeta Goindi
National Harbor, Maryland, May 26, 2016 – For the third consecutive year, the Scripps National Spelling Bee ended in a tie with Indian-American whiz kids, Jairam Hathwar, 13, of New York, and Nihar Janga, 11, of Texas, crowned co-champions.
Jairam is the second sibling winner and Nihar among the youngest champions in the Bee’s 89-year history.
The winning words were ‘Feldenkrais’ (a somatic educational system) for Jairam and ‘Gesellschaft’ (a social relationship based on impersonal ties) for Nihar. Each of them will receive a cash prize of $40,000 and the Bee’s engraved trophy.
Dr. Jacques Bailly, official pronouncer and former champion (1980) of the Bee, marveled at the manner in which Nihar was competing, aptly describing it as “robotic precision”.
Nihar attributed his win to his mother. “It’s just my Mom”, he gushed, on stage after being pronounced co-winner. “I’m just speechless. I can’t say anything. I’m only in fifth grade”, he reminded an audience enthralled by his proficiency in spelling, and knowledge far exceeding his 11 years.
“It was just insane”, said Jairam, about being declared co-champ. “I don’t even know how to describe it”, he added, clearly in a daze.
Both boys competed with 283 other spellers in grueling rounds held since Tuesday at the sprawling and scenic Gaylord Resort and Convention Center, National Harbor, Maryland.
All 285 contestants – 144 boys and 141 girls, ranging in age from 6 to 15 years — emerged from an original pool of 11 million spellers who competed in regional contests held across the country.
Of the 45 finalists who were competing in the National Spelling Bee on Thursday morning, some 50 percent were of Indian descent. By afternoon, that number had dwindled to ten spellers who were heading to the Final contest, of which seven were Indian-Americans.
Following the 2016 edition of the National Spelling Bee, Indian-American kids have now won the acclaimed competition for nine consecutive years, and all but four of the last 17 years. The previous two years have seen the winners in a tie: Vanya Shivashankar and Gokul Venkatachalam (2015); Sriram Hathwar (Jairam’s older brother) and Ansun Sujoe (2014).
These statistics are mind-boggling given the fact that Americans of Indian descent constitute barely one percent of the US population.
We queried Valerie Miller, Manager of External Communications at The E.W. Scripps Company which administers the National Spelling Bee, about the dominance of Indian-American kids in the competition.
“First of all, the Scripps National Spelling Bee would want to point out and remind everybody that all of these kids are American kids”, she emphasized. “A lot of people assume and point out that because of the color of their skins, or their culture or their backgrounds, that these aren’t American kids, but they are”.
Miller saw “a determination, a commitment to practicing to studying for years and years” in the Bee’s spellers. “We see as in past recent champions, the repeaters, the kids who have come back multiple years, that for them to give that much commitment to the craft of learning spelling and to really understanding the origins of the words, the roots of the words, to pick a really large or difficult word apart into its pieces, to put the puzzle pieces together to spell out the word correctly, is really quite a talent and it’s a skill that they have developed through exhaustive practice and studying”, she said. So, it’s really all about commitment and what they have dedicated their lives to at this point in time, which is determining their success”.
We pressed on. Do you find this level of commitment unique to American kids of Indian descent? Miller replied, “I think it’s unique to kids in the Spelling Bee regardless of their ancestry. All of the kids dedicate time and energy and effort into preparing for the Bee. They have to be committed in order to reach this level”.
Jairam’s profile on the Bee’s web-site reveals that he hopes to attend Harvard University to study medicine so he can become a physician. A seventh grader at The Alternative School for Math and Science in Corning, Jairam is interested in golf, politics and devoutly follows the elections. Every year, during summer, he travels to India.
Nihar’s profile reads, he “loves spelling” and “puts a lot of determination and dedication into learning new words”. He likes movies that motivate him to become “a beneficially influential citizen”. A promising student at River Ridge Elementary School in Austin, Nihar aspires to be a neurosurgeon to develop cures for serious brain disorders.
No dearth of brilliance here, both of the intellect and the soul!
At a press conference on Wednesday, 6-year-old Akash Vukoti, of San Angelo, Texas, was in the spotlight deftly handling questions from journalists.
Akash, who spelt his first word ‘Spoon’ at the age of 1.5 years, is the youngest finalist in this year’s competition and the second youngest ever in the history of the Bee. Together with English, he speaks Telugu and Hindi, and is proficient in all.
We asked him how he felt competing with kids as old as 15. “I’m ready to get those 15-year-olds out of the way”, he replied to much laughter.
Then thoughtfully, he added, “I’m not trying to get past the 15-year-olds. I’m trying to get past the dictionary. The dictionary is the thing that you compete with”, he told us.
The crowd erupted in cheers when he correctly spelled ‘inviscate’ in the Preliminaries. Even when he bowed out of the competition, misspelling the word ‘bacteriolytic’ by using an ‘a’ rather than an ‘o’ in the middle, Akash remained a scene stealer vowing to come back next year. He received a standing ovation and high fives as he left the stage. Definitely, the ‘Spellebrity’ of the contest!
“This is the biggest group of word nerds in the world”, Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large at Merriam-Webster, told the gathering of spellers at the opening ceremony on Monday night. When he queried how many people in the room read the dictionary, several raised their hands in affirmation.