How Indian kids dominate American spelling-bee contests

Last Updated 15 July 2010, 15:50 IST

Catering to just kids from India and neighbouring nations, some of these competitions have big-name sponsors and hefty cash prizes. Spelling bees are carried live on Indian-theme satellite stations and are covered by Indian newspapers, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Though Indian-Americans make up a mere 1 percent of the population, they have come to dominate the American spelling-bee circuit. Eight of the past 12 Scripps champions have been of Indian descent-including the last three in a row.

The 2002 documentary "Spellbound," which followed eight teenagers as they prepared for and took part in the 1999 bee, helped put Indian dominance on the map. That year, the $40,000 grand prize went to Nupur Lala, an Indian-American girl who correctly spelled "logorrhea" in the final round.

In the coming season of the ABC reality TV show "Shaq vs.," in which Shaquille O'Neal challenges top athletes at their own sports, the winner of last year's Scripps National Spelling Bee, 14-year-old Kavya Shivashankar, will be shown competing in a spell-off against O'Neal in the fall.

For all their success, Indian-Americans have only recently become the masters of competitive spelling, the Journal said.

In 1989, Ratnam Chitturi, founder of the non-profit North South Foundation, which stages regional and national academic contests for Indian-American children, noticed that in standardised tests Indian-Americans were consistently performing above average in every subject but English.

He set out to change that by creating a spelling bee pitched just to Indian-Americans. The first competition was held in 1993, and it has since spread to 75 locations throughout the country. Today, about 3,000 children, ranging from 1st to 8th grade, participate each year.

When Lala won the Scripps bee in 1999, Rahul Walia, an advertising executive who lives in New Jersey, sensed a business opportunity.
He launched the South Asian Spelling Bee in 2008, figuring that allowing South Asian kids to go head to head would make it extra competitive. About 400 kids under 14 compete at the nine regional South Asian Spelling Bees. At the finals, the winner claims a $10,000 grand prize.

Companies such as insurer MetLife Inc. and Indian travel site Yatra.com help underwrite the competition. While the kids prepare, MetLife gives their parents a presentation about financial planning.

(Published 15 July 2010, 07:16 IST)

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