“Psammophile” — a sand-loving plant or animal — spelled success this week for Dev Shah, the winner of the prestigious Scripps National Spelling Bee.
For British Columbia’s Parnavdeep Singh Kundi, who prevailed May 23 as Canada’s top speller, it was “Erse,” the word for the Scottish or Irish Gaelic language.
And when Chicago’s Balu Natarajan won the Scripps competition way back in 1985, he took the spot by correctly spelling the word “milieu.”
The three words have nothing in common. The winners do.
Students of Indian and South Asian heritage are beasts of the “bees,” as spelling-bee afficionados call the competitions. In Canada and the U.S., they dominate the contests, they crowd the podiums and their spelling success is a source both of pride and celebration.
“It’s no different than if you want to be a classic violinist or you want to go and be a Division One soccer athlete or Olympic figure skater. Then it’s a matter of, ‘Am I interested in putting four-to-14 hours a day towards succeeding in this?” says Natarajan, now the chief executive of the North South Foundation, an educational charity that uses profits from its own national spelling bees to provide scholarships to deserving children in India.
“We have a notable percentage of kids in our community for whom the answer is yes.”
It takes intense discipline and maturity by preteens — competitive spellers age out in the eighth grade. And there are diverse opinions about all the secrets of these students’ successes — from the growing prevalence of role models and coaches, to the belief that the bees are a path to greater success in life, to a tradition of polyglotism for some.
Not to mention, of course, parental influence.
Nagina Parmar admits now, many years later, that she pushed her daughter to take part in spelling bee competitions as a child in the hope that that she would stand out for her abilities.
“I came here (to Canada) 28 years ago and felt that (she) needed to be recognized and needed to be seen as being smart, intelligent, and that (she) can do this,” said the president of Spelling Bee of Canada, the organization that runs the national competition in this country.
“I’m a parent who actually pushed it early on.”
By the time her younger son followed his sister into the competitions at the age of six — and was quickly eliminated after receiving the word “awful” and spelling it “a-f-u-l” — Parmar’s grip on her children’s spelling career had loosened considerably.
Navya Murugesan got into the letters game back in the second grade, at a time when her family was waiting for approval from U.S. immigration authorities for a Green Card, which would allow them to remain in the country.
While her parents fretted about their possible return to India, Murugesan heard about the spelling competition and the prize — a $25 gift card — with which she planned to buy a solar-powered watch.
She won that initial class competition, then swept the schoolwide contest, and placed fourth at the regional spell-off. She continued competing in the following years, and realized the full amount of effort and preparation that goes into elite-level spelling bee success.
She achieved it herself in 2014 when she qualified for Scripps, the linguistic equivalent of the Olympics.
Competitors “study all year round to achieve that one goal,” said Murugesan, who now coaches spellers from her home in Baton Rouge, La., where she studies neuroscience at Tulane University with the hope of attending medical school.
She charges $15-an-hour for spelling-bee prep. Some coaches charge more than 13 times her rate — up to $200-an-hour.
Dev Shah, who hoisted the Scripps trophy this week, is said to have studied a brain-punishing 10 hours a day.
Sometimes, though, it is the adults who want it more than the kids.
“You can tell when you’re coaching if the student’s interest really lies here,” Murugesan said, recalling a former student who loved chess but was less enthusiastic about spelling.
That student made it all the way to the state level before convincing his parents to let him stop competing in spelling bees, but then proceeded to “take chess to the next level.”
There was no such conflict for Natarajan, who broke the spelling-bee colour barrier back in 1985, at the age of 13.
Before him, the winners had surnames like Pipkin, Walters, Calvin and Van Slyke III.
After him, the winners were named Ramachandran, Lala, Gunturi, Raja, Veeramani and Vinay.
The spoken language at home was Tamil, but Natarajan’s mother had an influential uncle who taught English. This meant that he and his brother were responsible for reading, but also for mastering the more technical aspects of the language and its usage.
This was his advantage when he competed in his first spelling bee in 1982.
“There were no major aspirations when we started. It was really just a home-based love for the English language and respect for it, and then that became much bigger — far bigger than anything we had ever really dreamed of,” said Natarajan.
A couple of things happened as a result of his 1985 Scripps win.
It reinforced for him as a teenager the power of hard work and the family bond — his mother was his coach and his father often took time off work to help him prepare.
It also made him something of an Indian-American celebrity.
“Every week, there was some Indian-American event. The Punjabi group would call me to go and speak and then the Gujarati group — for every group, whatever their summer event was, they were calling and saying, ‘Hey, can you come and give a speech?’”
And those speeches — penned by Natarajan’s accountant father, read by the young word master — sparked a fire that quickly spread.
It eventually spread so far, he said, that it seemed as though everyone in the diaspora knew someone who knew someone who could serve as inspiration, teacher or guide that was capable of pointing potential super-spellers in the right direction.
That is not to discount the amount of “grit” it takes to succeed.
Natarajan’s own children are both former Scripps contestants — one in 2018 and 2019, the other in 2022.
“Twelve months out of the year, these kids put in anywhere from two-to-eight hours a day, and each kid did that for a matter of five, six, seven years,” Natarajan said.
Success on the spelling bee stage also corresponds to educational and professional success later in life.
Natarajan is a palliative-care doctor and chief medical officer at a Chicago hospice, in addition to running the educational charity. Unlike his father, he could not take time off his work pursuits to help his boys train for their Scripps adventures.
Murugesan, who stays in touch with the 2014 Scripps alumni, says many of them are pursuing post-graduate university degrees with an eye toward careers in medicine, law and engineering.
Most agree that skills that lead to success in spelling bees — ambitious goal-setting, dedication, linguistic and cognitive abilities and performance under intense pressure — also result in later-life reward.
But there may be other advantages that are taught in the home from the earliest age.
Radhika Dutta, who runs Vidya, a Brampton-based tutoring service that runs spelling bee competitions for between 75 and 100 students, explained that competitors receive word lists ahead of the competitions.
The best have every single word memorized, as well as its definition.
Sometimes, that skill can be learned through their Indian-educated parents, said Dutta, who moved to Texas from India at the age of 10, then relocated to this country 12 years ago.
“They have these memorization skills that could be considered a lot better than kids of their age in their schools. It’s a skill that has been passed on.”
Some south Asian children are also likely to have a fluidity with language that comes from being exposed to different tongues. In many cases, they grow up learning how to hop over linguistic hurdles thrown in their path.
In Dutta’s case, English was her native language while Hindi and Bengali were mandatory in school. Natarajan, the 1985 Scripps champion, spoke Tamil at home and English at school. Murugesan, the spelling-bee tutor, also spoke Tamil, as well as Saurashtra, another southern Indian language, in addition to English and a bit of French, which she learned at school.
“Even if it is a word they don’t really know or haven’t heard before, they can figure out the phonetics from their language and the other languages they know,” said Dutta. “It’s something that they’ve grown up with.”
Whatever it is, and however they get it, there are kids walking the earth right now with large chunks of the English dictionary burned into their brains. They are kids who know how to spell words like “erysipelas” (a bacterial infection of the skin), “auslaut” (the final sound in a word or syllable), “knaidel” (a dumpling eaten by Jews at Passover), “cymotrichous” (an adjective describing wavy hair).
They are as nimble with words as young gymnasts are with their bendy bodies.
For some, this spelling superpower is something to be celebrated. For others, something to be regarded with awe and curiosity.
Natarajan confided that he only found out much later that some were intimidated by his early word wisdom.
“It wasn’t quite so cool to be a nerd back then,” he said. “It is much cooler to be smart today.”
JOIN THE CONVERSATION
does not endorse these opinions.