Why do Indian Americans win national spelling/geography bees?

Have you ever wondered why Indian-American children are often the winners of national spelling bees and geography bees? The Wall Street Journal staff did and they have theories.

Take for example this year’s Scripps Spelling Bee. The top three finishers are all Indian American. In fact, this is the fifth straight year that an Indian American had won the Spelling Bee, and the tenth time in the last 14 years.

A similar scene happens at the National Geography Bee. This year Indian Americans took the top four positions.

But why do Indian Americans succeed at these events or as The Wall Street Journal called it “ ‘The Desi Hunger Games’?”

From The Wall Street Journal India

“[Amardeep Singh, an associate professor of English at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania] says Indian American success in bees is probably due to four factors: the positive reinforcement effect; highly educated immigrant parents; the Indian educational system’s emphasis on rote learning; and the competitive advantage provided by the “farm leagues” for South Asian American children, such as North South Foundation.”

“Mr. Singh believes that it is also the enthusiasm and passion of the children themselves that complements parental pressure to succeed.”

“The first generation immigrant parent brings with her/him a set of memories about how education works and what is to be valued. For Indians that is a memory of endless class tests doled out on a regular basis to evaluate our ability to retrieve information — spellings of words, names of world capitals, cash crops of states, length of rivers, height of mountains, and a plethora of minutiae charmingly labeled as General Knowledge,” adds Sharmila Sen, who taught English at Harvard University and is currently executive editor at the Harvard University Press.

“In America, we find out that our children are educated at the secondary level in a radically different way [to in India]. So, when we find out about the great American tradition of the bee, we think we can assimilate as well as anyone,” she told IRT.”

“Ms. Sen believes that Indian American parents encourage kids to process information in a way we were once encouraged to do, and we value the rewards that come with that form of information processing.”

So what do you think? (Please be nice and not racist.)

38 comments Add your comment

motherjanegoose

June 4th, 2012
7:01 am

I can’t speak specifically about the spelling bee but I think many Indian families are more focused on the success of their children. Last week, I mentioned the lady who sat next to me on the plane as we discussed SAT testing. She was the one who shared that her daughter took a prep test and is going to GA Tech in the fall. Her husband is a very successful Professor at Tech. she told me that they had an arranged marriage and also had nothing when they came to America. They are in their 40’s. I shared how there were many Indian students who were in Pharmacy School with my son. We discussed their work ethic and drive to succeed. I admire parents who model diligence and a desire to learn to ultimately better themselves. Children are watching. Parents who work hard and value education pass this along. Many families miss this aspect.

motherjanegoose

June 4th, 2012
7:02 am

Respectfully, Indian American families…sorry.

malleesmom

June 4th, 2012
7:33 am

MJG is correct in her first sentence other than omitting the word “academic” in relation to success. In relation to the most recent winner, she spent 4-6 hrs daily practicing, 10-12 on the weekend. It wasn’t a fluke, just hard work. How many families would put that kind of time into something academic? The family focus for the Indian culture is different. plain and simple

This is Mrs. Norman Maine

June 4th, 2012
7:33 am

An Indian-American physician once told me that from a very young age, they are pressured to succeed academically and this is done at the expense of everything else. He stated that basically he as a young man had no other choice. His exact words were “We have no other life”. He did not say this with a teary-eyed nostalgia or with a certain amount of pride either. In fact, he seemed somewhat bitter about this.

Jeff

June 4th, 2012
7:44 am

It appears they value cometition and success instead of the “we’re all winners here so we aren’t going to keep score” mentality we’ve devolped with our kids. I’m happy for anyone who puts effort into something and becomes successful.

motherjanegoose

June 4th, 2012
7:51 am

@malleesmom…thank you and I agree with you.

@ Mrs. Norman..yes,balance is important too.

As a parent of two who are in college, we often ask ourselves if we did things correctly or what would we have done differently. My daughter teased me last week that she was not allowed to get cotton candy whenever she wanted to, as a girl. On my end, I think it was a cross between teeth and expense of something that was not really necessary. Wanting your children to be successful seems like a good thing but sometimes other things get lost in the mix. I tried to balance things around here but I guess I messed up with the cotton candy…haha! She can always buy her own cotton candy, with a paying job.

motherjanegoose

June 4th, 2012
7:53 am

I need more coffee…As parents of two….

Jay

June 4th, 2012
7:57 am

I think this attributes to giving education a very high value in Indian culture. Many middle class or poor Indian kids know the only way to get out of the cycle of poverty is to get good education. When they are in school or colleges they realize that there classmates are smarter so starts the pursuit of academic execllence to beat each other. I remember in our times back in India even your text books had respect! If you ever touched the text book with your feet, God forbid. The BIGGEST problem with US Education is just following the same old rotten wrong thinking on improving education. The kids get world class facilities, free or subsidized lunches, Govt spending BILLIONS in education, social promotion (means you never fail) and many ill-qualified educators. No wonder the system has raised a generation of cry babies! In the US schools they teach you more about getting along rather than individual excellence. Compare that to India, where the Govt spending behind education is almost zero! Uniforms in school and obvious the teachers can whack you if you misbehave! Over here the teacher can get sued. Not only this the colleges are a breeding ground for Professors to preach there liberal philosphy on the students rather than imparting education. Over here the Govt has your back with entitlement programs where as in India, it is unheard of! You are on your own. I never understood why the colleges & universities jack up the fees year after year. Does it cost more, I don’t think so! It is just the GREED and they know the students don’t have to afford the fees. The Govt will hand out trillions in loans which goes to the them so keep charging more & more. That’s why you have a student loan crises ready to explode like the housing. If the politicians placed high values on education with uniforms in schools, strict code of conduct, stop social promotion and encourage indviduality rather than a herd mentality our education system will be a world class and compete with Asian countries like Japan, China, India, Korea and so on. I remember back in 1980 when going to college I has a very poor classmate. That guy could not afford electricity and would study outside under the street light! He topped the entire University system and was a Gold medalist. He had determined to drag his family of the poverty cycle. Things are changing back in India also now with the new generation & culture rotting but atleast my generation born in the 60’s & 70’s placed a very high value & respect for education which we pass down to our kids. The greatest American strengh is Innovation, thinking outside the box which Indians lag. Looks at all these great achievements around you. Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Google and thousands more. All founded by Americans! This made possible by American ingenuity. Again most of them didn’t even complete college so it had nothing to do with education. Fixing American education is no brainer. Just follow the model of education in Asia example China. I am sure we will come to a conclusion – I don’t think we can do that here in America and we are back to where we started.

Jennifer

June 4th, 2012
7:58 am

How about the fact that in India the poor are truly poor. Young children digging through garbage dumps for food. Maybe if you have the means to get educated and you see that, you take full advantage. What are the ramifications for not studying here?

GT forever

June 4th, 2012
8:04 am

As a baby boomer, I learned cash crops, lengths of rivers, etc while in elementary school. I also had to memorize the Gettysburg address while in the fifth grade. I also learned basic math and even today do not use a calculator.
I also have two degrees from Ga Tech. Our educational system today is a joke- the no kids left behind is a bigger joke. I taught applied calculus at a local university and prior to the semester, I was advised that these students had been exposed to this program and could not think.
Boy, did these students get a shock when this GA Tech engineer walked into the classroom and stated that I am here to teach you to think and to prepare you for life beyond academia.

shaggy

June 4th, 2012
8:09 am

“Why do Indian Americans win national spelling/geography bees?”

Because they can spell.

mystery poster

June 4th, 2012
8:24 am

@Shaggy
dont yew meen, bekuz thay kan spel?
Ha ha

DB

June 4th, 2012
8:50 am

The winner studied 6-10 hours A DAY studying spelling words, and 10-12 hours on the weekends . . . that’s a LOT of studying. It’s interesting, too, how 10% of the kids (and more in the Geography Bee) are home-schooled (this year’s winner was not).

Miss Obvious

June 4th, 2012
8:50 am

It is because their children, by and large (obviously not all), have elitist attitudes taught by their parents and do not get to enjoy being kids.

jjjjjjjj

June 4th, 2012
8:51 am

They are smarter, work harder and our American culture ain’t so great.

Voice of Reason

June 4th, 2012
8:55 am

I blame text messaging for the general decline in spelling aptitude.

gpkbsin

June 4th, 2012
9:41 am

Most of you (except Jay) are too funny.

Jay has a point.. parents remember what they had to go through and how education brought them out of the hole they were in.

When I came to USA, my fellow graduate students used to talk about all the activities they did while in school. I felt like I had missed out a lot in my life in India by concentrating in school studies only. But, now that I’m in the corporate world, I notice that a lot of the people my age can barely spell and math is scary. I feel good about what I did when I was in school now :).

Having said that, I want my kids to study but also participate in other activities. So, I’ve tried to balance their load out. Its tough since the need to focus on academics is high. I wish my kids were jack of all instead of master of academics.

attn. all victims

June 4th, 2012
9:52 am

Great lesson to be learned here about hard work and self reliance. Why is it that one culture here in the US spends so much time trying to better themsleves and others spend all their time on shiny car rims, filthy rap music, hair extensions,playing lotto, and crying racism everytime someon looks at them a little sideways? I’ve always thought the whole black power/stay black movement would hobble most of its followers in this country and it’s happening right before our eyes. Indians are a great example of a proud race of people that are committed to doing the right thing in this country. Please take note.

reality

June 4th, 2012
10:00 am

May have something to do with IQ.

“Struggling schools” are filled with kids of lower inherent ability, so throwing money and equipment at the problem doesn’t work.

Unfortunately, it’s a brutal reality but it’s true.

justmy2cents

June 4th, 2012
10:25 am

Most kids are just academically lazy is the quick answer. I agree with Jay’s comment above for a longer explanation.

nypeach

June 4th, 2012
10:32 am

When I came to this country from Central America I was shocked that education was free. Even at 6 years old I realized that the educational system in the U.S. was an extraordinary gift. But I was even more surprised by how disrespectful students were to teachers, and how many parents were willing to make excuses for their kids’ rude behavior. My teenage daughter, who is American born and raised, has little to no appreciation for education and thinks life will just give her whatever she wants. She doesn’t want to work hard and wants everything handed to her. Her perspective on education is completely different from mine. I have often lamented the fact that I didn’t send her back to my home country so she could gain some appreciation for what she has in the U.S.

non committal mind reader

June 4th, 2012
10:41 am

“Why do Indian Americans win national spelling/geography bees?”

The same reason that African Amercians (and increasingly, Caucasion Americans) do not:

Parents & Peers. Parents who EXPECT success, and Peers who respect and compete against each other for the top spots.

If your parents have no education and expect nothing, if your Peers declare you are trying to be white for achieving educational success, then you probably will not be winning a national spelling/geography bee.

IDK how we succeed

June 4th, 2012
11:12 am

I did not expect any one to bring up racism in this discussion but @attn.all victims did. I dont know how many of you realize that Indian Americans come from a background that is nothing but racism. I have lived in 4 diff countries in my 48 yr life and can say that India is the worst racist country in the world. In India, racism has pushed people to compete better unlike in USA where it is used as an excuse.

Mark

June 4th, 2012
11:12 am

Just a different system. Rote learning! Not a lot of free thinking. Second generation will have same problem as native American. They will start watching “reality TV” as well and become real “Americans”!!

JF McNamara

June 4th, 2012
11:22 am

Its probably because non Indian Americans realize that having a bunch of worthless knowledge doesn’t help you later in life. A job interview isn’t a pop quiz and knowing the world capitals won’t help you run a business. Why waste your kid’s childhood studying useless facts that you can look up on Wikipedia or in the dictionary?

Responsible parents of all races push for and expect success in education, but winning a bee isn’t success here. If I were a crazy parent, rather than forcing my kid to spend 10 hours a day spelling or geography, I would make him read, do math, or study historical topics for 10 hours a day. That’s actually useful.

gpkbsin

June 4th, 2012
11:34 am

IDK how we succeed : totally agreed on racism in India.. although its more about the cast and class but not color. Anyways, in India discrimination results in the minority to try harder. Why? Do we in USA have the same?

Sravanthi

June 4th, 2012
11:44 am

On the contrary, Miss Obvioius. I loved growing up in my family, and have never resented what my parents have done to give me more than they had. My parents stressed the importance of an education. Both my parents grew up in well-educated families, but because my grandfather, a marine biologist was asked to move here to work for the state of Mississippi in the 1960s, they had the opportunity to come to the United States and provide an even better opportunity for their children. I believe that my brother and I grew up enjoying our childhood. We played t-ball, soccer, took ballet, tap, piano and violin lessons. But we also studied hard at night, and took pride in the education that our parents made sure that we had access to. I’m sure that my parents aren’t just proud that their son is a doctor and their daughter has an MBA, but that we have jobs that we love, and that we make a difference in people’s lives. By the way, I only placed second in the Alabama state spelling bee in 4th grade. To this day, I will never forget how to spell “intricate”, or how I spelled it – “intriket”. I wasn’t forced by my parents to practice spelling these words for 3-4 hours a day – I WANTED to win. I wanted to win the spelling bee as much as I wanted to win the soccer game I was playing later that week. I don’t believe that I’m an utter and complete failure, but that little slip up will always stick with me to remind me of what I COULD have done.

catlady

June 4th, 2012
12:13 pm

I noticed while in grad school in Tallahassee and especially in Athens that the honors were most frequently won by Asian or Indian students. Spelling bees, science fairs, vals and sals–white and black “American” kids were badly underepresented. It was embarrassing how, when my son was in 4th grade, the school spelling bee was won by a girl who had only been “in country” for 7 months!

I might also make the observation that, in my daughter’s Hall County school, the Asian/Indian parents expect their child to spend no more than a year in ESOL! While, in my experience, a large percentage of children of Mexican or Guatemalan parents NEVER exit the program–in 13 years!. (To be fair, I must also note that probably 20-30% of “American” kids in my area, if given the ESOL exit test, would not exit either!)

Why don’t “our” kids do as well? Mostly I think it is a sense of entitlement. Parents and educational leaders expect teachers to “make” a child successful, even to the point of giving them the work of 3-4 grade levels behind. Then, we can declare them successful for RTI purposes! No matter that they are doing 2nd grade work in 4th grade. They get that A on the report card and everyone smiles, that is, until the child has to actually PASS grade-level work in high school.

Parents from other parts of the world, such as India, China, Japan, and Korea, believe the child has to put forth the effort, and many parents see their greatest accomplishment is not the BIRTH of the child (as in some parts of American culture) but the ATTAINMENT of the child. They make it personal; it reflects their achievement as well.

Indian

June 4th, 2012
12:13 pm

As Americans say “Help them learn how to fish instead of giving them fish”. If rich Americans can donate some money to poor children in India, I am sure their Money will better the lives of those Poor Children and it is the best/easy way to leave a mark after your death. I wish Rich Americans help those struggling Poor Indian Kids to get educated so that future generation will live a better life. In India Education is the only way to get out of the Poverty. Also, the best donation anyone can make is Education, I wish Americans donate few money for those Education starved Indian kids who are desperate to get Education in any form. Poor Indian kids crave more for Education than for food or clothes. “If you educate one Indian child, you educate a whole generation who will be grateful forever”.

jarvis

June 4th, 2012
1:14 pm

@Srav, Give credit where it’s due. You had REALLY good teammates in Grad School ;).

You have to ask?

June 4th, 2012
1:18 pm

They simply try harder, nothing more.

Krish

June 4th, 2012
2:42 pm

“If I were a crazy parent, rather than forcing my kid to spend 10 hours a day spelling or geography, I would make him read, do math, or study historical topics for 10 hours a day. That’s actually useful.”

You are absolutely correct JF McNamara!
Over doing any thing is bad. Wasting the talents is a crime!

DB

June 4th, 2012
3:36 pm

@JFMcNamara: While there probably are a few kids whose parents pushed them (just like parents push in sports and the arts), the vast majority of the kids at the National Spelling Bee are there because they want to be. When a KID wants to do something, it’s hard to stop them — they get passionate about it, like a video game, and you as a parent find yourself calling out words for “just one list” that quickly becomes a couple of hours . . .

If they didn’t want to be there, it’s very easy to spell out at any stage and not have to go thru the hassle. But these are kids whose brains are wired a little differently from most kids. And, hey, not too many academic competitions hand out $30,000 cash prizes to 13 year olds, not to mention other prizes from other sponsors (that should help pay for part of their first year at Yale . . .:-)

IDK how we succeed

June 4th, 2012
4:17 pm

I think a lot of you are missing the point – it is not wasteful to prepare for a Spelling Bee competition. It is taken as a “training ground”. when you learn how to put in efforts, concentrate on one goal, etc. you learn how to “handle” life.

2011GeoBeeWinner

June 4th, 2012
6:22 pm

I don’t particularly think that school prepares you for the two Bees as much as you have to study on your own. The work ethic and drive of the participant is more important, in my opinion, than the educational system the participant learned their facts from.

Rawan

June 4th, 2012
6:44 pm

Memorizing is part of Indian culture. Memorizing is not free thinking. Indians did not write down vedas or upanishads. they were all memorized over generations.

Think about the Buddhist pali canon, which is translated to English fills 30 meters of library shelves. There are monks who chant the cannon for weeks. The Buddhist canon came to us verbally.

But again, I think students would be better off trained to solve problems than train to spell words.

Sravanthi

June 4th, 2012
10:54 pm

@ Jarvis… Very funny…You know I held up the entire team in grad school!

John Smith

June 6th, 2012
8:33 pm

The author makes an important point about highly educated parents. A majority of Indians who come to the US, come in order to pursue higher education (Masters, PhD, research etc). They already have a college education. To make a sweeping declaration that the Indian education system or the Indian method of studying is good would be rather myopic. The people who come here are the cream. They come for a variety of reasons. Contrary to popular perception most researchers come to the US not for money, but rather for the academic culture which is markedly different from back home. In fact, a financially well off person lives better in India as compared to the US. They are able to afford larger houses, multiple domestic help, drivers, things which only the super rich can afford in the US.

But I digress. Coming back to the point, the ones who do come the states, are already cream and have been able to reach there because of their own focus on education and even though they did come in search of a different, perhaps better work culture, their attitude towards education remains the same. Education is still revered in India as something sacred. Which explains how the parents also influence their children’s thinking.

It would be difficult to compare the thinking of these parents to the thinking of parents who were born and brought up in America. Culturally they come from two very different places.