Indian Americans’ hegemony in Spelling Bee contests

With an 11-year streak, Indian Americans have cemented their legacy in Spelling Bee


July 22, 2021

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Indian Americans’ hegemony in Spelling Bee contests

In 2019, in a historical eight way tie, seven were Indian

Despite accounting for less than 1 pc of the American population, Indian-origin children have consistently dominated the Scripps National Spelling Bee contests for nearly two decades.

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At the recently concluded finals of the National Spelling Bee contest 2021, Zaila Avant-Grande, stunned her Indian rivals and went on to become the first African-American to win the contest in 96 years.

Avant-Garde beat 10 other rivals in the finals, nine of whom were Indian-Americans. This was the first time since 2008 that an Indian-origin child did not win this annual tournament for which thousands of students across the country prepare as seriously as a sports person would for a major international championship.

National Spelling Bee, formed in the 1925, is undoubtedly the biggest not-for-profit educational competition in America. The participants are under 14 years, and winners of any previous edition cannot contest either.

Right from 1985 when Balu Natarajan became the first Indian American to win the contest, Indian-origin children have entirely dominated the contest.

“I think it has got a lot to do with the culture that is built around the importance of Spelling Bee,” Danny Sharma, a housewife living in Virginia, USA, tells Media India Group.  “The enthusiasm for a spelling competition was a bit of a shock to me, but soon I came to realise the importance it held,” she adds.

From 1999 to 2019, Indian Americans have created a bit of streak for themselves, with 26 winners in a span of 20 years. In fact, in 2019 nine out of eleven finalists were of the Indian ethnicity, which eventually ended with a historic eight way tied winners, out of which seven were Indian.

That is because the spelling bee has become a very big deal in the Indian diaspora in America. “It almost feels like a big exam is coming up, with the amount of preparation that people put into it,” says Sharma.

Spelling bee has inspired a sense of unity not only among the Indian Americans but also the South Asian community as whole. “It has brought the community together,” recounts Sharma.

But togetherness is not the only thing it has brought into the community. Many have spotted business opportunities as well, opening several coaching centres exclusively for aspiring future spellers. Spelling Bee, over the years has become a very competitive contest. A huge contrast can be made by just looking at the winning word from 60 years ago, in 1940 which was ‘therapy’ and in contrast to that in 2021 the winning word was ‘Murraya’.

The Indian American community unquestionably has played a big role in making the Scripps National Spelling Bee as high profile as it is now. This year’s spelling bee’s finale was shown on ESPN, an American sports channel. “The thing is because of its popularity; it has become somewhat of a sport in its own right,” says Sharma.



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