The spelling bee just undercut its best competitors, Indian-Americans

Life only gets more complicated, kid.
Life only gets more complicated, kid.
Image: AP Photo / Evan Vucci
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America’s Super Bowl of spelling was thrown into disarray yesterday, less than two months before the event, with the announcement that its adolescent competitors will now be quizzed on what words mean in addition to how they’re spelled.

The stated reason for the change is that the Scripps National Spelling Bee has always been about “knowledge of the English language.” That’s curious because, in point of fact, it has always been about spelling and nothing else. The tense competition, which is broadcast on national television, has since 1925 only asked that its contestants be able to spell. S-P-E-L-L. Vocabulary is an entirely different, if also worthy, skill. But nobody asks chess masters to be good at backgammon, too.

The abruptness of the change suggests that something else is going on, and it’s not pretty. Over the past two decades, the spelling bee has come to be dominated by Indian-Americans, who have won 10 of the past 14 competitions. They have been aided by a farm league of regional bees in Indian-American communities, which have fueled something of a spelling craze and inspired more children to undertake the intense studying required of champion spellers.

It also helps that Indian educational traditions put a greater emphasis on rote memorization than do American schools. You don’t spell guetapens correctly—as Snigdha Nandipati, a 14-year-old Indian-American from San Diego, California, did to win last year’s bee—by recognizing its obscure French root. You memorize it. “I knew it,” Nandipati told reporters afterwards. “I’d seen it before.”

Vocabulary can be memorized, too, but presumably not before this year’s competition, which begins on May 28. Competitors in the preliminary rounds and semifinals will face multiple-choice vocabulary questions that look like this (pdf):

Nomenclature has to do with:
a) religious ceremonies
b) names
c) bones
d) folk superstitions

That is a question that, short of memorizing the definition, gets much easier if you know the Latin root nōmen, meaning “name.” Which is why it does make sense that adding a vocabulary challenge makes the competition more about holistic knowledge of English, as explained by Paige Kimble, director of the bee: “As a child studies the spelling of a word and its etymology, he will discover its meaning. As a child learns the meaning of a word, it becomes easier to spell. And all of this enhances the child’s knowledge of the English language.”

But that also describes a philosophy of education that, while very popular in the United States, is not necessarily embraced by the Indian-American families that have been dominating the winner’s circle.

The end result may be that vocabulary questions in the early rounds end up weeding out competitors who would have otherwise made it to the finals. And it’s worth noting that the bee is an increasingly big business for EW Scripps, the news company that runs it, and ESPN, which last year saw record ratings for its broadcast of the final round. More than a million people are expected to be watching the stage of 12 finalists this year, and the faces on screen could be very different.