How have Indian-American kids dominated the spelling game? New documentary finds obvious answer

Children Compete In Annual E.W. Scripps Spelling Bee
Getty Images | Alex Wong

Ever heard of the word, koinonia? Me either. Yet this was the word that Karthik Nemmani, an Indian-American boy from Texas, spelled to win the hyper-competitive 91st annual Scripps National Spelling Bee.

The E. W. Scripps Company, which also owns Simplemost, has been hosting this competition since 1925. Within the past 20 years, 18 Indian-American children have won this prestigious competition, which is quite impressive given that Indians make up only six percent of the 43.3 million strong foreign-born population in the U.S.

karthik nemmani photo
Getty Images | Chip Somodevilla

In the 2017 spelling bee alone, a quarter of the 291 contestants were Indian-American, including 13 of the 15 finalists. So what’s behind this phenomenon?

Is it that Indian-Americans are simply amazing spellers by nature? Nope. Do these children’s parents use special techniques? Nothing beyond being incredibly supportive.

A recent documentary, “Breaking the Bee,” demystifies how Indian-Americans have come to dominate this spelling competition by following four spellers as they work to achieve their goal of winning the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Hint: it involves an incredible amount of hard work and sacrifice.

“How do I win the Scripps National Spelling Bee?” exclaims a very young contestant in the documentary trailer. “90 percent hard work… and ten percent other.” Check out the trailer below.

This film, by Sam Rega, features CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta and Fareed Zakaria, ESPN’s Kevin Negandhi, comedian Hari Kondabolu and 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee winner Nupur Lala. It debuted at the Cleveland International Film Festival in April and showcases how dedicated these kids are to winning the competition. In the film, each speller can be seen practicing like there’s no tomorrow, spelling out word after word using all sorts of techniques to memorize as many spellings and definitions as possible.

Another clear indicator of success? How involved the family is in ensuring their child’s success. Many successful spellers start their careers as toddlers. For example, speller Akash Vukoti has been competing at local-level bees since he was only two years old. Each successful speller has an incredible support system, with each person in their family rooting for them.

spelling bee champion photo
Getty Images | Chip Somodevilla

“We spent a lot of time and really got to know these families,” Rega told Quartz. “So much of it was driven by the child: the child became the athlete, the parents were the coach and the siblings were the assistant coach.”

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About the Author
Chelsea Davis
Chelsea is a freelance journalist based in New York City whose passion revolves around traveling the world, immersing herself in foreign cultures, and of course, eating and drinking everything delicious. She covers all things food, drink and travel and is always up for an adventure, whether that means an adrenaline-pumping excursion or trying a new cuisine. Follow her on Instagram at @cheycheyfromthebay and keep up with her latest work at www.chelseadavis.com.

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