Why Do Indian-American Kids Do So Well in Spelling Bees?

12-year-old Ananya Vinay of Fresno, CA holds her trophy after winning the 2017 Scripps National Spelling Bee. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images)

Indian-American children dominate the competitive spelling scene. At Harper’s, Vauhini Vara — a former spelling champ herself —meets a few of the current crop of young spellers and their parent coaches.

One of the spellers from my Phase 2 room, Naysa Modi, was in line with her father, Nayan. Naysa, a sixth grader who had participated in the National Spelling Bee the previous two years, was a sprite in a pink headband. When I asked her how the latest round had gone, she chirped: “If you saw me and Siyona Mishra” — another Scripps alum — “we were chatting our heads off!” The Modis came from a small town in Louisiana, where there wasn’t much of an Indian immigrant population. Nayan told me that they learned about the North South Foundation only recently, through the community they’d found at Scripps.

“I sometimes regret she started pretty late,” he said. “But what’s done is done.” I asked what was regrettable about it. “If she had started early,” he said, “she could have used that time to study.”

Naysa was walking beside him, listening intently while her father talked about her squandered potential. I thought that she might be embarrassed or annoyed. But it turned out that they were in complete agreement. “Kindergarteners,” she said, “are studying the words that I learned in the fourth grade.”

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