Indian-American super-spellers dominate the national bee

Spelling Bee
by Ciera Horton
Posted 5/31/16, 11:00 am

The 11-year-old sauntered confidently to the microphone. Round after round, he knew most of the words without hesitation.



And his winning word: gesellschaft.

At the end of the competition last Thursday evening, Nihar Janga was the co-winner of this year’s National Spelling Bee, and the youngest champion ever. He tied with 13-year-old Jairam Hathwar, whose older brother won two years ago. It’s the third consecutive year the bee ended in a tie, despite new rule changes intending to prevent a deadlock. 

“I‘m just speechless. I can’t say anything,” Nihar said. “I’m only in fifth grade.”

For the ninth year in a row, Indian Americans took home the trophy in the National Spelling Bee.

Shalini Shankar, Asian Studies professor at Northwestern University, and author of an upcoming book Spellebrity: Inside the Selfie Generation’s World of Competitive Spelling, connects Indian-American success to practice bees, community, and also a love for “brain sports.” The harder the National Spelling Bee becomes, the more children want to compete.

Nihar started practicing for the bee in kindergarten. Throughout the competition, Nihar and Jairam chatted while other contestants spelled, high-fived when they did well, and embraced when they realized they tied. 

Indian culture tends to value academic success, diligence, and memory-based learning. Seven out of 10 Indian Americans earn a college degree. Both Nihar and Jairam hope for medical careers. Jairam wants to attend Harvard, and Nihar wants to become a neurosurgeon. Both winners walked away with a trophy and $45,000 each in scholarships.

In addition to prizing education, Indian Americans tend to emphasize the importance of marriage and family: 71 percent are married, compared to 51 percent of U.S. adults. Close-knit Indian communities help the students achieve their goals through communal studying. 

A parallel spelling-bee system popular among Indian-American students helps them do well. North South Foundation (NSF), a non-profit organization funding the bees, welcomes students of Indian descent to compete for scholarships. NSF allows students to compete starting in the first grade, in contrast to the National Spelling Bee’s third-grade start. NSF holds competitions year-round.

The extra years of training expose the students to thousands more words and competitive experience. Along with four other competitors in the Top 10, Nihar and Jairam both participated in NSF competitions. NSF co-founder Ratnam Citturi boasted, “Nine-year winning streak for NSF kids.”

Ciera Horton

Ciera Horton is a WORLD intern.

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