Indian kids dominate yet again at a Spelling Bee, this time on Australia’s Channel Ten
The dominance of desi children in spelling bees is set to continue with at least three Indian Australian kids making it to the top 50 of Channel Ten’s new television program The Great Australian Spelling Bee.
Indian kids have typically ruled spelling contests, whether here in Australia at the NSW Premier’s Spelling Bee or at the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee in the US. Indeed this year’s win by Vanya Shivashankar and Gokul Venkatachalam, in the world’s largest spelling bee, held in America, marked the eighth year in a row that winners of the competition have been Indian Americans. A famous 2002 documentary, Spellbound, followed the participants of the 1999 Spelling Bee, at which an Indian child won, and another had a grandfather in India perform a massive pooja for his success.
Nine-year-old Tej lives in Sydney with his parents and younger sister. Both his parents were born in India, though he was born here.
In Year 4 at school, Tej can also speak Mandarin and a little Punjabi. He was reciting the alphabet at 18 months and reading by the age of two. Tej’s love of words is infectious, but he admits, “My absolute love is cricket! I am mad about it,” he says. He tells me when he grows up, “I would love to be a doctor, maybe a neurosurgeon. I wouldn’t mind some professional cricket commentary on the side though!”
The Great Australian Spelling Bee is Tej’s first ever spelling competition. He saw the advertisement on television inviting children to apply and decided to have a go. “It’s always good to give these sort of things a shot. You never know, it just might have a positive impact on your life,” he says, showing a maturity well beyond his age.
On the show, Tej is known as MC Speller. “They call me that because I love rapping words with a lot of syllables. Some people even say I prefer rapping words instead of spelling them!”
Tej has developed a personal spelling technique of breaking words into syllables. “It makes me feel like I’m spelling a lot of little words,” he says. “I get most of my vocabulary from reading lots and lots of books, which helped me become good at spelling.” The young spelling star also practises using old Spelling Bee lists from the internet.
Tej says his favourite words to spell are ‘dodecahedron’, a word meaning a polyhedron with twelve flat faces, and ‘hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia’ – an incredibly long word which ironically means a fear of long words.
Almost 3000 spellers from around Australia applied to be part of the show, but only 52 of the best and brightest, aged between eight and 13, made it on to The Great Australian Spelling Bee.
“I enjoyed every minute of the show, but nothing matched the amazing feeling of meeting Chrissie and Grant (hosts of the program Chrissy Swan and Grant Denyer),” Tej says. “It was so awesome seeing how a TV show is made from inside. But best of all, I made lots and lots of new friends.”
Indian Australian twins Harpith and Harpita, at just eight years old, will also be appearing on the show.
The brother and sister super spellers, who hail from Melbourne, were born one minute apart, premature at 34 weeks in India. Their parents migrated to Australia when the twins were four months old. Dad Pandian says the fun-loving kids took some time to catch up in terms of weight and development, but are now at the same level, if not exceeding, their peers at school.
“They picked up spelling last year after joining the local Spellmasters Australia,” he says. Spellmasters is an organisation encouraging young Australians to participate in spelling competitions that will help to improve their understanding of the English language. Last year the pair reached the finals of the Junior competition and both have a distinct love of words.
Demonstrating how technology can be used to enhance education, the kids started learning on their own as “gifted independent learners” by playing word games on the iPad. “It’s about making learning a joy for them,” Pandian says.
Seasoned spelling bee competitors, Harpith and Harpita like to spend time after dinner playing word games, building their ‘Word Bank’ and researching the origins of different words.
“It was amazing to appear on the show,” Harpita says.
“I have made lots of friends and the hosts are very funny,” she giggles.
Harpita says she and her brother regularly practice their spelling together, trying to understand the pronunciation, origin and meaning of various words. “It’s about learning why a word is special,” she says.
“We have nearly 50,000 words in our Word Bank,” she continues. “We add around 30 new words a day. I see words everywhere in my daily life – at school, in books, at home. I still have so much to learn, but I know I’m going to be a champion one day.”
Harpita says her favourite word is ‘cafune’, a word of Brazilian Portuguese origin which means the act of running fingers through a loved one’s hair. She also like the words celebration and phenomenal.
Telling me the longest and hardest word he knows, Harpith says his favourite word is ‘Floccinaucinihilipilification’. One of the longest words in the English language it means the action or habit of estimating something as worthless. He also likes the words ebullient, glockenspiel, avouch, bijou and aplomb.
“All my friends are very impressed,” he says. “When we came back from filming in Sydney they all wanted to know what happened, but I told them ‘It’s a surprise!’”
Both kids want to become doctors when they’re older, in part because their mum, Priya, was diagnosed with gestational diabetes when she was pregnant which later developed into Type 1 diabetes. She has to follow a strict diet and exercise program.
“Priya was always mindful not to inject her insulin in front of the children,” Pandian says. “But when they were around three years old they developed this fascination with science and decided they wanted to be doctors to help people like their mum.”
Indeed, Harpith says he wants to be a neurosurgeon and volunteer for UNICEF, while Harpitha says she wants to be a cardio-thoracic surgeon and also volunteer for UNICEF. Both spend lots of time reading science books which might help explain their advanced vocabulary.
Pandian says his twins are very sociable and extroverted and hopes they will do well on the show. “People said to us during filming, ‘You and your wife are not so outgoing, where do they get it?’ They just have this natural confidence and a real desire to learn.”
Much has been written about why Indian kids excel at spelling, with western analyses pointing to high-achieving families pressuring the children towards over competitiveness. Perhaps a more reasonable theory lies in the psycholinguistics of it all.
Indians are often not only bilingual, but also multilingual (given they speak and/or understand English, Hindi and their own native tongue whether Marathi or Punjabi or Gujarati). There seems to be a natural proficiency in processing language stimuli that could lead to higher than average scores on spelling tests.
Host of the show, Chrissie Swan says, “The Great Australian Spelling Bee is edge-of-your-seat entertainment with jaw-dropping moments that will leave viewers utterly amazed.”
“I love this show because it celebrates smart kids, and it teaches children it’s cool to be clever.”
The Great Australian Spelling Bee airs 7.30pm Monday and Tuesday from
3 August on TEN.