Indian-Americans sweep the Spelling Bee

How do you spell 'cymotrichous?' Ask an Indian-American

By Nicholas Nehamas

Indian-Americans haven’t had a huge impact on sports in the United States. There are a few exceptions: Sanjay Beach caught Brett Favre’s first-ever pass in the NFL. Raj Bhavsar helped the U.S. gymnastics team win gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But Indian-Americans dominate one event televised on ESPN: the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Indian-Americans rule the roost

Yes, nine of the last thirteen spelling bee champions have been Indian-Americans. The favorites for 2012 include two finalists from last year’s tournament whose families hail from the subcontinent: Arvind Mahankali of New York City and Nabeel Rahman of Buffalo (his parents are from Bangladesh).

Why do the children of immigrants dominate the American spelling world? One possible answer is that many of them are bilingual. Arvind is fluent in Telugu, a Dravidian language from southern India. Nabeel and last year’s winner, Sukanya Roy, both speak Bengali at home. Education is also highly valued in Indian culture, as are the practices of memorization and hard work. Arvind and his family reportedly spend hours every day studying the dictionary.

Sukanya Roy after winning the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 2011. The last four champs have been Indian-Americans.

Who spell-checks the spellers?

The bee is increasingly an international event. This year, children from nine different countries will compete, including Canada, China, Ghana, Japan and New Zealand. While the world focuses on the kids (especially six-year old sensation Lori Anne Madison, the bee’s youngest ever competitor), Latitude News thought it would be interesting to look at their parents, who tend to be educated workers from abroad. Roy’s mother and father, for example, are successful academics from India.

Alex Nowratesh points out in Forbes that “the children of highly skilled immigrants [often] become exceptional Americans . . . [Roy’s parents] both are highly skilled, competent, and trained individuals who have made America a wealthier place. Now their daughter is poised to do the same.”

In a time of limited growth, the US needs more highly motivated, highly skilled immigrants like the Roys. Our workforce is aging and lacks the skills necessary for successful careers in science, technology, education and math (the crucial so-called “STEM” fields).

Newcomers have always added vigor and enthusiasm to American life. The 21st century has been no exception. Bloomberg reports that in 2011 immigrants were more than twice as likely to start a business as native-born Americans, and that immigrants founded a quarter of new tech/engineering companies in the US between 1995 and 2005. It also cites a study by McKinsey & Company, a consulting firm, which found that two-thirds of American companies say they have “positions for which they cannot find qualified applicants.”

Filipinos form a long line outside the American Embassy in Manila to apply for visas. Because of onerous and restrictive immigration laws, the US is losing out on the global battle for skilled foreign workers and entrepreneurs.

US closes the door on talented foreigners

But American immigration laws are not up to par with the rest of the world. The US issues only 65,000 H-1B visas for highly skilled workers per year, and last year’s rejection rate of 26.1% was one of the highest in recent memory.

Countries like Canada, Dubai, Ireland, Singapore, and New Zealand have been picking up the slack, offering green cards to foreign entrepreneurs willing to make even small investments in domestic ventures. Australia, as Bloomberg points out, issues just 15,000 fewer work-related visas than the US even though our population is 14 times as large.

Can Washington break the gridlock?

There’s some hope for the future: a new bipartisan bill called the Startup Act 2.0 would make it easier for foreign Ph.D’s in math and science to stay in America after graduation. It would also offer permanent residence to immigrant entrepreneurs who start successful businesses here. But The Washington Post says the bill faces “a tough battle on the Hill.” Immigration is a highly charged political issue, especially in an election year, and critics say the law will take high-paying jobs away from Americans. A similar measure passed the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this year but died in the Senate.

As skilled foreign parents turn their eyes away from an unwelcoming America, they may also give up on our national spelling bee. On Tuesday, Scripps announced that it plans to organize a world English-language spelling bee, starting as early as December 2013.

You can watch the finals of this year’s bee tonight — Thursday, May 31 — at 8 PM (EST) on ESPN.