x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

How do you spell English expert? With I, N, D, I, A and N

Indian Americans do very well in spelling bees – and there is a good reason for that.

Every week I go to my local grocery store in Bangalore, called Thoms. After I pick up my milk, eggs and vegetables, I typically have to ask the salespeople about the week's specials. Like most Indian retail outlets, Thoms is staffed with young people who look 16 but are probably 21.

"Excuse me, but has this week's organic tea delivery come in?" I'll ask - in English. And they'll answer in English.

I recount this to propose a theory about why Indian-American children so consistently dominate the annual Scripps Howard Spelling Bee in the US, held last month.

This year, for the seventh time in a row, an Indian won. This was the first time in five years that the title didn't go to an Indian girl. This year's winner, Arvind Mahankali, 13, is the 11th Indian winner in the last 15 years.

His victory will extend the debate about whether it is talent, hard work or parental ambition that has caused this string of successes.

Sure, Indian-Americans have their own "Little League" for spelling bees; children get numerous chances to spread their wings in their local spelling community. Yes, parents pass their strong immigrant work ethic on to these kids, making them toil on obscure words such as glossophagine, chalumeau, and dehnstufe - all of which young Mahankali spelt correctly. (He won with the word knaidel).

And of course, spelling becomes a family affair with younger and older siblings serving as coaches or keeping time at bees. All these factors contribute to the success.

But there is also one more ingredient: milieu, both in the old country, India, and in the new one, America.

India has 22 official languages, but the 1991 census pointed out that 1,576 languages were classified as mother tongues. That's diversity, even if the number is down from 1,652 languages in 1961.

As English makes inroads into the Indian tongue, more regional languages will bite the dust.

How does this play out in daily life? I live in Bangalore, whose native language is Kannada, which I am ashamed to say I don't speak. I come from neighbouring Tamil Nadu and I speak Tamil at home. My parents grew up in Kerala and speak Malayalam. The current spelling bee champ's father comes from a state adjoining mine - Andhra Pradesh - which speaks Telugu. Should we all meet we would speak in English.

When I shop, I speak English with the service staff, a mixture of Tamilians, Kannadigas, Telegus and Malayalis. English comes easy to most Indians, for whatever reason, and so many of us choose to learn it.

At home, my cook did not speak a word of English when she joined us five years ago. But after a few years with my English-speaking kids, she can recognise sentences and answer English questions in Tamil. The language of aspirational India is English. The default lingua franca too is English.

Aspiration and default-choice contribute to the milieu that has created all those Indian-American spelling champions.

When Latin Americans congregate for parties in Silicon Valley, they speak Spanish. Their children thus learn Spanish.

Not so with Indians. When Indian-Americans meet for parties, they have to resort to English. The richness of India's languages has become a handicap for its diaspora. English has become the common denominator - a language that we all understand and can use with our kids and friends.

Even in India, many children learn English at school, no matter what they speak at home. We may speak in Tamil or Bengali but we spell in English.

When the next spelling champ takes centre stage, there is a high chance that he or she will be Indian. The only question is why these competitions haven't invaded India, when shows such as Masterchef and The Voice have. In India, as in the US, we Indians would be naturals.

 

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir