TIME language

Here’s a Theory About Why South Asian Americans Totally Rule the Spelling Bee

Anthropology professor Shalini Shankar shares her ideas with TIME

South Asian-Americans, whose forebears immigrated from countries like India or Pakistan, have now won the Scripps National Spelling Bee eight years in a row. At one point in the 2015 final, six of the remaining seven spellers were of that ethnicity, and in the end there were two: co-champions Vanya Shivashankar and Gokul Venkatachalam. That means that out of the last 16 years, spellers of South-Asian origin have lost only four competitions. And one Northwestern academic says it’s not a coincidence.

Shalini Shankar, an associate professor of anthropology and Asian-American studies, spent this week with the 283 elite spellers who qualified for the bee in National Harbor, Md., continuing her research into what, exactly, might have produced this string of success. TIME spoke with Shankar about her interviews with parents, the kids’ intense preparation and how immigrant culture might lead to dominance in “brain sports.” (Hint: It doesn’t hurt that there is a spelling bee circuit exclusively for spellers of South-Asian descent.)

Who exactly are we talking about when we talk about top spellers in South Asian cultures?

Primarily India and Pakistan and Bangladesh are the countries that appear to have a lot of spellers. And when you look at South Asians in the South Asian spelling bee, it’s a range across those three countries. Occasionally from Sri Lanka as well. But once you get down to the finals or the championship level, it tends to be more spellers just from India. So Indian-Americans. Usually they are second generation. They were born in the United States to parents who are first generation Indian immigrants.

Is there a chance the string of wins by South Asian-Americans is a coincidence?

I think we can safely say it’s not a coincidence. I hesitate to call it dominance, only because it sounds like something premeditated or strategized. These kids come from families where their parents are really well educated, many of them, and their parents really emphasize education and certain types of extracurricular activities. Combined with that, they seem to have a real love of words and language and their parents foster that.

What kind of extracurricular activities are we talking about?

The parents spend a lot of their time and resources taking [their kids] to participate in what some of them describe as brain sports. So rather that going to travel baseball or travel soccer, they’re traveling this academic competition loop. Part of why you’re seeing their success on the rise is they’re in constant preparation mode for these various academic competitions. And there are several competitions that are exclusively for children of South Asian parentage. So they have more opportunities to do what they’re doing.

If part of this is the parents spending money on the travel circuit, does income level come into play in explaining the phenomenon?

I can’t speak to income levels because I don’t have that data. But I can safely say there’s at least one professional parent in most of these families that have what they call elite spellers. So they’re certainly socially upwardly mobile families even if they may not be wealthy, per se.

How much have you found the kids are into this intense competition because their parents are pushing them, versus pursuing it themselves?

The parents are definitely facilitators to this process but they can’t actually produce champions. They can only enable their children to excel in this activity if they’re predisposed and dedicated to doing it themselves. But I don’t think that’s so different from spelling bee champions of any other race or ethnicity. Any time you see spellers who really are dedicated and they’re making it to the highest levels of competition at the national level, generally their parents have invested a tremendous amount of time and energy helping them.

But isn’t there something, even if it’s not Tiger-Mom tactics, like a value the parents are passing along about what kind of competition is worth winning?

I have some partially formed ideas about that. I’m still looking into it. Part of what I’m seeing is that there’s a lot of prestige in this community to winning something like a spelling bee or winning a geography bee or a math bee. And that is valued as much if not more than winning some sort of physical sport … These are very important bragging rights among South Asian-American communities. There’s some real status linked to it, that the kids feel too. The kids are really excited about the prospect of being on ESPN. They want to be on television.

 

Is there a more fundamental place in the culture that this value on academic prowess comes from, like what brought these immigrants to America?

Among the elite classes in India, both economically and socially elite, there’s a real emphasis on education and the use of education for social mobility. It’s not so different from other places in the world, but it’s certainly quite prevalent there. So I think that value is one that gets very magnified when you look at what Indian-American populations actually emigrated. It’s mostly professionals who immigrated post-1965. They are doctors or engineers or scientists, etcetera. So they are absolutely going to place a higher value on that than, say, other types of accomplishment. It doesn’t meant they downplay other types of accomplishments, but there’s an understood value of education that these contests jibe with very well.

What is it that drives these kids to dedicate themselves to spelling so intensely?

Unless you really love language and reading and words, it becomes very hard to care about preparing to the extent that one needs to for a spelling bee at this level. Kids who do this love words and they love thinking about words. They read the dictionary, among other things. And not all of them prepare to win. They set their own goals, like ‘I want to make it to Scripps’ or ‘I want to make it to the semi-finals’ or the finals and proportionately spend time preparing in whatever ways they think will allow them to attain those goals.

What is that preparation process like?

That process is usually every day, if not almost every day, they spend a few hours after school, after their homework, sometimes after their parents get home so they can quiz them. They spend several hours each weekend day preparing, maybe not year-round but certainly in the weeks and months leading up to the bee. Some of these spellers who compete in their school bees as well as these South Asian spelling bees, they don’t let too much time go by when they don’t have to be preparing for something. They’re kind of constantly keeping this fresh in their minds. So it’s an ongoing process for them, during the years in which they’re able to compete. And then suddenly it ends when they’re 14. It can be a very abrupt ending.

How do competitions like this affect the way we think about childhood?

If anything, the continuum of what childhood means is being expanded in productive ways to accommodate things that might have seemed extremely marginal or relegated to this untouchable nerd kind of activity. It’s something that has more mainstream cachet. I mean, being on ESPN is something very few kids get to do and these kids are very proud of participating in something that has such national recognition. It’s just expanding our ideas about what childhood means in ways that are keeping up with how the world is changing.

TIME language

The Scripps National Spelling Bee Has Co-Champions, Again

The winning words in the nail-biter final were 'scherenschnitte' and 'nunatak'

In a dramatic, flawless final round, two eighth-graders proved to be joint winners at the 2015 Scripps National Spelling Bee. One a girl and one a boy, one from Kansas and one from Missouri, one a five-time finalist and one a four-timer, 13-year-old Vanya Shivashankar and 14-year-old Gokul Venkatachalam put both their hands on the trophy and thrust it into the air on Thursday evening—after spelling word after word that few people could even hope to pronounce correctly.

Shivashankar’s winning word was scherenschnitte, meaning the art of cutting paper into decorative designs. Venkatachalam’s was nunatak, a hill or mountain completely surrounded by glacial ice.

This is the second year in a row that the final has yielded co-champions. Last year was the first time in 52 years that two people had shared the trophy, and 2015 marks the first time in the bee’s 90-year history that there have ever been co-champions two years in a row. This is only the fifth tie ever.

How do two people win the bee? If three or fewer spellers are left when a round begins, the officials move to a 25-word “championship list.” As Scripps explained last year:

Once there are three spellers left in a round, the next round begins with a 25-word list. Ordinarily, a winner is declared if one speller misspells and the remaining speller correctly spells two words in a row. If no winner is declared before the list has been exhausted—or there are not enough words left for two consecutive spellings—co-champions are announced.

In the last minutes of the final, Shivashankar and Venkatachalam navigated—and sometimes breezed—through the championship words with poise, like tennis players returning near-impossible shots. And the announcers from ESPN, which broadcasts the competition held in National Harbor, Md., each year, espoused due color commentary.

Shivashankar started with bouquetiere.

“If they do want only one champion, the words are going to have to get tougher than that one was for Vanya,” the announcer scoffed.

Venkatachalam countered with caudillismo.

“It’s not the first time in this competition he’s proven he can handle a Spanish-derived word.”

She spelled thamakau, a word of Fijian origin that describes a large canoe.

“Very obscure.”

He spelled scytale, a message written in a method of cipher used especially by the Spartans.

“That’s how good these two are. For most spellers, that would be a nightmare,” the announcer explains. “That dictionary is no mystery to them.”

Tantieme. Cypseline. Urgrund. Filicite.

“I don’t know that either one of these is capable of not winning that trophy.”

Myrmotherine. Sprachgefuhl. Zimocca. Hippocrepiform.

Neither one betrayed much emotion as they cycled up to the microphone. The announcers explained that Venkatachalam was wearing a LeBron James jersey under his button-up. The audience learned that Shivshankar’s sister had previously won the bee. It was no wonder they kept so cool.

Nixtamal. Paroemiology. Scacchite. Pipsissewa. Bruxellois. Pyrrhuloxia.

At this point, there were only four words remaining. That meant that if both spelled their next words correctly, both would go home winners—because there would be just two words left, not enough for a winner to spell two correctly in succession.

After cycling through her questions about the origin, part of speech, definition and alternative pronunciations, Shivashankar nailed the byzantine mess of letters that is scherenschnitte. (She also won the Lifetime reality show Child Genius earlier this year, which was starting to look like an omen.)

Then Venkatachalam headed up to the microphone. The pronouncer said the word. The boy asked no questions and spelled nunatak like he was spelling his own name.

The ticker tape rained down on the stage and the spellers hugged each other. He held the left side and she held the right. “This is a dream come true. I can’t believe I’m up here,” Shivashankar said. But with nine bee appearances between them, it’s pretty easy to imagine that something this fitting would happen.

TIME viral

Baltimore’s Top Prosecutor Once Made Her Case to Judge Judy

A young Marilyn J. Mosby worked to resolve a personal legal matter

Before she made national headlines by indicting six police officers in the death of Freddie Gray, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby made an appearance on the small screen for a more personal legal matter.

A young Marilyn James made her case before none other than Judge Judy Sheindlin, the fiery host of the popular TV courtroom show, a spokesman for her office confirmed to the Baltimore Sun. The 20-year-old appeared before the judge to seek damages after discovering her neighbor trashed her college apartment while she was away on summer break.

According to her LinkedIn profile, Mosby attended Tuskegee University between 1998 and 2002, before heading to Boston College Law School.

The future prosecutor upstaged her neighbor in the courtroom, presenting receipts, photos and checks to aid her case. The defendant, on the other hand, offered little more than a shrug.

In the end, the young Mosby told the viewing audience there was “finally some justice served” when Judge Judy ruled in her favor and awarded her $1,731.90.

TIME technology

Steve Wozniak Is Getting a Wax Figure at Madame Tussauds

Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, speaks onstage during the National Geographic Channel's 'American Genius' panel at the 2015 Winter Television Critics Association press tour at the Langham Huntington Hotel & Spa on Jan. 7, 2015 in Pasadena, California.
Frederick M. Brown—Getty Images Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, speaks onstage during the National Geographic Channel's 'American Genius' panel at the 2015 Winter Television Critics Association press tour at the Langham Huntington Hotel & Spa on Jan. 7, 2015 in Pasadena, California.

And it'll be right next to Steve Jobs'

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak is getting immortalized in wax. Madame Tussauds in San Francisco announced this week the inventor will be the next techie to get the wax treatment, joining the likes of Apple’s Steve Jobs and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.

In a statement, Wozniak said he is “incredibly excited” to be added to the San Francisco location and equally thrilled that he’ll be placed next to his former partner.

“I remember visiting the London Museum as a kid,” Wozniak said. “I can’t wait to see my figure next to Jobs—it’ll be just like old times.”

According to Madame Tussauds, now the fun part begins. Wozniak will have to sit for 2 to 3 hours and have 250 measurements taken to ensure his figure’s accuracy. It takes about three to four months to complete the process, after which Wozniak will appear at his sculpture’s release for a side-by-side comparison.

TIME animals

Watch 2 Baby Bears Wrestle in Cutest Match Ever

Don't worry, mama bear was nearby

On a ride back from Hetch Hetchy, a valley in California’s Yosemite National Park, this tourist came across two baby bears duking it out in the middle of the road. While Jeff Molyneaux uploaded this video in July 2011 after his hiking and camping trip, the U.S. Department of the Interior just shared it via Facebook on Tuesday, noting “Don’t worry, the mama bear is out of the shot, just off the road and after the wrestling match, the bear cubs made it safely to her.”

Molyneaux also created a slapstick, lip-dub here:

TIME viral

Big Bird Lip-Syncing ‘Still Not a Player’ Will Ruin Your Childhood

There are some things that kids will just have to find out for themselves

Big Bird, the Sesame Street star, lip-syncs rapper Big Pun’s “Still Not a Player” in the latest YouTube video produced by Internet mashup artist “Animal Robot.” Enjoy the irony of the lyrics bragging about a man sleeping around mixed with video of the children’s TV icon singing a song called “That’s Cooperation.”

Just imagine if Sesame Street taught kids what a “player” is, or maybe it’s best that youngsters find out for themselves when they get to college.

TIME viral

Watch This Incredible Sign Language Version of Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself’

She absolutely crushes it

Shelby Mitchusson uploaded this video of herself performing “Lose Yourself” by Eminem, entirely in American Sign Language, back in September. Now, it’s getting some much-deserved recognition after it was posted on Reddit this week. The poster “expected it to be silly” but then realized it’s “actually really, really well done.”

Indeed. Her performance — complete with body movements and intense facial expressions — is mesmerizing.

“I have a deep love for interpreting music and would love to share more as I am always interpreting music,” Mitchusson wrote in a YouTube comment. She also promised to upload more videos soon, so stay tuned.

Read next: These Neighbors Learned Sign Language So a Deaf Resident Would Feel More at Home

TIME animals

These Warthog Piglets Were Named After Game of Thrones Characters

Welcome, four-footed HBO fans!

Hodor is stocky and muscular with wrinkly, gray skin and a long, coarse mane. He also has four large tusks protruding from his snout and has not once said the word, “Hodor!” But we’re not referring to the Game of Thrones character — it’s a new baby warthog at the Detroit Zoo.

A set of five warthogs was born at the Detroit Zoo back in April, according to a news release, and they just made their web debut. There’s a good chance these guys will be popular, because each one is named after characters from Game of Thrones (or A Song of Ice and Fire, depending on your particular level of geekdom). The female piglets are named Daenerys, Sansa and Cersei, while the males are named after Tyrion and Hodor.

“We’re thrilled to have this new litter to add to our warthog family,” Scott Carter, chief life sciences officer for the Detroit Zoological Society, said in a statement. “Like all pigs, warthogs are smart and precocious and a lot of fun to watch running and rooting around in their habitat.”

Based on the video that the zoo shared on Wednesday, at least four of those piglets don’t share their namesakes’ blood-thirst or desire for revenge. The fifth one, presumably Cersei, isn’t in the video, undoubtedly because she doesn’t play well with others.

 

TIME animals

See What a Herd of Elephants Did When a Calf Collapsed in the Middle of a Road

Some scientists argue elephants can show empathy

This viral video claims to show a baby elephant collapsing at Kruger National Park in South Africa and a herd of elephants “helping” it get back on its feet.

Some scientists argue elephants can show empathy. For example, a study of Asian elephants in Thailand published in February 2014 suggested “elephants adopted the emotional state of, touched and called out to those in distress, and did so in ways that seemed to mirror the consolatory behavior we see in other species,” Joshua Plotnik, one of the researchers from the University of Cambridge, said in an interview. In the study, “elephants often rumbled or chirped toward those in distress, and reached out to touch the distressed individual’s mouth and face. If a distressed elephant put their ears out and straightened their tail, the bystanders often did the same.”

TIME Music

Listen to a Beautiful A Cappella Version of Sia’s ‘Chandelier’

Performed by the group Twisted Measure from Elon University

If you still haven’t seen Pitch Perfect 2, these four minutes of aca-awesome a cappella magic should tide you over in the meantime.

Twisted Measure, an a cappella group from Elon University, recorded this haunting version of Sia’s “Chandelier.” It could never replace the original, obviously, but it’s an interesting, stripped-down arrangement and it shows off some impressive vocal talent. Oh, and the version was arranged by Twisted Measure members, so, you know, don’t worry about any copyright issues.

The video could have used some killer dance moves like in Sia’s original version, but it’s still pretty good.

Read next: This College Student’s Version of Sia’s ‘Chandelier’ Video Is Awkward and Perfect

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