Monday, June 15, 2009

Indian verbal ability

Talk is one of their major exports so this is not really surprising

How do you spell champion? I've been thinking a lot about Indian students lately. They've been hard to avoid. In particular, I've been following the progress of a 13-year-old girl, Kavya Shivashankar. She is the star of a cluster of schoolchildren who have reached an inspirational pinnacle of scholastic entertainment. Yes, there is such a thing.

There is a place in the public arena for public spectacle and acclaim for young scholars who are going to shape and heal the world rather than merely entertain it.

Our public space is bloated to the point of cultural obesity with scrutiny of young people who want to be models, singers or sporting stars, no matter how banal their utterances may be. Fortunately, there is a space in the entertainment solar system, admittedly small, which revolves around displays of intellectual brilliance. Unfortunately, such a space barely exists in Australia.

But the Americans have devised a system that allows sport and entertainment to be pushed aside, however briefly, to display on a national stage young people notable for their brilliance. On May 28, 10 million Americans, and uncounted foreigners, including me, watched Kavya Shivashankar win the 2009 Scripps National Spelling Bee. The bee is one of the most compelling TV spectacles of the year.

The chance that an Indian American was going to win was high, because seven of the 11 finalists this year were Indian Americans. Six of the previous 10 champions were also Indian American. They have come to dominate the event even though they make up just 0.9 per cent of the US population.

Why? Watching these Indians teenagers demolish the far larger number of Anglo-American entrants (whites still make up 79 per cent of the US population) prompted the question: why is India not a global superpower, given the super-abundance of brainpower and energy in the Indian community?

Kavya's triumph was not a victory of rote learning and fanatical, parental-driven study habits. In one of her numerous appearances on national talk shows after she won the title she was asked if she studied spelling in most of her free time: "No," she replied. "I have to finish my homework, and practise violin, and I also do Indian dance."

Given that this was the fourth consecutive year she has placed in the top 10, it marks Kavya as a stand-out in the 84-year history of the National Spelling Bee. Asked if her advantage was memory, she replied: "I don't use memorisation as a technique. It's really hard to memorise all the words in the dictionary. It's just not possible. So my dad is my coach and he and I work together and find the roots of the words, and we study patterns from the language of origin, like French and German [and Latin and Greek]."

By the time they reach the semi-finals, the contestants are given words so difficult, so obscure and so unfair (such as a variety of Swiss cheese which happens to have a silent vowel) it requires not just memory, but composure, technique and speed, with the clock running, the cameras filming live, and an auditorium full of hushed people. It requires the ability to analyse the sound of an unfamiliar word, break it down by its etymology (which can be requested from the judges), and reconstruct by remembering and applying word roots.

Routinely, the right answer is a brilliant deduction. The relief on the face of the contestants at such a moment, or the anguish when the bell rings to signal disqualification, is what makes the bee such arresting television. Plus the sheer virtuosity of the young contestants. The words Kavya had to spell in the semi-final and final were: ergasia, kurta, escritoire, hydrargyrum, blancmange, baignoire, huisache, ecossaise, diacoele, bouquiniste, isagoge, phoresy and, finally, laodicean.

I've been watching the bee every May for years, on ESPN, the sport network, getting a morbid thrill as the words become outrageously obscure. Occasionally I recognise one. I rarely can spell it. When Kavya spelled laodicean (derived from Latin and meaning indifference, especially in matters of religion), her father, mother and little sister spilled onto the stage. She began to cry as the gold trophy was placed in her hands.

Kavya became the seventh Indian American to win the title in the past 11 years, defeating six other Indian Americans, five girls, Ramya, Aishwarya, Neetu, Anaminka and Tussah, and a boy, Sidarth Chand, last year's runner-up (to yet another Indian American, Sameer Mishra) among the 10 other finalists.

This Indian dominance has come as the National Spelling Bee has become more difficult as it becomes more popular. By way of contrast, the championship-winning words in the 1970s included croissant, vouchsafe, incisor and narcolepsy, none of which would qualify for the finals now.

Indian prominence in this event is a reflection of values that place an emphasis on family, education, discipline and energy. Indians thrive in the open environment like America.

Two of the Indian American finalists said they wanted to be neurosurgeons; a third said she wanted to be a heart surgeon.

The triumph of Kavya Shivashankar, who comes from a close-knit family living in the midwestern heartland of Kansas, is an exemplar of these values.

Asked what she was going to do with the $US30,000 ($40,500) prizemoney, Kavya told a TV host: "I'm going to save most of it for college - I want to be a neurosurgeon when I grow up."

On the day after Kavya's victory, she and her father, mother and sister appeared together for a TV interview wearing black T-shirts with the words, "How do you spell champion?" printed on the front. On the back was one word: "Shivashankar."

I want one of those T-shirts.

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