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Northwestern University

The Spelling Bee Scholar

Anthropologist Shalini Shankar could fill a dictionary with her insights into the world of champion spellers

Associate Professor of Anthropology Shalini Shankar might not be able to spell scherenschnitte herself, but she sure is interested in the teens and tweens who can.

Bolstered by funding from the National Science Foundation and the Wenner-Gren Foundation, Shankar has emerged as the nation’s preeminent spelling bee researcher and an in-demand authority each May, when the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee competition captures the nation’s attention.

A sociocultural and linguistic anthropologist who arrived at Northwestern in 2007, Shankar has interviewed spellers and their families, spelling-bee production companies and other key stakeholders to investigate the proliferation of competitive spelling bees, as well as the recent dominance of South Asian American children, winners of every Scripps title since 2007.

What sparked your interest in spelling bees?

My dissertation in the late 1990s actually focused on the broader topic of South Asian youth in the United States, but it wasn’t until I began researching Asian-American advertising that I became aware of South Asian spelling bees staged by marketing companies as well as nonprofits. That was when my research into spelling bees, and the sports spectacle that they have become, coalesced.

What’s most fascinating to you about spelling bees?

The participants’ comprehension of language is really interesting to me. What are they doing beyond memorizing the dictionary? How are they developing strategies to learn words? How are they training and with whom? And, then, as the spelling bee has moved into a televised spectacl

What do you think has fueled the public’s interest in spelling bees?

I think the public is deeply impressed that these young people can do what so many well-educated adults can’t, which is to accurately spell rare, uncommon words. Plus, television has provided some compelling profiles of these kids that have allowed participants’ personalities to shine.

What explains the South Asians spelling bee dominance?

In many South Asian families, there is a cultural preference that education be emphasized above all else in childhood … and many of these championship-level spellers have invested a huge part of their childhoods in becoming elite spellers.

It’s important to emphasize, however, that it is only a small subset of South Asian youth who have such resources for elite training, especially as spelling bees have become a prestige activity with a year-round competition schedule.

What makes a good speller?

First and foremost, a love of reading, because spelling is, ultimately, a literacy-based activity. Then, it’s a love of words, which often grows from a curiosity about language and grammar.e, how do these kids manage the stress of being on television and spelling within a two-minute time limit?

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