Gene Expression

The AP, 13-year-old Kansas girl wins National Spelling Bee:

Cool and collected, Kavya Shivashankar wrote out every word on her palm and always ended with a smile. The 13-year-old Kansas girl saved the biggest smile for last, when she rattled off the letters to “Laodicean” to become the nation’s spelling champion.

Here are the next 10 runner ups….

Tim A. Ruiter of Centreville, Va.
Aishwarya Eshwar Pastapur of Springfield, Ill.
Kyle Mou of Peoria, Ill.
Anamika Veeramani of North Royalton, Ohio
Kennyi Kwaku Aouad of Terre Haute, Ind.
Ramya Auroprem of San Jose, Calif.
Neetu Chandak of Seneca Falls, N.Y.
Sidharth Chand of Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
Serena Skye Laine-Lobsinger of West Palm Beach, Fla.
Tussah Heera of Las Vegas, Nev.


  1. #1 bioIgnoramus
    May 29, 2009

    I suppose that it beats taking up boxing as a way of advancing in life.

  2. #2 as
    May 29, 2009

    Argh! As an Indian, I don’t like it at all. What is the point of learning to spell at a freakish level?

    I had a chance to watch the national math counts championship some years ago. It was all Asians and Jews.

  3. #3 Greg Laden
    May 29, 2009

    Dr. Khan, I think you are flying too low beneath the radar here. What are your thoughts on the preponderance of South Asian names on this list?

  4. #4 razib
    May 29, 2009

    what i noticed was that only 3 out of 10 were boys….

  5. #5 Greg Laden
    May 29, 2009

    Well, boy’s are not that smart, obviously.

  6. #6 DarwinCatholic
    May 29, 2009


    I was expecting the point to have to do with people from certain linguistic backgrounds having an advantage in mastering the spellings of large numbers of arcane words.

    But then (cultural idiot admission) despite years of working with a near majority of Indians and Sri Lankans at the office, I’m not good at telling unfamiliar male from female names. So I hadn’t noticed that there _were_ mostly girls on the list.

  7. #7 Alex Besogonov
    May 29, 2009

    Heh. Such competitions will be pointless for Ukrainian language (its spelling is nearly phonetic) and mostly-pointless for Russian (phonetic, but with a fair number of exceptions).

  8. #8 Mike Keesey
    May 29, 2009

    “I had a chance to watch the national math counts championship some years ago. It was all Asians and Jews.”

    Makes sense to me — who’s been writing and doing formal mathematics the longest? People in the eastern Mediterranean, Fertile Crescent, Indus Valley, and China all invented this stuff originally — why should we be surprised that some of their descendants (be the descent genetic or cultural) continue to excel at them?

  9. #9 John Emerson
    May 29, 2009

    World (English-language) scrabble championships are often won by Thai, in at least case by a Thai who didn’t speak English. He seems basically to have memorized the officialk Scrabble book the way you would memorize code.

    English spelling is a fun game for people who enjoy unlucrative pointless detail. Many high-powered businessmen refuse to learn to write or spell because you can always hire an English MA to fix up your stuff for you.

  10. #10 Eamon
    May 30, 2009

    As a Brit I never really saw the point of these Spelling-Bee things. Are they just an American thing, or more widespread?

  11. #11 sg
    May 30, 2009

    An exercise in minutia.

    Certainly the time and talent of intelligent, dedicated students can be put to better use in this era of computers and spell check.

    It is like having students memorize multiplication tables up to 100 times 100, rather than teaching them more advanced functions and equations. At least Math Counts requires students reason more than they would by simply keying numbers into a calculator.

    “Professional educators” at the local elementary likely duped parents and students into believing the spelling bee had greater real value than it actually does.

    A bright young mind deserves better guidance.

  12. #12 razib
    May 30, 2009

    sg, there’s a lot more to spelling bees than you’re describing. common misperceptions of course.

  13. #13 sg
    May 30, 2009

    Yes, kids learn more than just spelling. It is better than video games. It’s like having kids play chess. They get to compete at tournaments etc. Some of the skills and vocabulary building of spelling are useful kind of like patterns in chess. Some just like it.

    Time cost vs. skill reward, doesn’t strike me as optimal.

  14. #14 JJ4
    May 30, 2009

    Of the 20 competitors in Siemes Science Competition, ethnic breakdown:

    30% Indian
    25% Chinese
    45% White

  15. #15 razib
    May 30, 2009

    sg, tell me what you know besides memorization? what is there more to it? i’m curious what you know since you do dismiss it as useful? (yes, yes, obviously i’d prefer any child of mine to enter a math competition, but more because i value math than that i dismiss the skills useful in a spelling be)

  16. #16 sg
    May 30, 2009

    There is more to spelling bees when you get up to state and national level. Kids get into in depth study of words, word origins. English has several major competing spelling systems embedded in it, plus there are tons of words of totally foreign origin that are in common use, etc. So kids learn patterns, unique words, etc. There are also writing and poetry contests, but those don’t require major time investment.

    It is not that the skills are useless, rather the amount of time developing them is so great that to me it is a diminishing return. Given their time and talent, they could have learned something more useful.

    What bugs me is when educators promote it as though it is really useful academically when it is more like chess, a fun hobby. Those who excel at it are indeed bright and their skill impressive but academically, it is only marginally useful.

    One thing I do like is that it shows how much kids really can learn. We have gotten so used to the way the education system has evolved that we just accept that tons of kids are bored to death in school. Yet they really want to learn more and faster, and they can do it.

  17. #17 madison
    May 31, 2009

    Hmmm, Kennyi Kwaku Aouad is the first black kid I’ve ever seen finish 6th, or in the top 10 for that mattter.

    Update: before I clicked post I wanted to check. Apparently only 1 black has ever won, but she was from Jamaica so she doesn’t count.

    This Kennyi Aouad kid’s parents are from Ghana, so he doesn’t count either.

    While spelling in itself is rather pointless, all of these kids excel in other areas of academics.

  18. #18 Spike Gomes
    May 31, 2009


    Writing and Poetry competitions don’t require major time investment?

    You’ve never written for a creative writing competition or paid publication, have you?

    Granted, writing well isn’t as g loaded as cranking math functions or learning word root patterns, but it takes as much practice and work writing fiction as any other skill based endeavor with high competition. That includes endless drafts, failed starts, rejection notices, and reading and analyzing the great works of whatever genre you wish to master. Even if you do all that, if you don’t got the knack for it, you’re not going to get far.

  19. #19 Greg Laden
    May 31, 2009


    If I may ask; Why does it not count to be from Jamaica or Ghana? In what sense is this not counting? What is your point?

  20. #20 Eric Johnson
    May 31, 2009

    > Given their time and talent, they could have learned something more useful.

    Like actually studying latin or greek.

  21. #21 sg
    May 31, 2009


    Creative writing is outside my area of interest (and ability). However, friends of mine when I was in school as well as kids I have worked with have entered and won national contests without an enormous time investment, not more than a few hours. Did they enter the most competitive contests? no. There are other contests that, I am sure, require more effort. It seems like a better skill return on the time investment than a spelling bee. I would encourage kids who like creative writing to invest their time in such endeavors.

  22. #22 OneSTDV
    June 1, 2009

    I still wonder if spelling actually requires any intelligence. Is spelling g-loaded? Have there been studies on this? I know size of vocabulary is correlated with intelligence, but unsure about spelling.

    As for these kids, it’s primarily based on learning tons of rules, learning common translations from other related languages, and memorizing probably upwards of 10,000 obscure words. For anyone interested in the practice required, see the documentary “Spellbound”.

  23. #23 bioIgnoramus
    June 1, 2009

    Yeah, and that ‘bama fella’s Pappy was from Kenya, so he doesn’t count neither.

  24. #24 cg
    June 1, 2009

    I competed in spelling bees as a 11-14 year old and had a lot of fun (and math competitions, as well as others). I was very close to reaching the national level but not quite.

    It was a great training ground for work ethic – if you want to do well at this, study for an hour or two every night, then you’ll be in a good position to win at the levels where I was competing. These kids probably work harder than I did, and all year round, as opposed to 3-4 months a year.

    Possibly I could have used that time more productively (teaching myself calculus or memorizing all the bones in the body), but I don’t think it would be fair to call time spent learning to study a waste of time.

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