“This is absolutely historic!”

“This was impossible!”

“The spelling bee is changed forever!”

On May 30, incredulous ESPN commentators were grappling to find the right words to convey just how dramatic the last few hours of this year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee in the US had been. One could forgive the hyperbole: for the first time in the history of the 92-year-old contest, there were eight cochampions, after the judges ran out of words that would have been difficult enough to eliminate some of them.

Spelling bees are what Americans like to describe as a “uniquely American” pastime to determine the best speller of them all. The Scripps National Spelling Bee, the Olympics of these contests, might be open only to those under 15 years of age, but it’s no child’s play. To become one of the elite spellers who get to take home a $50,000 (Rs 34 lakh) cash prize, it takes hours and hours of dedicated preparation over many years — two to three hours every weekday and up to five hours on Saturdays and Sundays. As the 2018 documentary Breaking the Bee puts it, “These kids have put more time into spelling by the time they are 13 than most of us put into anything our entire lives.” This is the regimen that helps contestants get familiar with most of the 472,000 words in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, any of which might be thrown at them. Not to forget that they are competing with over 11 million others to get to the top.

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This year, six of the eight winners and 38 of the 50 finalists had another tool to help them in the high-stakes competition — they were all customers of SpellPundit, a startup launched by two Indian-American siblings.

Shobha and Shourav Dasari, children of engineers from Andhra Pradesh who migrated to the US 13 years ago, were themselves spelling champs. Shourav, 16, went up to fourth place in the National Spelling Bee while his 18-year-old sister, heading to Stanford this fall, is a three-time semifinalist. Launched in January 2018, their online resource promises to help participants learn words more quickly and accurately, for an annual fee of $600 (Rs 41,000).

The usual way to prepare for “bees” is by manually compiling lists of words from the dictionary, learning them and then getting people, usually family members, to quiz you. In contrast, Spell-Pundit offers a couple of advantages, says Shourav on a Skype call from the Dasaris’ home in Texas. “It has 99.9% of the words that could be asked in the Spelling Bee which takes a lot of pressure off the spellers because that means they don’t have to go through the entire dictionary, making lists.” The siblings also found that it was faster and more effective for the contestants to type the spelling of each word and to test themselves than someone reading out the words and quizzing them. It eliminates the need for a second person to help you prepare. “Through quizzing, one can do 100 or 200 words an hour. With SpellPundit, I could do close to 1,000 words per hour,” says the bespectacled adolescent. What’s more, the company has a money-back guarantee if a word that pops up during the National Spelling Bee is not on SpellPundit’s lists.

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From the first 25 customers who signed up through word-of-mouth marketing, the startup now has over 2,000, says Usha Dasari, Shobha and Shourav’s mother. The fillip came when last year’s winner, Karthik Nemmani, mentioned that he had used SpellPundit. “After that, business skyrocketed,” says Usha, who uses her software engineering experience to maintain the website.

It seems appropriate that SpellPundit should have been launched by members of the very community that has come to be closely associated with spelling bees. Indian-Americans have won the US National Spelling Bee every year on the trot since 2008 and this year was no exception, with six of eight winners from the community. Of the last 39 winners, 31 are Indian-Americans, beginning with Balu Natarajan in 1985. For a community that makes up just under 1% of the US population, that’s quite an achievement.

The South Asian dominance of spelling bees has also attracted the attention of documentary filmmakers and researchers like Shalini Shankar, an anthropologist at Northwestern University and author of Beeline: What Spelling Bees Reveal about the New American Childhood. “Primarily, first-generation immigrants who came as STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) professionals enter their children into these contests,” says Shankar. There are also two other popular spelling bees run by the South Asian community — the North South Foundation and the South Asian Spelling Bee — which act as launchpads for the National Spelling Bee.

Shankar adds that it has become extremely difficult to make it to the National Spelling Bee without a coach or someone dedicated to helping a speller prepare. “Increasingly, elite spellers are going into coaching once they age out of competition, and monetise their years of knowledge to train other aspiring spellers,” she says. SpellPundit is one example of such a business.

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While SpellPundit’s success has attracted a lot of attention, not all of it has been positive. “If spelling is ever going to work again: do something about SpellPundit… The proprietors of this year-old behemoth of an entity have catastrophically damaged the game with their omniscience…,” lamented former National Spelling Bee finalist Jacob Williamson in his blog.

Shourav has a different take. “If the level of competition goes up, that can’t be a bad thing. The better training there is, the more competitive it is and the more exciting it is for those who are actually competing.”

As for the eight-way tie, the 16-year-old says that could have been avoided by ramping up the difficulty level and not repeating words that had come up at regional levels. “There’s always going to be several thousand words a speller doesn’t know — it’s up to the organisers of the bee to find out what those words are and use them.” For SpellPundit, as Usha puts it, having multiple winners was a good problem to have. “It was good for business.”





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