Spellbound

June 2, 2006

By the time he had got the spelling for the word ‘Heiligenschein’ wrong, 13-year-old Rajiv Tarigopula had gained so much of respect for his ability to spell complex words with a serene disposition that he got a standing ovation.Rediff.com

Over the years, whenever I have seen the results of the Spelling Bee contest I have always noticed that there were quite a few Indian kids in the final rounds. It seems like other people have also noticed this.

“Indians are very good at spelling and mathematics.” You might have heard this many times. We should be proud that many people in our community are smart but yes, it would be good if the general public would understand we’re not all alike. I once saw a hoarding in a small town: Lurn Inglish inn too weaks.

So, what do we have that extra bit compared to other ethnic groups that makes our kids spell ‘Gallinaceous‘ in a jiffy? A major contributing factor for our edge in Spelling Bees is the “Ratta hodi syndrome” (to learn By-heart) from our school days. (The fairer sex are masters of “Rote learning”.) This way, memorizing gets ingrained in us. Also, we have an advantage because we are very bookish and our children read a lot. Parental support or lack of support is a big, perhaps crucial, factor in the child’s success/ failure in a competition. Next, our kids have some particular advantages when it comes to mastering spelling. Their parents or grandparents are usually educated, often as Doctors or Engineers. The kids’ parents generally speak English and appreciate the power of education. And, we are comfortable with the rote-learning methods, the kind needed to master lists of obscure words that easily stump spell-checker programs. Rote learning means memorizing something “by heart”, or exactly as it was presented to the student in the textbook or teacher’s lecture. Common applications of rote learning are spelling lists, mathematical rules, historical dates, and chemical formulas. After the students have memorized the given material, they are tested by repeating the material exactly as it was originally given to them. Rote learning is well suited for foreign language vocabulary, history, and spelling tests.

And mind you. It is not memory alone which can win you spelling competitions. You need to analyse. The best spellers take the things they know — root words and spelling conventions of different languages of origin — and figure out how to spell words they don’t know. Memory is a crucial component of these intellectual activites we think are so important. In ancient India, “Rote memorisation” was necessary to preserve the original text in the absence of means to print and publish works of knowledge. It was vital in a place where religious institutions were destroyed by foreign invaders. Since books were burnt and temples were destroyed, the only way was to memorize the sacred texts. But today, “Rote memorisation” will not get you into any elite institution in India. Be it the IIT-JEE, GATE, CAT or the UPSC, entrance tests demand a very well developed ability to understand, interpret and analyse problems and issues.

Nowhere is education so much valued as in India. It is the only way to get out of your economic misery. There is a fine balance between parents wanting what they consider the best for their children and pressuring them to fit into their perception of what is best for them. Their actions and words, thoughts and unsaid expectations, do create paradigms for their children to meet. And, sometimes, perhaps that pressure to exceed causes stress and actions that are not healthy. Parents try to fulfil their own unfulfilled achievements and their need for recognition through their kids. They insist that the child excel in some field or the other. That way not only will the child be famous, but the parents would also enjoy their moments of glory through the child.

In today’s competitive world there is too much of emphasis laid on excelling in some field or the other. Pressure from the homefront just adds to the already existing stress. This in turn leads to severe depression and insecurity. Each child has his or her potential. The parent should respect it. It is important to communicate with them openly so that the child is free to voice his or her likes and dislikes.

But the extent to which some Indian parents goad and force kids to be successful in spelling competitions, I feel, is so maddening. Neither the parents nor the kids might be having any life beyond the spelling competition. And I am sure not many kids are interested to know the spelling of Heiligenschein, Ursprache, Gallinaceous, Zebu or Phalarope.

4 Responses to “Spellbound”

  1. Srik Says:

    Right RK, nowhere education is considered as a valuable thing than India. Its evident from the reservation policies of the greedy politicians.

    Anyways, this is a nice post, quiet analytic and good.
    🙂

  2. Srividhya Says:

    Good one! Though it is true that Indians – especially the fairer sex (as u mentioned) is very good in ROTE HODE SYNDROME, It is not applicable to all because it will not take you far, apart from getting some BIGGER NUMBERS on the marks sheet. The employers today expect SMART workers, ROTE can only take you to the doors of a company not anywhere beyond that!!

  3. RK Says:

    Srik: Thank you.

    Srividhya: Yes, maybe not all girls learn ‘By-heart’.
    And liked the last line of your comment. Thanks.


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