Spelling the Dream is fun escapism, but in its argument that understanding leads to success, it provides a fitting theme in our trying, divided times.
We live in a time of global pandemics, reusable rockets, and unprecedented racial, cultural, and political division – but even among all the wacky weirdness of 2020, one thing remains constant: Indian Americans are better at spelling than you are. This, according to Sam Rega’s low-key documentary feature Spelling the Dream (Netflix), isn’t much of a secret. Indian American kids, despite representing about one percent of the population, have nonetheless bodied 26 of the last 31 Scripps National Spelling Bees. Why? Well, why not? But the film nonetheless takes a look at some cultural explanations for the dominance while following four hopefuls in the 2017 tournament.
There’s usually a very specifically uncomfortable vibe surrounding kids’ competitions, often because they’re beauty pageants or some other superficial nonsense where past-it moms looking like sculptures of melting silicone live vicariously through their terrified mannequin offspring. Not so here. The kids, who range from 7 to about 14, seem pretty suited. Their parents tend to be pleasant and supportive. It makes sense, really, since if you annoy these kids they can send a more strongly-worded letter than anybody.
But Spelling the Dream isn’t even about the kids as individuals, really – it’s about why kids from this very specific cultural background so consistently excel in this very specific area. It’s a niche within a niche, and rather than attempting to be a character study, Rega’s film likes to take a high-level sociological point of view. The most obvious theory of genetic advantage seems the least likely. More interesting arguments suggest a value of education and enterprising spirit inherited by children from their immigrant fathers, who came to America after the lifting of race-based quotas and passed down their values. That the Scripps spelling bee has been televised on ESPN since 1994 can’t be irrelevant either, and the tendency of Indians to be multilingual is posited as an important factor, since if you can speak many languages, how hard can it be to spell in just one?
Of course, one language – especially English – isn’t just made up in a vacuum; it’s the product of words and sounds and peculiar idiosyncrasies cobbled together over years, plucked from as historically and geographically diverse sources as you can imagine. Perhaps that’s why the children of immigrants are so good at mastering it since they too represent a fusion of cultures and values and experiences. Spelling the Dream is the kind of light escapism that serves as a distraction in trying times when the only people who aren’t stuck at home are those out protesting police brutality. But its underlying message couldn’t be more impactful or relevant. Language is diverse, complicated, and informed by context, and it is best understood by people who have come to see themselves and their own experiences in its nuance. The secret to spelling is understanding. And you can never have too much of that.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.