The making of a spelling bee national champion
C-H-A-M-P-I-O-N: It's an easy word to spell, but for competitive speller Arvind Mahankali it was the ultimate prize.
At the 2012 Scripps National Spelling Bee, when Mahankali was in seventh grade, he came up a few letters short. In the 10th round of the finals—just three competitors remained—he was told to spell the word “schwannoma,” which is a nerve sheath tumor that forms in the tissue that surrounds nerves. Mahankali was unfamiliar with the word.
It was the end of his long journey to becoming a national spelling champion—or so his father, Srinivas, thought.
“It was kind of tough for us,” Srinivas says. “When he got third, I told him that tactically that was the same thing as winning and there was no guarantee that he can win the next year. I tried to persuade him to leave it at that and maybe take up a new hobby.”
Arvind said no and started reviewing words on the ride back to New York.
Competitive spelling is simple. Spell a word correctly, and move on. Make a mistake, and hear the infamous ring of the bell to signal elimination. The winner gets a trophy, $40,000 (as of this year) in cash prizes and scholarship funds, and lifetime membership to Britannica Online.
While many tune into ESPN’s coverage of the Scripps National Spelling Bee to laugh at the contestant who spells a word like “zarzuela” wrong, or to see someone do a Napoleon Dynamite impression (yes, that actually happened in 2005), fans are captivated toward the end of the show and begin rooting for the finalists as they spell words that sound like fictional locations in Game of Thrones. Thursday night's finale of the 89th Scripps National Spelling Bee promises astounding feats of intelligence—and plenty of entertainment.
But reaching the pinnacle of the spelling world requires a lot more than smarts. How does someone become such a good speller?
For Mahankali, it started early.
Srinivas earned his bachelor's degree in engineering and his Ph.D. in systems management from two Indian universities. He arrived in the United States as a student and earned his master's in engineering science from LSU. His wife, Bhavani, is a physician—something that helped Arvind learn medical terms during his training.
When Mahankali was growing up, he learned English and Telugu, which is a South Indian dialect. He was also exposed to some Sanskrit.
“I was impressed with how quickly and easily Arvind was picking up words in Telugu,” Srinivas says. “I was amazed at the words that he would use and their meaning.”
In fourth grade, Arvind competed at the South Asian Spelling Bee, a national contest in which a speller’s parents or grandparents must be of South Asian descent. He finished in second–place.
“That's when I realized he has a lot of aptitude for this,” Srivinas says.
Growing up, Mahankali watched the spelling bee on television. But as a fourth grader, the New York native decided to dedicate his time to words. When he watched the spelling bee on television that year, he had trained for a year and was able to keep up with several contestants.
Formal training deemphasizes reading or writing from a word list in favor of focusing on languages, roots and word construction. Mahankali started off with Latin and Greek. Last year's co-champion, Gokul Venkatachalam, who was the eighth consecutive Indian-American winner, also shared a similar training regimen.
“People don’t realize how much time they waste doing nothing and I strived to take advantage of that time,” Venkatachalam says. “On a Saturday or Sunday, I’d wake up and study for two hours in the morning and then have time to do whatever I want before eating I lunch. After that I’ll study another two hours, take a break and study another two hours before going to bed. I still had a decent amount of time.”
When Mahankali started training in fourth, fifth and sixth grade, he studied words for two hours a day by testing himself on words his his mom extracted from the dictionary. By the time seventh grade rolled around, the level of competition rose, and he increased his training to three or four hours a day. By eighth grade, he would spend six or seven hours a day—separate from his schoolwork—to review words.
While training for any physical sport may require expensive apparel or a gym membership, spelling comes cheap. A subscription to the Merriam–Webster unabridged dictionary costs $29.95 for a year. Once you have the words, all that’s needed is countless sheets of paper and index cards for self–testing.
As spellers get older, training gets tougher. They have have to retain all the words and information that they previously knew while also learning new words and information—including elements of new languages. Mastering a variety of languages can help spellers break down origins and roots.
Mahankali estimates he knows at least 20 languages: He says he knows most European languages, some Native American languages, Latin, Greek, a few Chinese words, a couple Russian words, Sanskrit and more. Some of these languages—like small Native American dialects—have little or no patterns.
“I think it's tough to learn some of those Native American languages or the smaller languages that don't have as many words in the dictionary,” Mahankali says. “Even if they do have patterns, they're not as well-known so it's more difficult to understand those patterns than Latin, Greek or well-known languages. At the same time, since there aren't as many words in those languages, it is possible to learn them all at once in a few hours.”
Mahankali isn't learning the language for the purpose of conversation, meaning he wouldn't be able to travel to say, Germany, and immediately know how to communicate fluently—although he did study German the most after finishing third in 2012 from misspelling “schwannoma.”
Training only goes so far if you can't handle the spotlight. Hundreds of spectators attend the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, and more than a million people watch on ESPN.
Before spellers even face the cameras in primetime, they go through a preliminary and semifinal round with a spelling and vocabulary test in front of a computer and two rounds of oral spelling onstage. A speller can dominate a regional spelling bee, only to quickly be eliminated from the national bee because of a low score on testing.
All rounds have a time limit, like a shot clock in basketball. At the finals of the bee, spellers are limited to two minutes, with the clock starting once the speller utters the first word.
“Occasionally at home, I would practice with my dad giving me the word and having to spell it within the time limit,” Mahankali says. “I training comes in with asking the questions systematically since I tried to use all of the time that I had.”
After Dr. Jacques Bailly—who has been the National Spelling Bee's official pronouncer since 2003—reads the word, spellers can start to ask probing questions. Common queries include the part of speech, definition and language of origin. Asking for the word to be used in a sentence is also an option, but it's time–consuming.
“If someone doesn’t know a word, you can tell as their body language is a bit more evasive and they spend time before asking each question,” Venkatachalam says.
It’s a common occurrence to see a speller on stage using physical tricks to help themselves spell.
“To keep myself from making any mistake, I would write the letters of the word that I was spelling on hand as I went along,” Mahankali says. “I’ve seen some people even pretend to type the words on an imaginary keyboard.”
A year after falling just short of spelling bee glory, Mahankali returned to Washington, D.C., for another run at the title. After the field was whittled down to 10, Mahankali proceeded to spell trichocercous, galère, thonnier, chalumeau, dehnstufe, crapaud, kaumographer and tokonoma—before nailing his final word, knaidel.
Since he uttered the final “l” of “knaidel,” Mahankali has not competed. The extra training in German paid off, as he breezed through the fancy word for a matzo ball, derived from the Yiddish word “kneydel” but also traced to the Middle High German word “knödel.”
He is now a junior at Stuyvesant High School in New York City. He still reaps the benefits of spelling in his schoolwork despite now shifting his focus on potentially majoring in math, computer science or physics in college.
“In some complex subjects, I’ve found that I saw the vocabulary while studying for the spelling bee,” Mahankali says. “That just makes all the terms familiar for me. It’s also helped my memory and I can remember things more easily.”
He considers himself “mostly-retired.” He occasionally finds himself helping out his younger brother, Srinath, who was eliminated in preliminary testing at the National Spelling Bee last year and this year.
“Whenever I saw Arvind, he was studying most of the time and that showed me how much commitment and perseverance it took to achieve a win at the national spelling bee and I admired that quality in him,” Srinath says. “When he was in seventh grade and got third place, I realized if I should do the same thing as him, I should do well too.”
A piece of advice for Srinath: Don’t forget to brush up on your German.