Jairam Hathwar, 2016 US Scripps National Spelling Bee

This article was originally printed in Issue 441 of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.

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Jairam Hathwar won the 2016 US Scripps National Spelling Bee. As the younger brother of Sriram—the 2014 champion—13-year-old Jairam had a model for excellence as a mental athlete. He and his brother have even co-authored a book which they hope will inspire the next generation of competitive orthographers. In this interview, Jairam shared his stories and offers insights into the training regimen required that allowed him to dominate the world’s most competitive spelling bee.

 

Daniel Kilov: How did you develop your interest in competitive spelling?

 

Jairam Hathwar: Seeing my brother participating in many spelling competitions at a very young age, and him finally hoisting the national trophy was a huge inspiration for me to attempt competitive spelling. The perks of being a national champion were abundant, whether it was being on Jimmy Kimmel Live, The Kelly and Michael Show, ESPN,  etc. That made me want to follow in his footsteps and receive the recognition that he was given as well.

 

Daniel Kilov: Is it the sportive aspect that drives your interest or do you have a love of languages more generally?

 

Jairam Hathwar: Personally, I enjoy a friendly competition because it motivates me to succeed and makes we want to become better. It is definitely both aspects—I love being challenged, as well as learning language patterns, and how languages have evolved to what they are today.

 

Daniel Kilov: Did having a champion speller for an older sibling influence the way you related to the competition?

 

 

Jairam Hathwar: Having a sibling who had succeeded fruitfully most certainly influenced me to participate in a large-scale competition such as the Scripps National Spelling Bee. I would never have had the drive to do well in the spelling bee if it weren’t for my brother having taken part in it. There was obviously some sibling rivalry along the way, but that just fuelled my will to achieve even more.

 

Daniel Kilov: What are the key skills you had to acquire to become an elite speller?

 

Jairam Hathwar: Some skills that one learns in the process of preparing and competing in the spelling bee are dedication, perseverance, humiliation, grace, etc. Those skills are crucial when attempting such a difficult endeavour as the spelling bee. If one facet of those is missing, then that could determine who the champion will be. It is important not to forget about grace because if they wanted to just get the best speller, then they would just give a 100+ word spelling test, and whoever got the most right would win. Obviously, that isn’t the way that it is, and luck plays a large role, when so many people have put the required time and effort into studying and preparing.

 

Daniel Kilov: Something I’m particularly interested in is the recent string of ties in the competition. The consensus seems to be that the events are getting harder. However, the last three years have seen competitors work their way through every word on the competition list without error. What do you make of this?

 

Jairam Hathwar: Unlike many other competitions, like the National Geographic Bee, MATHCOUNTS, etc., the spelling bee is from a curriculum: the dictionary. If one memorises the entire dictionary, without a doubt, that person would be the champion. In this case, the participants are becoming smarter and smarter, and no matter how hard the people at Scripps try, the spelling bee will always be from a database, and whoever knows the most of it, will win. There are rule changes that Scripps has tried to incorporate, and will most likely to continue to, that will sometime sooner or later result with a single winner. I expect that Scripps will somehow figure out a way where one winner will be declared, whether it be spelling all the words in the dictionary, or having a written test.

 

Daniel Kilov: Have your experiences as a mental athlete influenced any other areas of your life?

 

Jairam Hathwar: Certainly I have become more popular at school and at social gatherings, but having to spend hours upon hours a day studying, has given me an advantage over others when preparing for a test or quiz because of the practice I’ve put into becoming an efficient learner. I have also learned to become a better critical thinker, and have broadened my knowledge of many subjects by studying for the spelling bee, which has possibly given me a slight edge over others.

 

Daniel Kilov: What is your fondest, funniest or quirkiest memory from the spelling bee circuit?

 

Jairam Hathwar: The first year I advanced to compete for the national spelling bee was a very unique experience. Because my brother had just won the previous year, I had a lot of pressure put on me to do well. After the first written test I thought that I had only gotten around three to four wrong, which most likely meant that I would advance to the semi-finals the next day. As I was consulting my brother on many that I was unsure about, I realized that I had gotten eight wrong, which most likely meant I wouldn’t make it to the semi-finals the following day. All of a sudden, my mother had gotten an email announcing that one of the questions I had answered was an alternative answer, so I had only gotten seven wrong, still very shaky that I would advance.

 

The next day, when they announced the semi-finalists, they stated that you could get seven wrong and advance, which made me just elated, that I had made it. Soon after, we had to take the semi-finalists’ written test, and I had gotten the best score out of everyone there, only missing two questions, which was phenomenal for such a difficult test. That meant that if I spelled my two words right the next day, I would advance to the finals. Fast forward to the next day, and I already spelled one of my words right, and I was thinking to myself what a comeback story it would be if I were to get my next word right and make it to the championship finals. I had gotten my word, ‘riegel’, and I completely blanked out on the proper spelling, even though I’d studied the word multiple times. I ended up misspelling and being eliminated from the competition, which only gave me a drive to do better the next year, which was when I won. That story was definitely a very odd experience that I will cherish for the rest of my life.

 

Daniel Kilov: What, if anything, do you wish people knew or appreciated about orthography? Further, what practices, techniques or habits would you recommend people adopt in their day-to-day lives?

 

Jairam Hathwar: I’d just want people to appreciate the time that competitors in the spelling bee put in, and understand how much some have sacrificed to be where they are. They have developed great study habits, and dedication that words can’t even begin to explain (and I’m a spelling champ!). Those lessons are important for the rest of their lives, and they should never forget them.

 

Daniel Kilov: How do you relate to the world of competitive spelling now that you’ve won? What’s next for you?

 

Jairam Hathwar: Spelling will still be very important to me, even though I’m not a participant in it anymore. I hope that more and more people give the spelling bee a try, and I hope to see them succeed, and more co-champions to be declared, which shows that people want to succeed, and that is a good thing. I hope that I can contribute to help organize spelling bees, and help people learn the many quirks of the English language. My brother and myself have co-authored a book entitled, Words From the Champs that is on Amazon, that describes both of our stories to become national champions, as well as more than 10,000 words, definitions, etymologies, part of speech, etc.  n

The Zoë Routh Leadership Podcast

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I was recently interviewed for the Zoë Routh Leadership podcast. Her summary, and the full interview, are below:

Edge of Leadership UnConference speaker Daniel Kilov reveals some amazing tips and tricks to enhance memory for reading books, recalling information, committing information to knowledge, and remembering names at networking functions.

Daniel shares critical mnemonics (memory) techniques, explains how these techniques are the single best predictor of top performance in any field and how we can create generations of geniuses.

For those who would prefer it, there is also a video version (unedited, so far as I can tell) available here:

From The Archives: 3 Techniques to Train Your Brain Like A Mental Athlete

From The List TV: Sure, when we think of athletes training there’s usually a typical physical look that comes to mind. There’s actually an entirely different athlete out there working just as hard, but using their brain instead of their body. They are called mental athletes and they put their brain power to the test to see who can remember the most. What can we learn from them? Jared Cotter is talking with professional Memory Athlete Daniel Kilov to get three practical techniques to train your brain.

 

Memory and Ageing

This article was originally published in StartsAt60 magazine here. I wrote this back in 2015 but for some reason never got around to sharing it here. Well, for those of you who missed it the first time around, here it is!

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Memory can become an increasingly important issue as ageing occurs. Not only is there a wide prevalence of memory disorders such as dementia, but even those with regular aging brains encounter issues with memory. Losing keys, misplacing things, and forgetting a name become more frequent occurrences. However, memory is something that can be exercised and strengthened.

My name is Daniel Kilov and I am a Memory Athlete who has actively improved my memory. I went from having a poor memory which impacted on studies and day-to day life to now being capable of memorising the order of a shuffled deck of cards in less than two minutes, and over 100 random digits in five minutes.

This is not a product of some innate ability. It is the result of learning a few techniques which greatly improve encoding and recall.

One of the most vital components of successful remembering is that you put energy into the thing you are trying to remember. Just as the best jokes are those with the most surprising punch lines, the most memorable associations are those that do violence to our expectations. For example, you are trying to remember a shopping list: which is the more memorable mental image, a regular packet of sausages, OR a string of sausages, which, when accosted by a hungry dog, rears up like a cobra and tries to take a bite out of the surprised pup? The point here is that by making the image energetic and surprising, I am exercising my creative muscles and transforming the mundane into the memorable.

So how, then, should one bring one’s mental energy to the task of memorising? There are three key steps to making things memorable. The first step is to be mindfully aware of whatever it is that you are trying to learn; the second step is visual encoding; and the third is organisation.

Without cheating, try answering the following question: on the one dollar coin, which way does the queen’s head face? How did you go? If you got it right, were you sure, or did you have to guess? Even though hundreds of coins pass right under our noses (and through our fingers) each month, and have done for many years, because we have never really made ourselves aware of the direction the queen is facing, most of us do not know. You cannot remember something you never knew in the first place, so the first step to remembering is being mindfully aware. And for the record, she faces to the right.

The next two steps, those of visual encoding and organization, go hand in hand. We all have naturally fantastic memories for certain tasks; no one, for instance, after being given the ‘grand’ tour of a friend’s house then has to sit down with a blueprint to rote learn the layout. A few minutes of wandering around and we can mentally navigate the house without any difficulty. Our brains are primed for this kind of learning. Another example we can all relate to: a well-constructed film with an engaging narrative will resonate with us long after we leave the movie theatre. We make no special attempt to memorise the movie, but we may recall the film or a particularly engaging or graphic scene with great clarity even years after only a single viewing. Thus, the key to memorising is to encode information with which we normally struggle into a more ‘brain friendly’ form. An easy way to do this is to visualise a story involving the things you want to remember – and remember, the more energetic (and so more creative) the story is, the easier it will be to recall later.

Investing more mental energy into your memory will boost your creativity, and hopefully, help you remember the name of that movie you wanted to see, or where you left your keys.

In summary, here are my top five tips on how to improve your memory:

  1. Practice mindfulness – remember to remember. Most failures of memory are actually just failures of attention.
  2. Think visually. Construct visual mental movies of things you want to remember.
  3. Be creative. Bring colour to your mental stories to transform the mundane into the memorable!
  4. Organise your memories. How we organise information (or fail to do so) dictates how easily we can recall it later. Use mnemonics and acronyms.
  5. Look after your body. Regular exercise and sleep are vital for cognitive function, as is proper nutrition.

Three Great Talks on Memory Techniques

 

I’ve shared many of my own talks on this blog. But there are many other memory athletes with interesting things to say about the magnificent and messy mental faculty of memory. Here I’ve collected some of my recent favourites.

1. How to use memory techniques to improve education:

This first talk is by Boris Konrad. Boris is a brilliant mnemonist and a talented neuroscientist. Here, he talks about how to use memory techniques to memorise complex information and shares some cool stories from the history of the science of memory. If you want to learn more about Boris or his work, check out the interview I did with him here.

 

2. Memory as a special form of perception:

Next up is a talk by Ed Cooke. Ed is a grand-master of memory, the founder of the language learning app, Memrise, and a central character in Joshua Foer’s ‘Moon-walking with Einstein’.

Ed is also a philosopher and thinks about memory in really interesting and illuminating ways. Consider this quote from his talk:

“…we should focus on the rather exotic and unpredictable ways in which memory enters into thought and language and the ways in which it’s more difficult to understand the sentence the man played his violin while whipping the dog than it is ‘the man played the violin while humming a tune because of the contours of our imagined imaginations and the contours of our memory'”
If you want to hear more form Ed you can read an interview I did with him here.

 

3. Mastering Mongolian as a modern nomad:

This talk is by Yanjaa Wintersoul, one of the best athletes currently competing. This talk is not about memory as such, although she shares many memories of her own fascinating life. One of the things I most enjoyed was how clearly she communicates her affection for languages. Check it out.

 

Memory and Critical Thinking in the Classroom

This article was originally published the ‘Back to School Guide 2019’ published by MumsDelivery, here.

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Teaching students to think critically is a primary goal of schooling. By critical thinking, I mean the ability to reasoning dispassionately, solve novel problems, generate new ideas, reason dispassionately and so on. But decades of educational and cognitive science have shown that critical thinking skills can only be learnt when students are equipped with a rich store of facts to draw from. As the cognitive scientist, Daniel T Willingham puts it, “The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought (that is, domain knowledge)”.  

The accumulation of facts requires memorization. You cannot know some fact that you do not remember. Unfortunately, your children are likely to consider this bad news. Internalising quotes, dates, the elements of the periodic table and anything else by rote repetition is painful even for the most dedicated of students. There is, however, a more effective and enjoyable way.

Enter the world of competitive learning and the World Memory Championships. Founded in 1991, the World Memory Championships gathers the world’s fastest learners to compete across 10 disciplines for brainy dominance. Katie Kermode, a high-level competitor, can memorize 97 names and faces in just five minutes. Another, Johannes Mallow, can memorize 132 historic dates just as quickly. To give that some context, they could probably memorize all 29 Australian Prime Ministers in the order in which they were elected in about the time it takes me to tie my shoes. But these athletes aren’t superheroes or savants.  Rather, they use a small set of mnemonic techniques that anyone can learn and apply. In fact, these techniques, which originated in ancient Greece, where central to education until as late as the 17th Century. I’m a memory athlete myself – I’m a three times silver medallist and national record holder – but my main interest is in the application of these techniques in the modern classroom.

Learning even a few simple memory techniques can transform learning into an activity that is imaginative, fun and effective. All the techniques used by memory athletes involve generating creative and unusual associations between visual images. Below are two examples of memory techniques and how they might be used to memorize material encountered in school. I encourage you to read these examples to your kids. Have them close their eyes. Invite them to create colourful ‘mental movies’. Afterwards, see how much they can recall.

 

Example 1: First 5 elements of the periodic table

To remember the first element, hydrogen, visualize a fire hydrant. ‘Hydrant’ sounds like hydrogen, so is our first mnemonic. Now picture that hydrant being carried into the air by a helium balloon – helium is the second element. Unfortunately, the balloon is popped by a spark from a lithium battery, as lithium is our third element.

Beryllium is the fourth element, so we will imagine our lithium battery bursting into a shower of berries, which are really yum! Here, we are taking advantage of the fact that ‘Beryllium’ sounds like ‘berries really yum’. We are going to use the same strategy to remember that the fifth element is boron. To do so, imagine the berries being turned into a jam which we pour on someone named Ron. Poor Ron! Both ‘pour on’ and ‘poor Ron’ rhyme with ‘boron’ and so allow us to easily recall the name of the element.

 

Example 2: Foreign language vocabulary

To remember that the Spanish word for rice is ‘arroz’, imagine arrows landing in a bowl of rice.

To remember that the Spanish word for donkey is ‘burro’, imagine a donkey writing at a bureau desk

To remember that the Spanish word for shrimp is ‘gumba’, imagine a giant shrimp dancing around in 10 pairs of shiny black gumboots.
Memory athletes have techniques that allow them to memorize almost anything, but they all come down to creating associations and visual mental images. During one talk, I had the entire audience learn the order of the planets in the solar system using these principles. Mastering memory techniques allows students to take control of their own learning, to conquer difficult material and to develop the skills of critical thinking, all while having fun. Not a bad deal.

Jacques Bailly, a cartographer of the English language

This article was originally printed in Issue 433 of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.

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Jacques Bailly is a cartographer of the English language. He won the Scripps National Spelling Bee as a student in 1980 and now serves as the Bee’s official pronouncer. His efforts to tame the wild landscape of English led him to study Latin, French, German and Greek, skills he has also put to good use as an associate professor of classical philosophy at the University of Vermont. In this interview, Professor Bailly was kind enough to share some of his stories, as well as some of the secrets of successful spellers.

 

Daniel Kilov: You’ve been the official announcer and ‘voice’ of the Scripps National Spelling Bee since 2003, but before that you were a competitor and, in fact, won the event in 1980, correct? How did you first develop an interest in competitive spelling? What did your training involve and what was it like to win?

 

Jacques Bailly: Correct. Back in 1977, my sixth-grade teacher, Sister Eileen, asked me and a few others who did well in language arts if I’d like to be on the school spelling team. Not knowing what it was, I said, ‘sure’. From there, I spent a couple of years memorizing lists of words from spelling bees past.

As I studied, my mother studied how I studied. By the third year, she thought there was a better way. Namely, one should study not just by memorizing words in the hopes that one would get a word one had studied. One should really prepare for the words that one had not seen. To do that, etymology, foreign languages, semantic fields, and generally everything that went into the shape that a word has now had to be studied.

Also, mock spelling bees: open the dictionary and quiz the speller. Give the speller all the info the spelling bee does and see if he or she can sleuth out an intelligent guess, then work to figure out how to hone those guesses into better guesses. The reason why I mention my mother is that she went on to coach another national champion, Molly Dieveney, as well as many national competitors, and then she helped run the Colorado-Wyoming bee. I was going to school in the meantime, and I learned a lot of Latin, French, German, and Greek; in 1981, I wrote to Scripps-Howard and asked if they could use a volunteer with my knowledge. Lucky for me, they could. Thus I was ready and willing when the opening for pronouncer came along.

 

Daniel Kilov: Do your experiences as a competitor influence how you relate to the competitors for whom you announce?

 

Jacques Bailly: Of course. I like to think I understand what will help them. I know that I want to help them in every way I am allowed, and I do that to the best of my ability. Also, I just enjoy them, and they seem to respond well to that. It probably helps that they have heard my voice all the year as they study online.

 

Daniel Kilov: I’ve never had an opportunity to watch a Scripps National Spelling Bee in full, but it doesn’t take more than an afternoon on YouTube to understand why the event is nationally televised. Competitors often display humour and courage on a par with their spelling skills, like when one competitor asked you whether you could use her word in a song or when, in 2003, another kid recovered from a fainting spell to correctly spell their word. What is it about the Bee that produces such alchemy?

 

Jacques Bailly: Like any competition, the spectator can identify with the competitors in various ways. But these competitors are young, and that adds to the empathy/sympathy and interest. Then there’s the element of luck: the next 50 words might be easy for me, but the word I get is the one that matters, and I might miss it. It’s tense, and there’s a lot of scoring, a lot of tense moments, a lot of relief, a lot of commiseration, and a lot of celebration.

 

Daniel Kilov: What are the most memorable moments you can recall from your time as competitor and/or announcer?

 

Jacques Bailly: Well, winning was a big relief and a joy. Relief because we had been on stage for two days straight under hot lights. Joy for all the obvious reasons. I don’t remember who wins from year to year too well, but I remember certain spellers well. Just search for sardoodledom, numnah, alopecoid, and iridocyclitis on YouTube to see some of my favourite moments. But mostly, I just feel such warmth and joy at inspiring and helping these brilliant, interesting young humans strive for excellence.

 

Daniel Kilov: The last three events (2014, 2015 and 2016), have all ended in a draw, with competitors successfully spelling their way through the entire championship list. Prior to the 2014 event, this was nearly unheard of. Do you think this signals that the kids have suddenly gotten much better? If so, how?

 

Jacques Bailly: I guess it probably has mostly to do with the structure of the competition: once we moved to a 25-word championship list, it became much more likely that we’d have co-champions. And the spellers really have upped their game; they are spelling such challenging words that we just can’t get them to miss with any word most people have heard of.

 

Daniel Kilov: Aside from a good memory, what are the key skills of an elite speller?

 

Jacques Bailly: Memory isn’t just one thing: there is visual memory, conceptual memory, etc. But what really marks a good speller is the one who can keep cool when the speller has never heard of the word and ask all the questions and come up with an intelligent guess that takes advantage of all the information available. Right or wrong, doing that is the best way to improve the odds. Just guessing is not going to work for long; intelligent, informed guessing, done with knowledge of Greek and Latin roots, French, German, Hawaiian, Maori, Spanish, and many more spelling patterns, an ability to see similarities that range from meaning connections to spelling connections to what can’t possibly be right. An elite speller is a linguistic thinker who knows a great deal about all aspects of English vocabulary. But it never hurts to have seen the word, and some words are simply impossible to spell by guessing intelligently. They defy rules. They are one-off instances of weirdness in the language. For those, the only way to know the word is to know the word. I’d give you examples, but as you can imagine, my head is full of words for this year’s Bee, and I can’t talk about those.

 

Daniel Kilov: Does the ability to spell still matter in the age of electronic spellcheckers? What lessons, if any, do you think the public could learn from the attitudes, techniques, or methods of champion orthographers?

 

Jacques Bailly: Of course it matters: spellcheck doesn’t know a lot of words, and it is not intelligent. It is a coded program that can only mechanically check things. It cannot really think. But what is more, think about this: no one wins a Nobel Prize in spelling. And yet, learning all of these words opens doors to new realms. Before she ever studies chemistry, astronomy, deconstruction, art history, heraldry, Spanish cuisine, or so many other things, the speller encounters the words for the elements of all those disciplines. Each word is a door to a new phenomenon, but it doesn’t stop there. Each new phenomenon is simply an invitation to keep exploring further. Spelling is a gateway skill. It’s not the goal of life, but it’s ancillary to deciding what one’s goals are, to achieving those goals, and to being an interesting and interested person.

 

Daniel Kilov: Finally, how does your knowledge of language enhance or animate your everyday experience?

 

Jacques Bailly: That’s hard to say: it’s like asking me to tell you what it’s like to be a bat. Or what it’s like to have a lateral line, like a fish. We’ve all got language—it’s hard to imagine not having it. Language is one of the ways we think, and however smart a whale or a porpoise or an elephant is, none of them can do metalogic, calculus, relativity theory, Kantianism or art. Knowing more about language is simply knowing more of one of the key fabrics of thought, of what it is to be human. I don’t think I’m anywhere near the most-accomplished person at languages (I know too many people who know so much more than I do), but I know that language has been a key to the things I have accomplished and to many of the things I value in life.