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FALL RIVER, Mass.--When I was a little kid, I thought everyone had at least one set of grandparents who spoke what we all called "broken English." Why not? All the kids in my neighborhood had at least one set of grandparents from one "old country" or another.
In my grandmother's house, conversations took place in a lightning-fast, blurred slur of English and French-Canadian dialect. Everyone used the word they thought of first, English or French, and of course there were some things that could only be said in French or only in English.
It was a good, solid American upbringing. My grandmother never learned to speak English very well, but garment industry bosses didn't care, and she was American enough to send her four sons to fight in World War II. All of them were in combat, and all of them wrote their letters home in French.
So, I liked it when Arvind V. Mahankali, an American name if ever I heard one, took first in the National Spelling Bee by spelling "knaidel," a Yiddish word for "dumpling."
That's this country.
Words bang together here, make new words. People whose families have spoken the same language for centuries learn to say "pizza." That French-Canadian grandmother of mine could pronounce "chow mein" perfectly, it being a popular dish on then-meatless Catholic Fridays. She knew what "overtime" meant.
Some people in education think these kids with names like "Mahankali" have to be carefully swaddled in their own culture. To them, asking an Indian-American kid to spell the Yiddish word for "dumpling" proves that spelling bees are culturally biased.
But Arvind didn't prepare himself to win an Indian spelling bee or a Spanish spelling bee or a Yiddish spelling bee. He prepared himself to win an American spelling bee, which means you have to learn how to spell "lasagna" and maybe even "crepe."