The Beefather Has Two National Spelling Bee Champions in His Hive

beefather
Mirle Shivashankar, father of two National Spelling Bee champions, after his younger daughter won the bee on May 28, 2015. Twitter

Mirle Shivashankar's daughter, Vanya, may have just won the Scripps National Spelling Bee, but Mirle stole the show when he pulled out and donned a T-shirt that reads "The Beefather" on live television. Shivashankar now has two daughters who are spelling bee champions: Elder daughter Kavya won in 2009.

"I've had it in my bag for a couple years. I was waiting for that moment to wear it last night. I bought it online. It was available and I said, 'OK, maybe I could use that,'" he told Newsweek in a phone interview Friday. He couldn't remember which retailer sold the shirt.

The spelling bee training started in 2003, when his daughters were 6 and 2 years old. "She wasn't really preparing at that time," Mirle said of his toddler. "She got inspired by her sister at a later age, when she turned 6."

The Beefather has simple advice for those who hope to raise spelling champions: "Just make it enjoyable." Unlike other expert spellers, Vanya and Kavya do not simply memorize the entire dictionary.

"We don't believe in memorizing the letters, but we go through understanding the clues behind words, like word roots and language patterns," Shivashankar explained. "Based on that, they can piece things together. Its a much more enjoyable learning process. Understanding these derivatives, they can use this information in their future lives. Memorizing the letters, that would be boring."

Words would be memorized if they didn't fit into the patterns. Such unique words are easier to remember anyhow, the Beefather has found: "They stick in the mind. With the human brain, unusual things take into your mind more. It's the common ones, the little, shorter words, they'll trick the brain."

As a result of this learning technique, the girls don't sit around the dining room table reading the dictionary during dinner. But they have read it "in their spare time," their father says. Both Vanya and Kavya enjoy the competition. "The real, ultimate thing is that the kids have to get the drive within and be passionate about it" he says. "Once they reach that level, they are on their own. I do a check here and there, we quiz each other. But it's not vigorous training."

Because of how much Mirle travels for work, his wife organizes much of their genius daughters' training: "My wife plays a huge role. I might come across as the coach but my wife is really the driving force. She makes sure they have everything they need. Everything stems off of that."

Those quizzes Shivashankar mentioned are doozies. In our phone interview, he broke down the quiz process. First, they go through the Scripps dictionary, all 470,000 or so words of it, and create a list off which to base the quiz. "We divide it based on roots and etymology," he says.

For a word like "philanthropy," his daughters would study different Greek roots, such as phyll, phyl and phil, and their various meanings. "For the same sound, you can have four different meanings," the Beefather explains. "There are techniques we use to be able to distinguish on their feet how to break it apart."

As for etymology, he offered the example of "chauffeur": "That comes from the French, the sh sound comes from c-h and the o sound is made by au, so we focus on the graphic representation of these sounds." The Beefather has spent so much time breaking down words like this that he says he could put together a spelling seminar.

Though they are known for their spelling, both Vanya and Kavya excel at a variety of activities. "The older one, she is a classical dancer. She mastered that. The younger, she plays piano and the tuba. She's a very petite girl and plays the tuba, it's a funny thing. The tuba is as tall as she is." At 12 years old, Vanya is not only a spelling champion and tuba player but also a certified child genius. She won the Lifetime channel's Child Genius competition, led by a NASA astronaut, and took home the $100,000 prize.

The money the girls have won from their competitions goes straight into their college fund. Kavya is a sophomore at Columbia University in New York City and her $30,000 winnings from her 2009 spelling championship is helping to pay that tuition.

"The younger one says she wants to go somewhere in the Northeast. She says Yale once in a while, but who knows," the Beefather says of Vanya. Given her status as child genius, we have a feeling she'll have her pick of Ivies to choose from.

The Beefather Has Two National Spelling Bee Champions in His Hive | U.S.