Exclusive Interview with Scott Mellor

Dr. Scott Mellor. Photo: University of Wisconsin-Madison

Dr. Scott Mellor, President of ASTRA, the Association of Swedish Teachers and Researchers in America

Interviewed by Peter Berlin

The Association of Swedish Teachers and Researchers in America (ASTRA) is a non-profit organization for researchers and teachers involved in Swedish language, linguistics, literature, culture, and area studies. ASTRA promotes the study of Swedish language and culture, as well as other Swedish-speaking contexts at all levels, and works to facilitate cooperation between scholars engaged in these fields. In the following exclusive interview Dr Scott Mellor, President of ASTRA, talks about his background and highlights the mission and vision of the Association.

Scott was born in Los Angeles, but in the 1960s the air quality was so poor that his parents realized they no longer wished to live there. His mother’s parents and family had come from Minnesota, so Scott’s parents decided to move the family to Minnesota when he was 5 years old.

“At a fairly young age I knew exactly that I wanted to be a physicist. I had a neighbor who was very much into physics, and I had watched Carl Sagan on TV and found the subject very exciting. I graduated from high school when I was 17 years old and decided I wanted to take a year off rather than going straight on to college. While in high school, I had studied a number of languages. I took Russian because we were in the middle of the Cold War; we were told we were supposed to hate the Russians and I wanted to know why. I studied French, because the dominant cultural component of my family was French – my mother’s last name was LaPlante. I also studied Spanish, and I was very influenced by a teacher from Africa, so I even had a semester of Swahili.”

Scott decided to approach the Rotary Club to arrange his gap year abroad. The way Rotary works in Minneapolis is that they ask you to pick three regions. Going to the Soviet Union was impossible for obvious reasons, but he knew he would love to go to France. His second choice was West Africa. He struggled to think of a third region when it occurred to him that his mother’s mother was half German and half Nordic. Her mother, in turn, was Swedish and Norwegian, so Scott picked Scandinavia as his third region, thinking that he would probably get his first or second choice anyway.

“Of course, the Rotary people picked Sweden, so I ended up spending a year with a family in the outskirts of Stockholm. The family members didn’t speak any English, so I learned pretty good Swedish. When I returned to the U.S. I still wanted to become a physicist but discovered that I hated math. That was a bit of a problem. I took two years off in the middle of college to revisit both Scandinavia and Germany, as I was very interested in linguistics. After I came back I finished my degree in linguistics. Over time I got lured into folklore studies, and that became the subject of my PhD at the University of Wisconsin here in Madison.”

Our conversation turned to the mission of ASTRA. Scott explained that the Association is essentially about supporting teachers and researchers in Swedish language, linguistics, literature, culture and area studies throughout North America. The Svenska Institutet (SI, or Swedish Information Service) used to arrange conferences every fall. Initially, so many participants showed an interest that it proved necessary to organize two separate conferences: one on the East Coast and another on the West Coast. Then it was decided to bring the two conferences together in one location so that the East Coast and West Coast participants would have a chance to meet. The SI still provides materials, and nowadays the conferences move to various institutions throughout the US where participants can gather and talk about all things Swedish.

We asked Scott about who in North America learns Swedish, and why? “That varies. The majority are ‘heritage learners’ (i.e. people with Swedish ancestors). The others are typically interested in cultural imports like crime novels, metal music, the gaming industry, sports – especially ice hockey – and men whose girlfriends are Swedish. My favourite example goes back to the 1980s when a student was learning Swedish because her father had just won the Nobel Prize in Physics, and she wanted to be able to speak Swedish at the ceremony!”

On the subject whether North Americans find Swedish difficult to learn, Scott offered the following insight: “We have introductory meetings for first-year students. One of the selling points we make about learning Swedish is that the grammar is so simple compared to Spanish or French, for example.”

However, one thing the students find challenging in Swedish is the practice of putting the subject after the verb at the beginning of certain sentences (as in Sedan stannade bilen, literally “Then stopped the car”). The same goes for the suffix on nouns instead of definite articles (e.g. “cyklarna” instead of “the bikes”). According to Scott, the biggest challenge for the students is the pronunciation, what with the stj, skj, sch confusion, not to mention the vowels y, ä, ö.

The interest in learning Swedish has changed over time. “I have been teaching Swedish for nearly 30 years, so I have a pretty good overview of how the interest has changed. The numbers are down from what they were 30 years ago, and I think that is largely due to the altered language requirements at our universities back in 1990. I don’t really care if you take Arabic or Swedish or whatever, but we have a global economy, like it or not. So if you learn Swedish, it helps you grow cultural confidence that you don’t have otherwise. The argument that is often used is that ‘they all know English,’ but that in my view is a terrible argument. Sure, they may know English, but that means that they have a great advantage over you, because you know nothing.”

To illustrate the point, Scott recalled that John F. Kennedy used to have Jacqueline sit in on meetings with the French, because she knew French. He didn’t want the people across the table to be able to caucus in French among themselves when the Americans couldn’t do the same thing on their own side.

We wanted to explore with Scott what role Swedish Press might play in the ASTRA context. “I have spent most of my time focused on Scandinavia, and less so on Sweden in America. This is something I would like to do more of, especially in the next three years as President of ASTRA. It would be wonderful to have a resource where we can feature our Institution and things we are doing. That way your readers can be made aware that if they want to pursue Scandinavian studies or learn Swedish, they can come to us or to Gustavus Adolphus College in St Peter, MN, or many other institutions. I also plan to tell my colleagues at our Institution about your magazine. I think this could be to our mutual benefit, because there is a certain overlap between your readership and our audience.”