by Courtney Grams, Director of Faculty Communications

Martin Vásquez, Adjunct Professor in the ASL and Interpreter Training Department at ACC, is a self-proclaimed language nerd. He’s studied Spanish, American Sign Language (ASL), Korean, French, Italian, Russian, and Portuguese. His life is about everything linguistics: from serving as a linguist in the US Army to building a 20+ year career in trilingual ASL interpreting, and even his beloved wife, Norma Iris, is an ASL interpreter!

In Fall 2021, Vásquez taught the first trilingual interpreting course at ACC.

It’s a Sign

We all have teachers who have a profound influence on our lives. And, as educators, we do our very best to be those teachers for our students. For Martin Vásquez, that teacher was Mr. Robert Horn from his sixth grade elementary class.

It’s always the little things that make the most significant difference. Mr. Horn was, for the most part, an ordinary teacher. Except when it came to his ASL game. Mr. Horn taught his class how to manually fingerspell using the ASL alphabet. To be the first in line for lunch or dismissal, you needed to correctly sign the word of the day – simple words like “cat.” Vásquez took to this game, and this new language, like a fish to water.

Learning sign language became a family affair, thanks to Mr. Horn. Vásquez’s mother bought him the “Big Red Book” which illustrated hand signs and their English and Spanish equivalents. His family would study and practice the signs together – he even shared that sometimes, during church on Sundays, he would sign that he was feeling hungry or bored. “Sign language is a great language to learn. You can talk through a window. You can talk with your mouth full. You can talk underwater,” jokes Vásquez.

This was where Vásquez’s love of language began.

Who knew that an elementary school teacher showing a class how to fingerspell would lead to a lifetime career of ASL interpreting? In Mr. Horn’s class, ASL wasn’t about academics. It was something he did to lighten the mood and help kids have fun learning something new. Vásquez later learned that Mr. Horn’s brother was deaf.

“It has had such an impact on my life. Teachers have such an important job. And you think about elementary school teachers having the opportunity to mold, to implant an idea that can become a career, for a person that’s amazing.”

More than Language

Vásquez comes from a family of teachers, and life-long learning is in his blood. By our count, he boasts 5 linguistic credentials (including coursework in legal and medical ASL interpreting), has taught 14 interpreting courses and delivered 23 presentations on the topic. He even holds an Associate of Applied Science degree in ASL Interpreting from ACC! Now, he works alongside his former teachers as a colleague.

“I have the great privilege of being the first to teach [trilingual interpreting at ACC]. ACC felt it was important to have this class, and I’m really, really grateful for that,” says Vásquez.

Consider this situation: You’re an English-speaking ACC employee. You’re meeting with a Spanish-speaking family to help their ASL-speaking child enroll in college courses. In this example, three languages need to be transcended to create connection and understanding. This is where a trilingual interpreter comes in, interpreting among the three languages and mediating among the three cultures.

When we consider the diverse communities we serve, this scenario is not uncommon. ACC is a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI), with over 25% of our students identifying as Hispanic/Latinx. Austin is considered one of the foremost Deaf-friendly cities in the United States.

As a society, we are very much aware (courtesy of Bridgerton and Downton Abbey) of the variances between British English and American English. Spanish is a global language, spoken in over 20 countries, each with its own culture and dialect variations. The same can be said about sign languages, and even the finger-signed manual alphabet letters, vary by country.

“It’s not just an interpretation of language, but culture is very much involved. As well as a kind of a worldview… There’s a need to be able to take all of those things and try to make them clear and understandable to both parties,” says Vásquez.

Trilingual interpreting courses are emerging throughout the United States. Vásquez’s class focuses on more than simply interpreting between languages, “I want my students to connect with me and understand the importance of getting to know the people that they’re serving. Getting a clear sense of who they are, what their needs are, so they can better serve those needs.”

Molly, a student who recently completed Vásquez’s course, says, “I highly recommend this course be continued as part of the ASL Interpreter Training curriculum…It provides current and prospective trilingual students a unique opportunity to understand the profundity and diversity of the Deaf community with Hispanic or Latin roots.”

Vásquez may have only taught this course once at ACC, but the significance is clear. ASL Interpreter Department Chair, Fallon Brizendine, shared that:

“Professor Vasquez’s knowledge, compassion, and foundation have made this course a high impact experience for our students. This is the first time trilingual interpreting has been offered at ACC, and we’re looking forward to the continued impact this will have on each student who has the opportunity to take this course.”

Tricks of the Trade

Vásquez’s teaching philosophy centers around meeting students where they’re at. He’s careful to consider if another speaker, a different resource, or a peer can better explain a concept to a struggling student. He strives to put in just as much, if not more, effort into the course as each student.

“The inordinate amount of information that we covered could not have been possible without Martin’s creativity,” shared one of his students from Fall 2021.

His secret to success is appealing to the human being in all of us. Vásquez focuses on connecting with students, finding common ground, and simply being personable.

Vásquez is a big proponent of learning languages. He encourages all who have an interest, to take an ASL class at ACC, “We have some really really awesome instructors.” Not necessarily to become an interpreter, but just to be able to communicate and be an ally to the Deaf community in Austin.

Martin Vásquez lives in South Texas and enjoys travel, Thai food, watching movies, and taking walks on a nearby beach with his wife of 21 years, Norma Iris, and his one-year-old Chihuahua/Yorkie mix, Brutus.